In our continued quest to become our best selves, we caught up with Olympic Medallist and psychologist Roisin McGettigan (mum of two) who takes us way back to our school days with her interesting insights into the correlation between participation in schools sports and academic performance, and the development of crucial life skills. Now based in Boston, Roisin has Co-founded Believe I Am®, a resource for aspirational women looking to reach their potential in both sport and life. Through her work as both an elite runner and a psychologist, Roisin believes in the positive effects of sport in the five “C’s” – competence, confidence, connections, character, and caring – which are considered critical components of positive youth development.
What are the key life skills to be gained with sport at school?
Transferable life-skills learned from competing in sports: goal setting- having a target, identifying steps needed to get there and then working towards it; hard work- seeing that “hard work beats talent, when talent doesn’t work hard”; delayed gratification- putting in the effort today, will pay off down the road; intrinsic reward- feeling good about improving, which leads to continual improvement; teamwork- how to work with others, share goals, encourage and support, learn from and contribute to a group dynamic; mind-body connection- how emotions affect the physical body, and vice versa; competitiveness- how aiming to win, can bring out the best in you; resilience- being able to take knocks, failures, disappointments, but keep on going; performance- learning how to perform under pressure; connection- builds strong bonds with coaches from school, club or organizations.
Physiologically exercise is like miracle grow for the brain:
It lowers depression and anxiety; buffers stress and improves emotional regulation; decreases ADD (attention deficit disorders); improves focus and motivation; increases rates of learning and executive functioning in the brain. And of course it leads to increased body health: heart health; stronger immune system; lower BMI.
Why is sport in school so important?
If all kids can harness the the benefits of sports, they would get a great start in life. They would be well prepared for life outside of school as studies show that kids that participate in sport are more likely to have a life long involvement. The benefits of exercise on school age children is amazing on their brain development and sport is a great way to get kids to exercise.
How can it help us deal with failure later in life?
It is impossible to never “fail” in sport. You quickly learn that often before you’ll ever win, you’ll fail over and over again. Sport teaches us that failing is a stepping stone on the path to success and should not deter us from reaching our goals. Also sport teaches us that giving our best effort is all we can do, and over time giving our best will likely bring success. Realising that failing doesn’t make us failures, empowers us to take risks and free us to go after our goals.
How significant is physical activity for brain development?
Exciting new research is proving just how important physical activity is for brain development. Some doctors are calling exercise “miracle grow for the brain.” Exercise optimizes the brain for learning by improving alertness, attention and motivation. It spurs the creation of new brain cells and encourages them to log new information. For teenagers under going huge hormonal changes exercise can help regulate the emotional consequences of these hormonal changes. It has shown lower aggression and behavioral problems in teenagers.
When you started running professionally, did it affect your studies at all? Did it enhance it?
I went to the USA on a running scholarship at Providence College. In order to compete for the university we were required to keep up good marks. It was a great lifestyle whereby we were supported in our academic and athletics endeavors. Personally I was more focused on my sport when I was a teenager and in college, but now that I’m retired, I’m glad now that I kept up with the studies as I have a bachelors and a masters degree and now see study as a life thing and not something you stop at 20 years old.
Tell us about Belive I Am, how does it help women?
Believe I Am started when my friend (US champion and professional runner) and I wanted to tell other people about the importance of the right mindset when aspiring to reach goals in sport and life. Through our experiences as professional athletes, we had both learned the hard way that without mental preparation we would likely underperform under pressure. Our aim was to bring the sports psychology insights we were privy to as professional athletes to a wider audience, as we could see how it helped us int he other areas of our life too.
Can you tell us about the 5 Cs?
The 5 Cs are considered critical components of positive youth development and can be cultivated through sport participation.
Confidence – sport teaches us that doing our best results in improvement. This results in developing confidence to do more and more.
Connection to teammates, coaches, schools and community is greatly enhanced by playing sport. Character is developed through sports participation as it causes us to develop resilience, persistence, goal setting, and leadership skills – which are important in other areas of life. Caring – studies show that students that participate in sports care more about their school and community and are less likely to participate in destructive behavior. Competence – we learn how do develop skills and get good at something, which improves sense of self.
You are now based in boston, is there a difference in the attitude towards sport at school between Ireland and the US?
I live in Providence, just 1 hour from Boston. It’s hard to generalize. I think everyone knows that exercise is a positive thing, but I don’t know if everyone realizes how beneficial sport really is for academics and general wellbeing. I think there’s extremes in the US and Ireland whereby some kids are over doing it, and then others are not doing nearly enough. People in the US definitely see sports as a good way to get into university. The USA and their college entry system is completely different to Ireland; being good at sport can result in scholarships and acceptance into colleges. This is a huge motivator for young people and their parents as college is very expensive in the US. College sports are a big deal in the USA so I’d say there is a different culture of sports in school especially for girls.
Who is your own personal inspiration?
My granny (RIP) is my inspiration. She was the kindest and nicest person right up until the day she died, She experienced a lot in her 90 years. I think if I can get through life with all of it’s ups and downs, and end up with her beautiful attitude, that’s true success. We obviously live in different times, but I think it’s important not to loose sight of what’s really important at the end of the day.
How do you keep all of the plates of your career spinning?
I love being home with my little babies and I love the work I do. I always feel there’s more to do, so I have to reign myself in and try to pick one or two things at a time to focus on. Getting out for a run refreshes and energizes me, distresses me and is where I find all my ideas. I could do with a few more hours in the day and often wish I didn’t need sleep, but I really need sleep 🙂
What advice would you have to women looking to follow a similar career path?
Go for it! Love what you do. Remember you get to define what success is, so don’t get distracted by other peoples definition of success. Be the turtle and not the hare, look for small steady progress. It’s important to hustle but remember you can’t force things, so do what you can and be happy with that. I must say that since I’ve lost my fear of failing, it has freed me up to try things without getting too caught up about other people’s approval.
Roisin is working with GloHealth on the launch of their sponsorship of Irish Schools Athletics.