Lifestyle

Friday 19 September 2014

Start children young with the GAA and build healthy habits for life

Children are never too young to learn life skills from team sport.

Dublin footballer Mick Casey with son Michael (6) at the nursery at Lucan Sarsfields in Dublin
Dublin captain Johnny McCaffrey with Calum Finnerty (4) and Harry Lloyd (5).
"I want to salute those parents and adults who contribute to the fitness and health of our country's children"

We're just a few weeks into a new season of Saturday training for the youngsters, and after one of the most exciting and absorbing seasons in GAA history, the pitches are busier than ever.

Johnny McCaffrey, the captain of the Dublin Senior Hurling side that won the Leinster Championship this year, is games co-ordinator at the club.

"I think the Dublin teams doing well has definitely boosted membership in the county clubs.

"Parents might see the teams doing well and want their kids to be involved in that sort of success."

Juvenile secretary Declan O'Leary says the figures back up the claim that GAA is growing – and not just in Dublin.

"We now have about 1,500 kids – overall about 2,100 in the club – and it's growing year on year.

"We have around 70 juvenile teams, from under- sevens to under-16s, and so far this year we've had over 800 games.

"It's a pretty big operation, but it's by no means unique – there are clubs like this all over the country."

We're here to visit Lucan Sarsfield's nursery, the place where GAA superstardom really begins.

Catering for kids from about the age of four, it's not unusual to see 60 tots wielding hurleys and tearing around with footballs in the very youngest class.

Andrew Lloyd's son Harry (5) has been a member for about a year now.

"The facilities here are second to none, with the gear and equipment and the all-weather pitches.

"It's very well organised. Harry loves it. He particularly likes the hurling, he's taken to that in a big way – probably the idea of wielding a stick!

"We split the nursery into 45 minutes of hurling and 45 minutes of football, and mix it up each week," Johnny McCaffrey explains.

"It's to encourage kids to play both sports, and by swapping it around from week to week, neither sport suffers from the kids being tired. We've done this for about four years, and it's been really successful so far."

The emphasis in the nurseries is on having fun and getting to know the basics of the sport.

"They learn all the basic skills, co-ordination and so on," Johnny explains.

"The concept of competition isn't really introduced, at least in terms of leagues or tables, until about the age of 12.

"They would play games, but it's more about fun than competition, as that can put too much pressure on them at too young an age."

Mick Casey, who played on the Dublin Senior Football Team between 1999 and 2001, has introduced his son Michael (6) to the club.

"The concentration is on fostering an enjoyment of the game and of sport in general.

"I think it's important for kids to get involved in sport, even if GAA is ultimately not where they end up.

"A lot of kids love the social aspect of it up here, especially at this age."

Chatting to the parents on the sidelines, it seems that the GAA's ability to pull communities together is a major reason for them bringing their kids down at such an early age.

"The benefits of GAA for kids are tremendous – it's a prescription for healthy living," says Declan O'Leary, whose 10-year-old son is also a member of the club.

"It's not just about fitness, it's about the community too. Lucan has something in the region of 60 schools – we have something like the highest percentage per capita of under-eights in Europe, but only a couple of clubs, so this allows them to socialise with a different group than school.

"It creates that sense of community that can be lacking in such a big and busy area.

"It also teaches them lots of social skills," he continues.

"My lad would be very competitive, and he doesn't like losing, but he's learnt that you do lose on occasion and how to deal with it. That's a valuable lesson that we all need to learn in our lives."

PJ and Ann Finnerty, who have three sons in the club, including their youngest, four-year-old Callum, agree that the social aspect of the club is as important as the sporting.

"We were very keen to get him involved as soon as we could. It's a great club and it gives him another set of friends, which is important.

"Our eldest son is at under-15s level and it's great for keeping them out of mischief as they get older.

"The challenge is to keep them interested as they get in their teens.

"I think the secret is to give them a little bit of room," Ann continues.

"If they want to give up, of course try and convince them to continue on, but you can't force them.

"We would encourage them to take up something else, though, they have to have a sport."

Barry Whelan played football at Dublin Minor level, and his son Ray (5) has been playing in Lucan since the start of the year.

"I was keen for Ray to get involved from a young age.

"For me, sport was a very positive influence on my life, and it helped me define my professional career too, as I now work in fitness with my own personal training gym.

"I honestly wouldn't mind what sport Ray was involved in, but I would like him to keep playing sport in some form."

GAA for these kids is very much about family – each parent is just as enthusiastic about the sport as the child themselves, and it's striking how many of the parents are involved themselves, even if they didn't have a background in GAA.

Andrew Lloyd helps out each Saturday.

"I'm actually a rugby man, and played it for years when I was younger," he says.

"But I got involved in GAA when Harry joined.

"I did a training course last year with Johnny over a couple of nights and now help out each Saturday.

"I figured that as a parent I would be standing here on the sidelines for an hour-and -a-half each Saturday, so I may as well get involved!"

Mick Casey coaches his son Michael each Saturday.

"I tend to be harder on him than on the others because he's my own, but he has plenty of enthusiasm for it and he certainly has the competitive gene that runs though our family!

"But competition isn't important at this level; as long as he enjoys it and gets to play at whatever level he feels comfortable at, that's the important thing."

But even if they're not actively involved in the coaching, nearly all of the parents had some sort of background in GAA, usually great memories of playing themselves as youngsters.

"Bill loves it, he's been playing about a year now," says John Donovan, father to five-year-old Bill.

"I played both football and hurling myself at school age in Lucan, and I was really keen for him to get involved at a young age.

"It was for the social aspect and for the discipline of sport – so he'd listen to someone else as well as me!"

Looking around, it's clear there's a lot of energy on the field, but what about talent? Are we looking at any future Bernard Brogans, or indeed, Johnny McCaffreys?

Competition doesn't heat up until the teenage years, when the really talented might be chosen for a development team, but each child's abilities develop at a different pace, say the experts.

"You can see talent at about eight, but then you might get a fella who suddenly starts to develop at 10 – the motor skills might have clicked a little later for him – and then it's the 10,000 hours or so of practice," says Declan O'Leary.

"I think the nurseries provide an opportunity for every type of development, whether it's nurturing natural ability or giving time to perfect skills.

"Quite often the difference between the A team and the B team is the drive and the willingness to pick up a hurley or a football and practice every day."

Johnny McCaffrey agrees: "You can pick out a kid who you think will be very strong, but by the time they get to 12, other kids might have caught up with them.

"And then some kids who were weak as youngsters get to 10, 11, 12 and they suddenly blossom and keep developing until they're 17 or 18.

"They might have that work ethic that you need to develop and get better and better.

"You find that kids who stay with it and work hard can develop and get much stronger than other kids who might have been naturally better at an early age but didn't work as hard."

So what's the ideal age at which to introduce your child to the wonderful world of the GAA?

"Once they're school age, say four or five, I think it's a great idea for kids to get involved in sports," says Johnny.

"They get lots of exercise, have fun with their friends, lots of fresh air. It's a great way to spend a Saturday."

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