The Irish Football Association (IFA) First Kicks Soccer Academies continue to grow, regularly attracting more than 500 girls aged between six and 11.
The scheme was initiated three years ago following a conversation between a parent and the IFA's coordinator for girls, Sara Booth. With many girls uncomfortable with the idea of joining a boys club, the IFA recognised the niche for a female-friendly environment for girls to experience their first taste of football. The First Kicks Soccer Academies were born – training schools for girls, run by women, funded by the IFA.
"It's basic coaching – the first steps for girls to get into football and learn the techniques," women's football assistant Jackie Blyth told UEFA.com. "It gives women who want to be coaches the opportunity to do that in a safe environment. We'll mentor them and they won't feel like they're being judged. We're all learning so I think it's a brilliant atmosphere. It's a two-way thing.
"It's brilliant for any child to be involved in an activity. The girls come in at six and stay with us for three years – the difference in their confidence is unbelievable. The whole social side is amazing. But also, if our leagues are getting stronger because girls have been taught the proper techniques, we've done a good job. It also means they're fit and healthy rather than sitting in watching television."
With ten fixed academies operating all year round, as well as a number of mobile ones that run for between six and ten weeks at a time, the impact has proved far-reaching. "It's growing," added Blyth. "If we had more money and more female coaches, it could be a lot bigger. The kids are knocking at the door and I'm getting several emails a day asking where the nearest one is. If we had a big pot of money, we could make it massive."
Blyth is keen to emphasise the non-competitive environment of the academies, focusing attention on the basics. "If we have them from that age, they are learning the proper techniques," she said. "Then, by the time they get to 11 or 12, they have a really good basic understanding. Then you're able to introduce them into a more competitive environment. It's a really big stepping stone.
"It's all fundamental movement skills – agility, balance, coordination and speed. But it's sport specific – we bring the football into it, teaching the basics of striking the ball, defending and attacking. We finish with a small-sided game. It's about teaching the basics so they don't learn bad habits."
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