Danielle McDowell working to keep more young girls involved in sport
ALL Danielle McDowell ever wanted to do, from a young age, was play football. Having represented Northern Ireland 43 times internationally, she's still playing for Crusaders, as well as juggling several working roles.
She splits her job between the IFA and Ulster University, as Women's Development Officer with the former but based at the latter performing a similar role in partnership. Co-ordinating the Women and Girls Performance Academy at the IFA, the U17 and U19 teams, she coaches the women's team at UU too.
Oh, and she also runs the Crusaders Academy for women's football. "I've sort of got three part-time jobs, I wear many hats, it's hard to keep up at times," she laughs.
Yet McDowell knows that many girls don't stick with sport very long at all and is endeavouring to change that.
Tonight she'll take part in an online discussion asking 'Why do teenage girls drop out of sport?', the third in a series brought by Electric Ireland's Game Changers NI campaign.
Even at the best of times, McDowell has seen that drop-out is "definitely an issue and can be seen across our Academy numbers. We could potentially have up to 20 girls in each younger age group, nearly two teams in each.
"But as the girls get older there is a drop-off. One aspect is that it starts to become more competitive, more serious, as you move up into the 11-a-side teams.
"Our club philosophy at Crusaders is not about winning until 16, 17 and you're starting to prepare players to come into the first team. Up until that point it's about development, giving the girls the opportunity to fulfil their potential, at whatever level that may be.
"That might have an impact on the girls who are just there for fun and want to be around their team-mates; they play for the camaraderie, the exercise, the feel-good factor. Then when it becomes a bit more competitive that environment's not for them any more.
"I think that's massive across all sports. Football's for everyone and we need to do our best to cater for everyone."
One idea to avoid drop-out is to facilitate participation elsewhere, as McDowell explained: "At Crusaders we've looked at linking at other clubs, not Premier League clubs, who don't have the same winning mentality or pressures.
"The idea is to partner with them so that our girls who don't want to take it as seriously, or don't have the talent or ability to play in our first or U19 team, they can go on and take part with those clubs.
"You don't want to go to another club if you were there for the friendships. You might quit the game altogether.
"This drop-out rate isn't just about losing talent, it's about losing participants across the board."
The problems posed by the coronavirus crisis will be an obvious discussion point tonight, and McDowell acknowledges serious concerns:
"It'll be difficult with Covid, coming back. I am a little bit fearful for women's football, for women's sport in general, that we may have a loss of interest there at the beginning.
"Hopefully when things start to open up and become more normal to us again we do get the majority of our players back.
"The only good thing is I think there'll be interest from younger kids who haven't tried or been involved in sport before, they might want to grab opportunities and try new things.
"But after Covid and lockdowns I think it will be very difficult to encourage new players in their teenage years."
Anne Smyth, Sponsorship Specialist with Electric Ireland, will host the virtual discussion, which also includes Irish Rugby player and coaching mentor Eliza Downey, child psychologist and author of 'Love In, Love Out – A compassionate approach to parenting your anxious child' Dr Malie Coyne, and businesswoman Anne Costello, who provides wellness-based Stress Reduction programmes and courses for the business community.
Smyth commented: "For this series it has been important for us to approach panellists from different areas of the industry, who have been involved in sports in some aspect of their lives, so they can discuss the benefits sport participation had in their development. We are also pleased to have our key sport experts on the panel to talk about their own experience of the role sport played in their young lives."
To join the conversation, visit: http://www.gamechangersni.com/ at 7pm tonight.