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#ThisBUCSGirlCan - Interview with Sinead Connolly
Charlotte Peile November 7, 2016

#ThisBUCSGirlCan – Interview with Sinead Connolly

UUSU Sport spoke to Sinead Connolly, lecturer and founder Club GymFUN, a very successful gymnastics club based on Jordanstown campus.

  • Please tell me a little about the position you are in now; title, what the role entails, how long you have been in this role?

As a lecturer in the School of Sport the main focus of my work is in the areas of Sports Coaching and Physical Education. I teach both theoretical and practical modules across both BSc programmes (Sport Studies and Sport & Exercise Sciences). My modules are geared towards preparing students for employment in the professions of PE teaching or Sports Coaching. My own sporting background is primarily in gymnastics once as a performed and now as a coach and coach educator.   I am also the Learning and Teaching Coordinator for the School of Sport; working with all our staff to develop, promote and grow the quality of our provision so that the student experience is the very best it can be. First and foremost I see myself as an educator and therefore I feel very lucky to be in a position to help shape the learning and teaching in the School. In 2006 I also established Club GymFUN which is a Newtownabbey based gymnastics club which caters for 400+ local children. We are the current British Gymnastics NI Club of the Year and were runners up in the National ‘Club of the Year’ awards. In the 8 years I have been working at Ulster, I have developed the associated GymFUN programme for our students which aims to increase gymnastics opportunities for children in the local community while developing the coaching skills of our students to enable them to deliver gymnastics opportunities in school and club contexts.

  • Please provide me with some background on how you have come to be in this role?

My early career was characterised by changing jobs every 3-4 years. In hindsight it was this mobility and the breath of my resultant professional experience that ultimately lead me into Lecturing. I have never had a career plan and made almost all job changes on the basis that it would make my work/life balance better rather than for any career progression motives. My journey into a lecturing post was therefore; the result of a merging of time and fate more than anything else! I was very happily working as a PE teacher in St Dominic’s High School and was pregnant with my second child. Like many working women I had come to a point in my career where the balancing of family and work life needed to be addressed. I had asked for a job share at my school but this could not be facilitated and the week I got this news I saw the advertisement for a P/T Lecturing Job at Ulster. As I lived locally; this was very attractive to me and hence I applied and ended up here. The decision to do this was made easier by being given a career break from my teaching post. I was fortunate to have a range of work experience in my early career (sports coaching, physical education, sports development, Coach Education delivery and resource development) which stood me in good stead to apply for the position.

  • How has sport and physical activity impacted your life?

My whole life has evolved through and revolved around sport. I was a member of the Irish Sports Acrobatics Team in my teens as well as competing in swimming, badminton and camogie in my local community clubs. My early sporting experiences were such that I was always wanted to pursue a career in PE/Coaching and these experiences also helped to frames the positive child centred and ‘inclusive’ philosophy and ethos that underpins all my practice. My work, hobbies, family and social lives have always been emerged in sport; so arguably it is THE central force in my world!

  • Who inspired you to aspire for a leadership role in your field?

Over the years I have had a number of important role models whom I admired and who helped shape my philosophies around learning, teaching and sports coaching. In my early years it was my coaches and senior gymnastics team mates that I looked up to. Once at University Profressor Marie Murphy became a key role model and has continued to be an inspiration to me throughout my adult life. Marie has a capacity for hard work that is second to none; she has an amazing ability to engage, inspire and lead people; but it is her enthusiasm that is most inspriring; witnessing her doing all this while managing a family life and all its demands has provided me with the evidence that it can be done and given me a confidence to pursue my own career opportunities. Interestingly Marie is also a very self-critical and reflective practitioner and these are attributes I hope I use in my own work. Another key role model in my life has been Barney Ball who was my boss when I worked at Sport NI/NIIC. Barney helped shape my thinking about coach and teacher education; the importance of these roles and his inspiring ideas in this area helped me form by own philosophy and ethos which underpins all that I do.

  • What is the best piece of advice you have received?

A good friend once told me that you may be a paid employee but you voluntarily applied for the job and can leave at any time; I love this and regularly remind myself that I choose to do what I do – this very empowering especially when working for a large bureaucracy that you can sometimes get lost in. knowing you always have choice about where to work, how much to work, what work you want to do means you approach your work from a more empowered perspective; you are never doing things because you have been told to but because you choose to!

Also my mother always says “everyone pulls their trousers up one leg at a time”; I love this as it normalises even the most intimidating and impressive people and you realise we are all just the same – this has helped me overcome anxieties about engaging with ‘important’ people.

  • Define a leader: What are some traits you think great leaders possess?

A good leader is one who empowers you; someone who is inclusive, open and honest and (of course) competent. Someone who has both the skills and characteristics to pursue the right goals/objectives (as best they can) in the situation they find themselves in.   I think integrity and honesty; open & respectful communication is essential to good leadership. Leaders who are not truly inclusive or don’t genuinely empower others, or those I perceive to be pursuing goals that are independent of the greater good, I struggle to hold in high regard.

  • What is one leadership lesson you have learnt during your career?

Never use people – you will be found out; no one wins when leaders abuse their positions of power.

  • What advice do you have for female students aiming for positions of leadership?

Develop a good ‘bluff’ radar and use this to help yourself realise that you are just as capable as anyone else; and better than the bluffers!

Don’t lose confidence in what you can achieve if you become a working mum. Working women and working mums in particular (whether we like it or not) end up being all things to all people; it is difficult and no one gets the balance right- accept this – it is fine and you’ll do fine – just keep investing in life outside work as much as your job and do the best you can do.