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'You feel sometimes that there is this overwhelming burden on you to do well'

Donegal’s Emer Gallagher on dealing with the pressure of inter-county football from a young age, and the LGFA’s One Good Club campaign.

EMER GALLAGHER REMEMBERS them well:

The struggles associated with teenage years.

Emer Gallagher 2 Donegal defender Emer Gallagher.

The pressure of school and exams, worries about the future and various other things associated with personal development. And then there was inter-county football. 

Gallagher’s star shot up as she impressed through the underage ranks, and she soon found herself in the Donegal senior set-up. Breaking onto the scene was tough, she recalls, and she was forced to deal with the weight of expectation and pressure from a young age. 

A secondary school teacher now, she smiles when she looks back through the years at her own experience. And even at present day.

“There is a lot of pressure in sport at times,” the Termon defender tells The42. “You feel sometimes that there is this overwhelming burden on you to do well.

If you don’t have a good game, it’s something that you think about for the next week and it’s analysed and replayed through analysis. I think every player has felt that, and you still feel it. 

“I think every player definitely has felt that — and you still feel it. You still feel that you have to reach a certain standard. I was lucky in a way that my club was always quite successful. As I was growing up, we were on the senior team and we were getting to Ulster finals.

“Even by the time I was 15 or 16, I had already started playing for the Donegal seniors and I knew what was expected, because we expected the same at club.”

It was a natural progression in her mid-teens, she explains, and luckily she had two clubmates by her side every step of the way.

“No matter when I’ve played for Donegal, I’ve always played with Geraldine McLaughlin and Nicole McLaughlin so the fact that I always had those two girls there, and obviously the rest of them, just made life a wee bit easier for me.

“I knew that I could talk to them if I was finding it hard and I knew that they were also going through the same thing because they were new and it was frightening for them as well.

Sometimes, I think it’s not anyone else that’s putting the pressure on us, it’s ourselves. You always analyse your match and think, ‘Ah, I can’t believe I dropped that ball, or, ‘I can’t believe I didn’t make that run,’ and nobody else sees it. But it’s how we improve as players because you tell yourself you’re not going to do that again.

Her attention switches to 25-year-old Emer Gallagher, and her newfound perspective as an English and Irish teacher in Loreto Secondary School, Letterkenny.

There, she’s involved with ladies football teams so has learned what it’s like in that coaching capacity, too.

“I think for young girls, in particular, sometimes as managers and as trainers, we are too hard on them,” she ponders. “We’re thinking that they have to be perfect, but they’re learning by every mistake that they make. We have to take it in a more positive way.

“I think sometimes in Donegal football it can be very bad because we have this grit and this hardcore-ness that we want to foster in the young people, and sometimes that adds a whole lot of pressure to them.

“It’s all about being mindful and remembering that they are 15, 16, 17-years-old, and that they do have this incredible weight on their shoulders already. To just remember what it was like for ourselves whenever we were that age, breaking onto the team and knowing that you’re trying to show your best all the time.

“You’re trying to please, trying to break into a team so that’s already a lot of pressure without adding more that doesn’t need to be added.”

lyndsey-davey-with-emer-gallagher Gallagher tackling Dublin star Lyndsey Davey. Source: Tommy Grealy/INPHO

Mental health and well-being in sport is something that’s been discussed more and more of late, and those emotional struggles associated with pressure certainly tie in with the new programme the LGFA and Lidl have launched in conjunction with Jigsaw, the national centre for youth mental health.

One Good Club is a five-step mental health awareness programme that encourages local ladies football clubs to provide activities that promote good health and well-being.

And Gallagher is pleased to be an ambassador for the programme in a time where mental health issues are often still swept under the carpet on these shores. Another thing it targets is the alarming drop-off rate among teenage girls in sport. 

“As a school teacher working in a school with 1,000 girls especially around Leaving Cert time, and even Junior Cert time,” she says, “you see a lot of the girls deciding… even with our school football, they’ll say, ‘I’m not going to the match today because I have double Maths.’

“This was something that I found so shocking because whenever I was in school, you would have been on every sports bus going! Obviously, you still took your study seriously but you still wanted to be part of the team. That was really shocking to me.

I kept asking the girls, ‘Why? Are you under pressure? Is there something that you’re finding hard?’ And they just kept saying, ‘I just can’t afford to miss out on those two classes, I’d have too much to catch up on.’

“Then I’d ask them, ‘How much study are you doing at night?’ and they’d say they’re studying from five o’clock in the evening until half 12 at night or one o’clock in the morning — and they still wouldn’t have their work done.

“I think that was just so shocking to me because I never experienced that myself. I always went to training, even right up to my Leaving Cert.”

In fact, Gallagher remembers playing a championship match on a Sunday afternoon and sitting one of her Maths papers on the Monday morning. 

“It just was something that you did and you didn’t think about it,” she adds. “And I got on very well in the Leaving Cert.

“I think for girls now, in particular, that drop-off rate is staggering. It is shocking how many girls leave the sport. It’s about trying to show them, and prove to them — even showing them the statistics — girls do better if they’re playing sport.”

Another story springs to mind as Gallagher’s passion shines through.

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It clear as day that she really wants to help the younger generation.

I brought them [her students] in a programme one day of one of our inter-county matches and of course you can see the professions: doctor, physio… I was able to show them that these girls didn’t quit football whenever they were doing exams, they kept it on.

“Ciara Grant, one of the girls from Letterkenny as well, went to Trinidad and Tobago for a full month [on international soccer duty] before she did her Leaving Cert. It’s trying to show them that you can do it, you can do both and you will do better by doing both.

“It’s not that you have to choose one over the other, it’s being sensible, finding stress management skills, finding the balance, making a schedule: ‘Today I’ll go to training but I’m not going to go four nights a week.’

“It’s about being reasonable about it and trying to manage it as best as you can.”

JCF15998 Nicola Ward, Carla Rowe and Caoimhe McGrath launch the One Good Club campaign.

Gallagher notes that a pilot programme of One Good Club was ran in Letterkenny last year, and by all accounts, it was a huge success: “The girls were able to access yoga and different variations of the sport, they loved it, and were able to see; ‘This is how I can manage my stress, I can come here for an hour, it’s not a pressured environment, I can just come here for the fun and the social aspect.’

“I think that will really be a key thing in keeping girls playing the sport as well.”

That aforementioned pressure and expectation can feel like a lot at times, but often, it’s a matter of an easy fix. And Gallagher, and One Good Club, is helping others realise that.

“Sometimes all a girl might need is to just go and kick a football around for an hour, to not have that pressure and not think that she has to perform on the pitch as well as performing every day in school,” Gallagher explains. 

One Good Club is just going to make it so much more accessible for girls, and to just be a place where they can go to be with their friends and be themselves instead of thinking about CAO points and everything that goes with education.

“There’s so much more than education, obviously, that causes stress in young people’s lives; there’s boys and girls, family and so many other factors… even trying to get a job to fund your college. These are all things that as players, as adults, we don’t think about. You just expect that they’re going to be found.

“The fact that One Good Club is going to give the girls the support to talk about those things and to come and have a peer there to speak to about it… and everything is just a wee bit more open, hopefully it will give them girls the option to talk and to share their problems as well.”

As the old saying goes, a problem shared is a problem halved.

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Emma Duffy

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