Mary Hannigan: Get your daughter involved in a sports club

Sports can be a life saver, thanks to the kindness of good team-mates

When Cork's Ashling Thompson opened up back in 2014 and spoke so powerfully about her battle with depression, what was so striking was her view of the role sport played in her recovery from the darkest of days.

“If it wasn’t for camogie, I probably wouldn’t be here right now,” she said. “It saved my life.”

It was partly the pure physical release the game gave her, which helped free her of pent-up energy and anger; it was partly the feeling of well-being as she reached peak fitness. But just as importantly, she said, it was the support given to her by her team-mates and coaches in a time of need.

In turn, she offered support and a listening ear to the younger players coming through, “girls who were struggling”, who reached out to her after she spoke of her battle. “Now, I feel like I have to look out for them, it’s a tight-knit family.”


It’s impossible to put a value on that, especially for young girls who are vulnerable and going through difficult times, whether it’s dealing with mental health issues, bereavements, illnesses, or any other personal or family problems. To have a group of friends and team-mates looking out for them as much off the field as on it must be a source of enormous comfort.


It’s just as important for young boys to be surrounded by supportive peers, need it be said, but girls have their own issues to deal with, so being part of a group that is likely to include others who have been through the same struggles has to be a blessing. Especially if they are watchful peers who recognise the signs and intervene when help is not being sought.

There have been too-many-to-count stories like that over the years, players and staff sensing one among them is struggling, for whatever reason, and having a quiet word.

And the quiet word might be the first time the issue was aired, and might just set them on a path to dealing with and overcoming the problem. Again, you can’t put a price on that.

It’s not that sport is alone in offering that kind of community, a close-knit circle of friends in any setting can do much the same, but there’s something about being part of a team, a club, that creates the closest of bonds, that level of unity.

They go through so much together, the highs and the lows, from the gruelling training on winter evenings to match days when they experience every emotion imaginable. And only they understand what each other is going through.

So it might be more likely then that they turn to each other, rather than to a family member, for help in many circumstances. Again, there are too-many-to-count such incidences.

Depression, all those grim ‘body image’ issues, eating disorders, trouble at home, problems in school, bullying, on and on.

We tend to focus on sport’s physical benefits – which, of course, are immense – but most of us probably overlook the ceaseless benefits of being at the centre of that kind of network of friends.

Soccer international Chloe Mustaki talks in today's paper about the support she received from her team-mates while she battled illness, recalling the day a team-mate scored in the FAI Cup final and raised her shirt to reveal Mustaki's number.

It was a simple gesture, but a loving and thoughtful one, reminding her that she was still one of the team even though she had to take time out to (successfully) deal with her illness.

And a while back, Briege Corkery, star of the Cork camogie and Gaelic football teams, talked about why she wasn't yet considering retirement, despite her sports taking up so much of her time.

“It’s my life, really,” she said, “and I couldn’t imagine life without it. It’s where all my friends are. I’ve been playing with a lot of the girls since we were 12. We don’t know any better.”

Research in America by the Women's Sports Foundation, founded in 1974 by Billie Jean King, came up with all kinds of findings, including one that suggested that girls who play sport "are more likely to get better grades in school".


Very nice, if true, but even that benefit pales next to the one Corkery spoke about, the depth of the friendships made by people who take that rollercoaster sporting journey together. And, as Ashling Thompson discovered, have your back in time of need.

Nudge your daughter in the direction of the local sports club. It could be the making, or saving, of her.