Nobody loses, nobody wins
They were talking football in the village shop on Friday morning. The game between Castlehaven and Bantry the night before had been a cracker, great goals, fine saves, near misses and a heart-stopping finish. "Do you know what," said the man whose children have won six All-Ireland senior medals between them, "but I think the U12 games are the best games of all."
Well, from next year, U12 football and hurling are a pleasure that supporters and, more importantly, players will have to forego. The youngsters from Castlehaven and Bantry may be the last kids from their clubs to ever play championship U12 football thanks to a decision made by last weekend's GAA Congress.
Congress overwhelmingly voted for a move to what are known as 'Go-Games,' 11-a-side matches where every child gets to play on the team, there are no championship games and no winners' medals. Liam O'Neill, chairman of the National Games Development Committee said "the Go-Games model is a must-win model. The 15-a-side games at this age have led to bad behaviour from mentors, and sometimes from supporters and parents. In passing this motion, we are saying to families if you bring your children along to us, they will always be given a game, every time there is a game."
As you can see, Go-Games are surrounded by a halo of virtue to such an extent that to argue against them is to reveal yourself as an insensitive brute who doesn't care about the feelings of little children. So here goes then.
But if I am an insensitive brute, I have company. The two men in the village shop, for example, felt that the demise of the U12 grade would be a disaster. So did the man who stopped his car and got out to tell me just what he thought of the decision and the columnist in our local newspaper who argued that "other sports, not GAA underage, will be the winners in all of this."
What all these men have in common is that they are dedicated members of the Association who have given up many many hours of their lives to, among other things, promoting the games at underage level. They are the kind of people I tend to heed on GAA matters. And I have a hunch that, impressive and all as the majority for the move was at Congress, this is something which will not meet with an overwhelming welcome at grassroots level.
Why not? For one thing, it goes against tradition. Almost anyone who ever played Gaelic football or hurling cut their teeth at U12 level. There are grown men all over this country who can still remember the games they played at that age. Think of how often you read in a profile of a leading inter-county player the reminiscences of an old mentor about the star's first U12 games. That something is traditional does not necessarily render it good but it does mean that you need a good reason to get rid of it.
One thing which has changed is that kids are introduced to Gaelic games at a younger age these days. My own eight-year-old daughter takes part in a basic skills programme at Castlehaven, and enjoys it hugely. I'd agree that anyone her age is too young to play competitively, but when kids are starting at eight, is it not a bit excessive to ask them to wait another four years before they can play a real match?
The idea behind Go-Games is that competitive sport is bad for children. This mentality was followed to its logical conclusion in England where, since the 1980s, many schools have cut out competitive sport, even going to the extreme of banning competition on school sports days. This is now widely seen as a mistake with Prime Minister Gordon Brown vowing to "correct the tragic mistake of reducing the competitive element in school," and Home Secretary Alan Johnson describing it as "absurd and perverse political correctness."
Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent and author Frank Furedi has noted that "anti-competition crusaders advocate a carefully managed therapeutic sporting education for children. They believe that children gain great psychological benefits from co-operative sport since everybody receives applause and gains in self-esteem.
"In reality, children gain nothing from the manufactured forms of tokenistic rituals that accompany such emotionally correct gestures. When every child receives a prize for 'trying their best' the youngsters easily see through such an empty gesture. Even at an early age, they understand that when nobody loses, nobody wins."
The GAA's abolition of competitive games for U12s has more than a tinge of hardcore political correctness about it. It is, for example, part of The Respect Initiative, the very name of which is like something Southwark Council would have come up with in the '80s.
The Respect Initiative, we are told, "aims to promote positive behaviour and ensure that an enriching environment is provided." It includes a checklist for behaviour, which must be "Responsible, Encouraging, Supportive, Positive, Enabling, Considerate, Tolerant." Who could possibly argue with this self-righteous jargon which sounds like the code of conduct for a Californian feminist consciousness raising group?
I'm sure Croke Park can produce facts and figures which will support the move to Go-Games, (though apparently one reason why many delegates to Cork County Board gave the proposals a frosty reception is that they discovered some of the figures being quoted at them came from Australia). Yet it doesn't require a task force or a working group to discover what's right in front of your eyes. Most children enjoy competition. If a group of kids start a football game in a field or on the street they'll keep score and both teams will do their best to win. Because competition is at the heart of sport. Sport without competition might be therapeutic, it might be ideologically sound, it might even be 'enriching' but it's not real sport.
The U12 leagues have started in our local division, Bantry playing Castlehaven, Carbery Rangers playing Sam Maguires, Kilmacabea playing Skibbereen, Clann na nGael playing Kilbrittain. I would wager that most of the young lads donning their club colours for the first time were enjoying themselves immensely and would be shocked to hear that they were being damaged by this exposure to competitive football. The truth is that they will have been waiting impatiently for the chance to be old enough to play for the club since they first kicked a ball. That ambition was not foisted upon them by competitive adults, it's something natural for a sport-loving child.
Liam O'Neill's point about misbehaving mentors and parents is fair enough but to suggest that this tomfoolery is indulged in by anything other than a minority is to commit a gross libel against the average decent GAA mentor and parent. In any event, why should kids be deprived of proper football because of the actions of a few hotheads?
And as for guaranteeing parents that their kid will always get a game if they turn up, well I wouldn't expect my children to get a game if they weren't much good. Someone who isn't good at a game won't enjoy it as much as someone who is. These days there are so many options for kids that all of them can find something they are good at, genuinely good at. They don't need our condescension. My eight-year-old can play the violin, do ballet and swim like a fish. If football works out for her, great. If not, there are other rewarding things to do.
I speak as a moderate footballer who found out in his teens that he was much better at athletics, badminton and table tennis. Even when I was ten, I didn't think I had a right to a place ahead of better players. Learning to accept these things is part of growing up.
Congress made a truly bad decision last weekend. The underage structure which has served the GAA well in the past should have been preserved. As someone said in the shop Friday morning, "They don't feel pressure at that age. When they get a bag of chips after the game, they have it all forgotten."
Hang on a second. Chips? Greasy, unhealthy, fattening chips? Surely the mentors should be ensuring that the players eat healthily? Carrot sticks perhaps, or lumps of broccoli. I feel another recommendation to Congress coming on.
In the meantime, the kids will get on with enjoying the last ever U12 championships before it's taken away from them.