Dermot Crowe: Respect for every player means so much more than winning
In early May, an email was sent to St Maur's GAA club in Dublin from Erin's Isle, Finglas, concerning a juvenile match that had recently taken place between the clubs. It read as follows:
I have just returned from our Juvenile meeting and I was asked to send this email on behalf of our U12s mentor and our Juvenile committee. After hearing the wonderful story relayed by our U12s mentor Grainne, I couldn't wait until tomorrow to send this mail.
Our U12s B played your U12s B team on the 29th of April. Grainne informed your mentor, I believe his name is Stephen, that one of her lads has severe Dyspraxia and his co-ordination is very poor. He was very understanding and due to his wonderful leadership the team followed his lead.
Could you please send on our thanks to your mentor, players and parents who cheered David on after he was awarded a penalty. I believe he kicked the ball and although it travelled at a very slow speed your goalkeeper at 12 years of age understood the meaning of sport and stepped to the opposite side of the goal allowing David to score his first goal. David returned to the club a hero and is still talking about the goal he scored.
Once again thank you.
Yours in sport,
Oilean na hEireann
Not long afterwards, the letter went up on the St Maur's Facebook page. It felt deserving of a wider audience and its appearance provoked a huge response. The only post that came anywhere close in terms of reaction was when the local junior ladies team won the All-Ireland last year. Obviously the story of David struck a chord.
But the response owes more to just sentiment and tugging on the heartstrings, because, as the letter states, it begs the question as to what sport is truly about. In the adult world a different set of values pertains, results-driven and intolerant of weakness or failure. To achieve results adult role models will break rules, lie, cheat, do virtually anything they can to gain an edge and win.
That is the sporting culture and mentality to which most of us belong. Many who read this letter and applauded a moving act of sportsmanship and human kindness are still card-carrying members of that ultra-competitive club where weakness is almost taboo. This act of generosity offered us a chance to wonder if our view of sport is too narrow and one-dimensional. Many wear their adult's hat when coaching juveniles. Mentors are still being seen behaving despicably. Loudly berating players. Losing the rag and making a show of themselves. God knows the damage they are inflicting on the children down the road.
The boy mentioned in the letter is David Corcoran, who has been with Erin's Isle less than a year. His parents have been blown away by how welcoming the Finglas club have been and the efforts they've gone to to make him feel included. The mentor who brought the news of his penalty goal back to Finglas is Grainne Gaffney. She has three kids of her own involved in juvenile teams in the club.
David's dyspraxia, which severely affects his movement, makes it a challenge for mentors to accommodate his needs. They have to go out of their way to make it work. "He is one of the most enthusiastic kids going but he has some mild learning difficulties," explains Gaffney. "He is not going to be able to physically do what the other kids can do and for us, we have 30-odd kids at that age group, it is phenomenal how our own lads have accepted him in, no matter what level we are at. We have a Division 2 and a Division 9 team. Everyone is fantastic with him. His dad only said to me there last week, it is the one thing he has stuck with, he really feels part if it."
The experience at St Maur's reinforced her belief in the common good and that while there are still some patently ill-suited mentors looking after juvenile teams, there are also some enlightened people beginning to infiltrate units across the country.
"I wrote a letter to our juvenile section requesting that something be sent from our juvenile secretary to the people in Maur's," says Gaffney. "Because, you know yourself, you are deluged with juvenile teams, there are times you wonder is it worth it, and that one time there, I said to the Maur's juvenile mentor, that makes it all worthwhile. Whatever about our own club looking after David, to see another team doing what they did, it was great.
"I had contacted their mentor, Stephen. I said to him, 'look we have a lad who has dyspraxia, and, being honest, he is not going to make any impact on the game because he can't toe the ball up, he can't handpass, but in his head he will think he is doing everything right, so maybe keep an eye out for him, he won't understand the tackling'. He said: 'no problem'.
"So we went out and played the game and in the second half I said to David to stay in full-forward, and everything you would say to him he would be taking literally; at one stage he was on the goal line with the goalkeeper. The Maur's lads were fantastic. They were pretending to tackle him and didn't touch him and he got a penalty towards the end. The goalie was jumping on his toes and when David went to kick the ball, you could probably blow it in quicker, the goalkeeper jumped the other way and let the ball in. He was so excited he couldn't believe it. For that type of game play and sportsmanship we have not come across it. We came across another club, a bigger club, a while ago and explained the same thing to their mentor but he didn't want to know - he said it was not his problem."
Recently Niall Cooper, a games manager for Dublin West, was invited to St Maur's to talk about juvenile mentoring amid concerns over a loss of players once they reach minor level. Cooper, whose brother Jonny plays for Dublin, spoke of the need to decrease the obsession with winning at all costs. To persist with this policy, while it might bring some success in the short term, will almost certainly prove counter-productive in the long term, he argued.
The cultivation of stronger players and the corresponding neglect of those less gifted will lead to a numbers drain as the years go by. There will be a widening gap in standards. Players who might have developed along the way may never get the chance. Cooper spoke of a system whereby weaker players get guaranteed game-time even if it places certain match outcomes at risk.
This bigger picture is not an easy one to envision for those with a more traditional outlook. Cooper knows that. He isn't saying mentors should be less competitive or lose games. But he is saying that in many instances mentors have lost the run of themselves and are treating juvenile training grounds like their own personal fiefdom. They are treating kids as adults when they require a different duty of care.
"Everyone's natural instinct is to be like that," says Cooper, "that is because of the ego we have. It is nice to be able to say the team is doing well, it reinforces what you are doing as a coach." But the goal has to be to bring as many as possible from early juvenile levels through to minor. Even if you win nothing along the way.
"It is evolving all the time and sometimes people can go too far," says Cooper. "Maybe if you keep getting medals all the time, for minimal effort, you are demotivating the kids, you know, if they are going to win no matter what. There is definitely a balance to be struck. I'm not advocating we go out and lose matches, you want to be competitive."
But even if players do leave prematurely, the importance of them leaving with a positive impression of the GAA club is critical, says Cooper, as they may return at some stage and make a contribution in a different capacity. Some excellent mentors were, at best, average players.
In Erin's Isle, Grainne Gaffney would buy into that philosophy having worked with David Corcoran and other kids who are not blessed with natural skills and abilities. "His (David's) parents were expecting that when he joined there might be no room for any kind of disability whatsoever. I said, that is not how we work. We have a few kids with behavioural issues, everyone is welcome to join. They could not get over that. They were so thankful. He will only play football, but he still comes to the hurling sessions. Say we have three or four mentors on, one will take him aside and do a bit of ball work with him.
"I just feel that at this level, when under 12, they have all their life to be competitive. I know it is the first year of competitive league but where we are, we have the Division 2 team which is a very competitive team, and then the Division 9, some kids could not be arsed, away with the fairies, but parents make them come down, but at least we have that team for them, to be able to include everybody.
"We could have a lot of children with disadvantaged backgrounds, who have learning difficulties, special needs in some form, but every one of them is included, it is a policy to make sure they are included. Like most clubs, club is family."
At the national Féile finals in Wexford last Sunday mentors were getting accustomed to a rule which required them to make at least two substitutions in each half. At a certain point the referee stops play and the subs are introduced. The idea is based on greater inclusion and while it may grate with mentors at times the rule is the same for all teams.
Gaffney has seen mentors behave abominably. "You would swear they were out playing an All-Ireland final. You can see some kids who are under severe pressure from parents at home. We have a juvenile room, a social place for the kids to play pool, and I have seen, in the past, where one child on the 'A' team was pulled to the side by his parents who threatened he would not be let up to the juvenile room if he did not cop on and get stuck in. My own son is on the Division 2 team and like that he is very focused for that age and wants to do his best.
"We played a club there and it was a prime example of a win-at-all-costs mentality, where the club wanted to change the time of a match - which did not suit us. And he wanted to play at 11 because some of his team were going to their siblings' First Communion. When that happens you just have to go with the numbers you have, it is across the board, everyone is coming up against this. He wasn't happy about this at all. I had to text him and ask him to stop harassing me, he rang me that many times. He threatened us with the county board.
"We went out and played the game, fantastic game of hurling, we lost by a point. But his own mentors had to go up to him on three occasions and tell him to calm down. I have never seen anybody like it. He was losing the plot with the kids, screaming at them: 'it is your fault'. Most are 11, turning 12. That is one of the times you say, 'is it worth it?'. Then you have the flip side. The way the Maur's mentors, the parents and children, reacted to our team. That is what kind of flabbergasted us. When David scored the parents of the Maur's side were all cheering him on."
Pat Daly, director of games development for the GAA, says efforts are being made to broaden their offerings to include more non-competitive aspects for juveniles, to increase participation as well as retaining what's there. "The reason we have the level of drop-out we have is we are very performance-driven, very outcome-driven, as distinct from being player-centred and learner-led. I think the challenge facing us, and what we are currently trying to address, is that we have a performance pathway, and what we are now trying to grow is the participation pathway at youth level.
"You are talking about a culture here. A culture of keep the best, forget the rest. That culture will devour everything. Changing a culture is not an easy thing. Success to me is maintaining your enthusiasm for the games and the games making you a better person. It is not determined by the result of a competition."
Daly says that training courses for mentors won't make a huge difference in changing rooted mindsets. "A six-to-eight-hour course is generally not going to change people. They can have a positive impact but if people are of a certain type of disposition you won't change it in eight hours. But what can change is the club's vision and values - that will change it. You have to make that choice."
There is no ideal template, as Cooper testifies. "Giving everyone equal game-time, that is not the most equitable way to go. One player or two might not be attending training, not putting in the effort, so why would they get the same game-time? But that is not to say we don't cultivate the interests and motivations of those weaker players who may take longer to develop."
Initiatives in soccer like the Silent Sideline help reduce some of the testosterone levels contaminating a world which is not designed for adults. "I don't want the game to be too sanitised," says Cooper. "I want room for passion. I can deal with a passionate manager on the sideline but it would be wrong to do it with under 10s. Kids are not adults, we need to treat them differently. We are still finding a balance."
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