Life

Former Down GAA and Irish rugby star Eliza Downey: Sport is about more than winning

The impact of sport on girls resilience

Eliza Downey
Eliza Downey is keen to spread the message that sport can help young girls become more resilient, and ready for life’s challenges

What parent wouldn’t want to give their child a product that helps them communicate effectively, work with people that can be difficult, help them emotionally regulate, build resilience and help them cope when things get tough?

That ‘product’ is sport, and a new local report, The Impact of Sport on Girls’ Resilience, has highlighted the lasting impact that playing sport can have upon girls aged 12 to 15.

Girl playing football
Leeann Devlin, ‘Kate,’ pictured at the screening of Gameplay, a play presented by the Electric Ireland Game Changers at the Ulster Museum. The play brings to life research commissioned by Electric Ireland and looks at the impact of sport on girls’ resilience and the link between team sports and life skills.

The teenage years consistently see the biggest drop in physical activity amongst girls. Factors impacting this include fear of being judged, lack of confidence, worries about appearance, avoiding sport when menstruating and time pressures.

However, as well as benefits to their physical and mental wellbeing, sport has been seen to benefit girls in their future endeavours in life.

One female ambassador who vows for this is former All Ireland winning Down Gaelic footballer and Irish international rugby player Eliza Downey.

Having previously worked as coordinator of Women and Girl’s rugby at Ulster Rugby and current Director of Programmes & Partnerships at Jo Hopkins Consulting where her role involves mentoring and coaching individuals and sporting teams as well as working with businesses.



“There’s such transferability between the sporting and business world in terms of teamwork, collaboration, discipline and resilience.

“When playing team sports you very quickly realise that you’re not always the best, you have to set goals, you have to work with people who are very different from you and you have to pick yourself up after a bad result, being dropped or injured.

“I was very fortunate that I grew up through sporting pathways. I had a supportive mother and father who were taking me to try everything out - like basketball, athletics, judo and my main sports were football, netball and later on rugby.

Parents need to use supportive positive language, listen and reframe the measure of success away from results.

—  Eliza Downey

“At the time you don’t realise this is what resilience is. It’s not until crappy things happen in life, that are not sports related, that you realise you’ve got that innate inability to pull yourself up and go again because you have been building this bank of resilience.”

These “crappy things” include relationship breakdowns, being unsuccessful at a job interview or audition and even family bereavement.

Key findings from a report commissioned by Electric Ireland as part of their ongoing Game Changers campaign to encourage female participation in sport, in particular football, showed that 60% of parents were unaware of the positive impact sport has on building resilience.

The top factors given by parents affecting girls’ resilience were social media (80%), body image pressure (72%) and cyber bullying (49%).

Whilst Eliza has enjoyed much success, she is keen to stress the benefits of taking part in sport, including connection, confidence, character, leadership, discipline, control and coping mechanisms.

However, she stresses the need for opportunities at all levels, whether that’s “playing for the firsts, the fifths or just for fun”.

“Our governing bodies need to look at redesigning what sport looks like and how it can be accessible. I spent my life sacrificing social opportunities for training. "

Caroline O'Hanlon and Aimee Mackin
Caroline O'Hanlon and Aimee Mackin Caroline O'Hanlon and Aimee Mackin celebrate Armagh's win over Meath (Seb Daly / SPORTSFILE/SPORTSFILE)

Eliza sits on the National Development Committee for the Ladies Gaelic Football Association and reveals they are currently discussing initiatives to address the significant drop off during the teenage years.

“If girls could just rock up and play socially for an hour without travelling around the county to play club matches, they could still be a part of the game. It’s a bit like doing a park run on a Saturday morning. Gaelic 4 Mothers & Others have done that excellently.”

Putting yourself forward to try new things and risk criticism isn’t easy, but Eliza believes the skills she learnt from sport have helped her lead a fulfilling life on and off the pitch.

“I was the token gaelic girl going rugby,” she recalls about her first call up to the Ulster Rugby squad just months after first taking up the sport during her final year at university.

“It was totally intimidating and daunting. But having resilience embedded into you through growing up in sport you trust yourself to take risks and out of these can come great opportunities.

“I found myself playing in Ravenhill in my first ever game in the starting 15 and a year brought into the Ireland squad for the Rugby World Cup.”

Eliza Downey in action in the 2010 Women's Rugby World Cup
Eliza Downey in action in the 2010 Women's Rugby World Cup

After retiring from the game and missing “team camaraderie” and the “adrenaline rush” of team sports, Eliza set herself an entirely different challenge signing up for a course in improvised comedy.

She is now a member of Dopamine Disco, a six person improvised comedy team who regularly perform at Belfast’s Laverys Comedy Club, the Pavillion through Belfast Improve.

“Everything I learnt through sport has helped me with comedy. It’s really refreshing to go into an environment and connect with different types of people,” says Eliza, who has resisted the urge to perform any sporting gags.

Former sports star Eliza Downey performing with Dopamine Disco comedy improv team on stage. Pic by Claire Nugent clairen_photo_comic
Former sports star Eliza Downey performing with Dopamine Disco comedy improv team

“Sometimes I go and say what drills are doing in training tonight and they look at me funny and say it’s just practice,” she laughs.

Whilst many parents freeze themselves during the winter months shouting from the sidelines, there are warmer ways to support your daughters interest in sport – and it’s not by asking did they win or score a goal.

“Parents need to use supportive positive language, listen and reframe the measure of success away from results.

“Ask what did you learn this week? Did you have fun? Or how could you improve?,” suggests Eliza.

When it comes to help your child deal with disappointments, empathy and problem solving is key.

Girl playing football
A young player from Parkhall Integrated College (Kirth Ferris)

“Sometimes a younger person doesn’t understand why they feel the way they do because they haven’t built up self-awareness. Give examples from your own life, not necessarily sporting, where you have dealt with a difficult or scary situation and encourage them to do similar.”

The findings of The Impact of Sport on Girls’ Resilience report have been adapted into a one woman play Gameplay by Tinderbox Theatre Company.

“Gameplay revolves around the central character Kate, who, through a series of flashbacks, is able to apply the skills she learnt on the pitch as a teenager to several scenarios in her present-day life as a twenty-something.

Leeann Devlin, who plays Kate in the Tinderbox production Gameplay
Leeann Devlin, who plays Kate in the Tinderbox production Gameplay, which looks at the impact of sport on girls’ resilience

“From a job interview to a first date and a family health scare – Kate is able to gather herself, get her head in the game and put into practice life skills such as resilience that in her case, football, taught her,” Explains creative producer Alice Malseed.

Irish mental health charity, Pieta, have developed a resilience workbook with exercises, Q&A’s and discussion topics for Key Stage 3 pupils.

The booklet, along with links to the play and a panel discussion will form a digital resource will be distributed to participating schools across Northern Ireland and available online later this month at Electricireland.com/resilience.