Gender issue on the sideline for Dublin men’s coach Cliodhna O’Connor
Former All-Ireland winning goalkeeper feels her role with senior hurlers is a natural fit
Dublin athletic development coach Cliodhna O’Connor with Cork manager John Meyler at the launch of the GAA All-Ireland Hurling Championship on Tuesday. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
“I think everyone needs to drop any presumptions they have about gender-specific roles,” says Cliodhna O’Connor, by way of gentle conclusion, after talking about what it means to be a woman coaching in a mostly man’s world.
The day when a men’s intercounty team is managed by a woman may still be some way off, but O’Connor wouldn’t be that surprised to see it either. A Dublin women’s All-Ireland winner in 2010, and a two-time All Star goalkeeper, her current role as athletic development coach with the Dublin senior hurlers feels like a natural fit.
“I don’t see why not. I also think, to be honest with you, the male/female dynamic can work really well. Some people say, ‘Oh, is it hard for a female to go into that environment, and all of that?’ But I think sometimes that slightly different gender balance works exceptionally well with men. We’re even saying it with the women’s game – we need more female coaches, and I think there’s a lot in that from a grassroots level.”
These guys are doing the same thing that I was trying to do 10 years ago, which is trying to win an All-Ireland for their county
O’Connor stepped away from Dublin women’s football before their back-to-back All-Ireland titles of 2017-18, and since then has been learning her coaching trade across a number of sports, male and female.
“From my job, it’s the same thing. You take the demands of the game and you take the athlete and you try and make the athlete fit to meet the demands of the game. But it still comes down to the same decisions and the same processes all the time. People say, ‘are you enjoying it?’ And for me, it’s like being back in the wider Dublin GAA family. These guys are doing the same thing that I was trying to do 10 years ago, which is trying to win an All-Ireland for their county. So to me, it’s no different.”
Like Wexford’s Mags D’Arcy, four-time All-Ireland camogie winner and twice goalkeeping All Star now working as goalkeeping coach with the Wexford senior hurlers, O’Connor has an extensive coaching CV, yet is aware her position as a woman working with a men’s team can still appear a little conflicting.
“I suppose it is something you get used to. Most of my coaching is with males, and most of my team sport coaching had been with males. It’s just what I started doing, and therefore I never really thought about it too much. People say, ‘oh is it strange,’ but maybe if I stopped to think about it, you do notice people do take a double take,like ‘oh god, there’s a lady with a whistle’. Which is fine.
“And I suppose if it’s not the norm and you think people pay more attention because you are slightly out of the norm, then maybe it puts a bit of pressure on you in that ‘all this better bloody be good now’. You don’t want to give any excuse for people to say you are not good at the job, but the way I look at it is athletes are very picky people and very demanding and very ambitious, as are managers etc.
I think by my nature I’m ambitious. I want to be a bloody good coach
“If you are not delivering what you should be delivering, you won’t last very long and you’ll be found out very quickly. So if you are doing your job and your athletes are getting fitter and able to play the game, then they are not really going to care if you are male or female.”
Nor does O’Connor feel she necessarily had to work any harder to find coaching roles. “I don’t know, I think by my nature I’m ambitious. I want to be a bloody good coach. When you are working in sports and GAA, it’s fickle with coaches and managers and players. One minute your team are fit and they are winning and you are the best thing since sliced bread, and the next minute, ‘oh, they lost a game, they’re not fit, she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.’
“But I’ve never ever had a bad experience with players really. Once they feel ‘right, yeah, we’re buying what she has to sell’, then that’s it. They’ll say, ‘Right, what do you need us to do?’ It’s usually from the people on the periphery who don’t know you, because it stands out, let’s be honest about it. If I go into a stadium and unless we’re playing Wexford, there’s probably 40 men in one dressing room and 39 men and one woman, which is me, in the other dressing room. So it does stand out a little bit. But it doesn’t bother me really to that extent, because it is a little bit abnormal, or not common.”