Breaking the coaching mould
TWO weeks ago, when the Football Review Committee released their report on the health of Gaelic football, chairman Eugene McGee lamented the lack of coaching certificates and qualifications held by inter-county managers. "It is one of the great anomalies," he said.
"There is no inter-county manager I am aware of, and very few club managers, that actually have coaching certificates. Coaching has been going on 30 or 40 years actively and we have at least as sophisticated a coaching system in Gaelic football as any game of football around the world. You could cover the road from here to Longford with people who have earned coaching certs in the last 30 years and the vast majority never get the chance to coach a senior club team or at inter-county level so there is something radically wrong."
McGee's committee want to raise the bar here – no big jobs unless you have the back-up.
"It would be setting a good example if you couldn't be involved with a county team unless you had a coaching qualification," McGee said. "I don't think you can be involved with even the lowest team in English soccer without a coaching badge."
The Longford man may be correct in his assertion that there are few current managers with coaching qualifications, but he needn't worry about the future. With or without a coaching badge system, things will have greatly changed within a few years. The GAA are starting to produce the best young coaches in the land and before long they will be highly qualified, capable and in demand from other sports.
"A lot of young GAA people are now studying full-time in areas of sports science and their courses are very transferable to managing across other sports in the future," says one inter-county player.
"It's a natural fit – these guys have proper qualifications and certificates and they'll soon be in huge demand. It will accelerate the process of young managers gaining proper coaching certificates and the bar will be raised to such an extent that we might struggle to keep them in the GAA."
In fact, one FRC member told the Sunday Independent that their review found many young coaches still involved with underage teams when their expertise should already be in use at a higher level. It won't take long for progression, however.
The dust had scarcely settled on the 2012 football championship when both Jim McGuinness and Dublin footballer Philly McMahon announced professional moves into other sports.
No one was surprised to see McGuinness join Celtic while McMahon, too, is destined for great things in the area of strength and conditioning. But to see two high-profile GAA figures crack other codes in a short space of time must have been an eye-opener for many in the Association.
Dozens of GAA players have transferred to other sports over the years. Kevin Moran left Dublin to play 71 times for the Republic of Ireland, Jim Stynes broke all boundaries during his time in the AFL, while former Offaly footballer Tom Furlong was on the verge of an exciting American football career as a place-kicker with the Atlanta Falcons before injury cut him down.
There has always been something in the make-up of a GAA player that those from other sports admire – maybe it's the tackling, innate bravery, handling or fielding. But 2012 saw the definite emergence of a new phenomenon – the demands for GAA coaches and trainers from other disciplines.
McGuinness's move to Celtic as a performance consultant was by far the most high-profile. The outline of his career has only ever hinted at its richness and he could still quite feasibly make it as a soccer coach if he gets his badges. For now, though, it's as a sports psychologist and scientist that he will act at Parkhead.
Down the line, his switch should crack open a multitude of possibilities for coaches currently cutting their teeth with development squads and underage teams. The standard of work at these levels has never been higher. Most counties boast elite academies overseen by progressive young coaches who arrive at training sessions armed with stats sheets, apps, the latest drills and then go home to scour other sports for a competitive advantage.
Aside from McGuinness, there are plenty of other role models out there for these young coaches to look up to.
Less than a year into his role as strength and conditioning coach for Leinster rugby's sub-academy, Bryan Cullen is already making waves. There was something of a minor backlash from some fans, incredible as that seems, when he first joined the Donnybrook outfit, but he impressed to such an extent that he was quickly involved with Declan Kidney's Irish squad. Cullen holds a PhD in exercise physiology from DCU.
Upon his appointment, McMahon remarked that his move, following in the footsteps of McGuinness and Cullen, was a reward for the effort and time that they had invested into their own careers.
"We're getting the jobs as a result. I don't think we're getting the jobs because we're Gaelic footballers," he said at the time of his move to Tallaght Stadium. "But with the professionalism that we have in Gaelic football, even though we're not getting paid, the work ethic is very good. I think that can transfer into soccer a lot and rugby. I'm really looking forward to getting involved with Shamrock Rovers this year."
Before he got the job, McMahon had impressed the sporting world to such an extent that he had been working on an individual basis with some British-based Irish soccer players. One of them was ex-Hoops player Enda Stevens, who broke into the Aston Villa first team in November.
While McMahon's work was in the public eye, Nicholas Walsh's switch from GAA to the AFL took place amid little enough fuss. The Cavan man was intent on shaping a coaching career for himself Down Under and at the start of this year his chance came with the Greater Western Sydney Giants.
For four Decembers in a row Walsh self-funded trips to Oz, always looking to network. While there, he sought out the newest training methods, systems and the latest conditioning ways. He brought much of the knowledge home to development squads in Cavan and some years later those young players benefited from his expertise and found success at minor and under 21 levels.
The former International Rules star spent a good deal of the past 10 years enhancing his qualifications, graduating from the Setanta fitness programme and now his job is to oversee a conditioning programme for an AFL team with an average age of 19. It's a big gig – the Giants play in a purpose-built Aus$27.5m facility, with the main arena having a capacity for 10,000 spectators. It's another massive challenge in the career of Walsh, but he's not daunted.
The trail is not going to end there. Managers and coaches like Jason Ryan, who has already worked with the San Jose Earthquakes in the MLS, the likes of Kieran McGeeney, who is currently edging towards a black belt in the sport of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and Justin and Enda McNulty, who work in performance excellence, are sufficiently qualified to succeed in other disciplines.
And with even younger, quality coaches like Dr Cian O'Neill, Clare football trainer Michael Cahill and a host of graduates emerging, it's only a matter of time before young coaches make their mark in the GAA and beyond.
During the past 12 months alone we've seen how two former Irish Olympic athletes, David Matthews (Cork hurlers) and Seán Cahill (Meath football), and former Irish rugby international Andy Ward (Antrim footballers) were heavily involved with inter-county teams.
In recent years Wasps RFC took former Armagh trainer John McCloskey on board their coaching staff for 12 months with specific instructions to build a strength and conditioning programme and help with the team's handling, aerial and kicking skills.
In 2006, Mickey Ned O'Sullivan was asked to travel to South Africa for much the same reason. He coached five of the Super 14 clubs in the fundamentals of kicking and catching.
The big difference now, though, is that the GAA is starting to export its sports science expertise too, proving that the really good coaches are the ones that have a good knowledge of multiple sports. Not many have left the hurling and football environment yet, but that will all change over the next 10 years.
"A lot of the modern GAA coaches coming through know how to train teams but more importantly they know how to coach them as well – they're not just sending them to the gym or around a field to do laps," says Mike McGurn. "These young guys have it all and they'll be looked at by other sports – no doubt about it. I can't see an exodus or anything like that in the near future."
McGurn is right; there probably won't be a frantic rush out the door or anything like it, but nonetheless a trail of elite personnel is emerging from the GAA coaching production lines.
The coaching principle has always been strong and despite the economic recession, 10,537 mentors worked with clubs in the past year in Munster alone. That's quite an investment, although the Munster Council reckons that for every euro spent on coaching a €12 return on investment is generated.
Over 2,400 weekly underage training sessions are held across the province during the season, generating 3,183 hours of GAA training per week, the equivalent of 85 additional coaches delivering sessions on a full-time basis.
These people will look up to the likes of Cullen, McGuinness and McMahon. Eugene McGee's fears will be alleviated because they'll have all the certificates in the world by the time they graduate.
There could be another problem then, though. Once they reach the top they may look further afield than Croke Park.
Sunday Indo Sport