Gymnastics coach Alannah Cunningham talks to SIN about the importance of physical activity during childhood and adolescence, as well as her own life experiences.
By Ethne Tierney
Women and girls have long been an under–represented group in sport, and teenage girls in particular take part in sport and physical activity far less than the national average in Ireland. In Alannah Cunningham’s experience, a young coach from the Renmore Gymnastics Club in Galway, this is a pattern she often sees at the gym where she grew up, first as an athlete and later as a coach.
“There seems to be a drop out stage at this age where adolescent girls should be encouraged to keep physical activity up for fun, even if they are not elite”
Alannah is a role model for the young gymnasts she coaches. The belief that a coach can play a key role in the physical and mental development of children is one of the reasons why she stays involved in the sport.
“You learn that hard work pays off when the training sessions are long and tough. You then see yourself improve and it’s worth it when it comes to the competitions.”
“Coaches help you push your boundaries when you are finding it physically tough or when you don’t believe in yourself”
Having been diagnosed with liver and bowel disease as well as having shorter limbs on her right-side, Alannah was involved with the sport since she was seven years old. The commitment to the sport took her mind off her health conditions and gave her a sense of purpose that now she strives to pass on to other adolescent females in love with gymnastics.
Although she does not compete anymore, she is determined to stay involved in the sport and now encourages a healthy lifestyle among girls with health issues.
“Sport does help build resilience, but when dealing with health issues it’s important not to over-exert yourself. Knowing your limits and being comfortable taking rest is key to finding balance between health issues and sport”
She was inspired to start gymnastics by an older cousin that encouraged her to participate in the Community Games. She experienced social, physical, emotional, and cognitive benefits that helped her set healthy habits for the rest of her life. The sense of community and safety was important for her.
“I loved my friends, my coach and the variety and discipline the sport offered. As I progressed and excelled, I grew to love the sport more and more.”
“It kept me very fit as a child and we were encouraged to eat healthy from a young age. It definitely kept me motivated as it’s such a progressive sport that leaves you wanting to improve and get better.”
Now she coaches in the very same gymnasium that she began practicing as a child. A few years after her retirement she became a certified coach as she got so much out of the sport, she wanted to get back into it in some way. Although passing valuable lessons that the youth can use in and out of the gymnasium is important, there is a social part to coaching in the club where she grew up. Many of the other coaches were gymnasts in her squad and older coaches that trained her in her youth. However, according to Alannah the best part is seeing the kids you teach progress.
Her experience in the sport throws some light on the fact that participation in sport is not only about fitness. It’s about community, sportsmanship, a way to cope with health or mental problems and mindset development.
“It’s extremely important to start to participate in sport at a young age as it helps brain and muscle development which stand with them for life, as well as teaching them perseverance and determination.”
A recent report made by Sport Ireland shows that just 7% of girls aged between 14 and 15 are meeting recommended physical activity levels, one of the main reasons being because they do not think they are “sporty enough.” When asked what she would say to adolescent females in regard to this, Alannah said: “The more you put into the sport, the more you get out of it. The main goal is to have fun and enjoy it!”
With initiatives such as The Adolescent Girls get active resource, Girls Get Active Hackathon online event, and their Women in Sport Broadcast Training among some programmes launched by Sport Ireland as part of their Women in Sport programme. This programme aims to have equal participation between males and females in sport. The gender gradient in sports participation has closed from 15.7% to 4.5% since 2007 according to the most recent Irish Sports Monitor, and it’s expected to get smaller in the future. Soon there will be more female coaches like Alannah acting as role models and proving that there is opportunities and benefits to physical activity during adolescence.