Jennifer O'Leary - The voice of experience tackles the topics that matter
I AM one of the lucky ones.Growing up in a GAA-mad home, supported every step of the way by family and friends, very few worries were placed on me. There were no real obstacles thrown my way.
Again, I am one of the lucky ones.
The positive value of sport in women’s lives cannot be underestimated.
With the worrying growth of obesity and mental illness especially in young children and adults, the crucial need for regular exercise cannot be over emphasised.
It is well documented that exercise is important for your health and wellbeing.
To be physically fit is something everyone should aspire to achieve through exercise. Socially, it allows you to work as a team and create a network of close friends. It teaches you the value of teamwork, of discipline and self control.
You become confident in your skin. Happy endorphins are released and, ultimately, you experience a feel-good factor.
A regular occurrence in my childhood was my mother chasing me, and my siblings, out the door after we finished our dinner. We were not allowed step inside again until we had completed, at least, two hours of exercise, so we used our imaginations, devising obstacle courses around our garden, playing tennis during Wimbledon or playing Gaelic at the local GAA field in Barryroe, where we spent most of our time.
My upbringing was really positive, growing up with my family and friends supporting my every step. There was always an open road paved ahead of me so I could reach my potential.
Yes, I worked really hard in training, my studies and my work life, and balancing it was a struggle at times but once that equilibrium was found, the pressure eased.
However, for many people in sport, especially in the inter-county scene, dreaded strains can raise their ugly heads and challenge you.
Your flaws and weaknesses become more apparent. Thoughts of failure and underachieving test your mettle. You begin to question if your legs are still able to run as fast? Or has your first touch left you?
Worries consume your thoughts and the future lies ahead with no clear direction.
Life happens. You lose important people. Your job becomes a strain. You experience hardships. You wonder how you will move on.
And, on top of all this, you represent your club and county and try to put on a brave face, as well as playing the best you can. You wonder how you manage to put on the jersey and line out with your team, but you do, because it’s what you love and it’s a source of welcome happiness.
For many, trying to find that balance at inter-county level is too difficult a task. All those life pressures can sometimes be too overwhelming.
The Cycle Against Suicide slogan, ‘It’s ok not to feel ok’, sends a powerful message our way. It acknowledges that even those people who you think would never be down or affected by depression can, too, feel down.
After all, even high-profile sports players are human and have feelings too. Services to people who feel these strains are so readily available throughout the country, it’s just a matter of looking for them and asking for the help.
I was interested to find out what support structures are in place for people who represent their county in camogie and ladies’ football.
Where can players turn to if everything seems to be too much to handle? Who can assist them when they desperately need help?
Having recently spoken to Aoife Lane, chairperson of the WGPA (Women’s Gaelic Players’ Association), she brought light to services that are set in place for inter-county players to avail of within the WGPA structure.
Although the organisation is only in operation since its launch in January 2015, it now has almost 2,500 followers on Twitter and Facebook and almost 700 members in the WGPA itself.
What it has achieved so far for the players is admirable and impressive. High up on its list of priorities is the health and welfare of women in sport.
‘Currently, we have a 24-seven member line where members can get advice and support on issues ranging from financial worries, to personal stress, relationship issues and legal concerns,’ Aoife said.
‘This is a completely confidential and free service and if required, players can avail of up to six free counselling sessions by service advisors in their region.’
Further to this Aoife revealed they are ‘currently building a network of reps, two from every county team, and this will provide another important support service for county players’.
These are just a few of the initiatives they currently have in operation.
It’s positive to know that the welfare of women in the area of health and wellbeing is being catered for, especially when looking after your mental and physical health is a huge talking point at the moment in the media.
But like anything new, people are reluctant to try it out due to fear of the unknown or simply by convincing themselves that as a player they can manage and things will become easier.
Some are embarrassed to ask for help or refuse to let themselves be perceived as weak, when in reality they couldn’t be further from the truth.
It’s important that players look for this assistance and thankfully the WGPA is just one outlet where help is provided.
It’s clear that sport can play both a positive and negative role in peoples’ lives, if you let it. Learning to enjoy it, and realising that it’s an outlet rather than a burden, is the key.
It is a powerful tool that can transform lives if you embrace the challenges it brings rather than dwelling on the strains it can provide.
Sport can be used for the greater good, to promote awareness, to fundraise for worthy causes.
And with all the worthwhile discussions on looking after your health and wellbeing, I cannot let this column finish without highlighting the Pieta House ‘Darkness into Light’ 5km run/walk taking place in over 80 locations around the country on Saturday, May 9th.
For a very worthy cause, people will be using sport and exercise to acknowledge lives, to promote change and to bring people together in a positive venture.
I look forward to walking with those close to me and many others who acknowledge the great work Pieta House does.
It’s time to start looking towards all the supports and activities that make us happier in life. For me, sport will always be one of them.