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Underage elitism in GAA will speed up teenage drop-out

Smith says fun for kids taken out of games by wrong ethos


Dublin footballer Ciarán Kilkenny is tackled by Réalta Moran at the Kellogg’s GAA Cúl Camp in St Brendan’s GAA Club, Dublin last month

Dublin footballer Ciarán Kilkenny is tackled by Réalta Moran at the Kellogg’s GAA Cúl Camp in St Brendan’s GAA Club, Dublin last month

Dublin footballer Ciarán Kilkenny is tackled by Réalta Moran at the Kellogg’s GAA Cúl Camp in St Brendan’s GAA Club, Dublin last month

Back in December, by way of explaining the newly-minted GAA's Talent Academy and Player Development committee's remit, former Cork football manager Brian Cuthbert relayed a story he'd heard about a Féile team.

A couple of weeks previously, parents of the players received a text outlining their training programme for the following five months.

Sessions would be three times weekly. Players had responsibility for being at the appointed venue 20 minutes before it began.

Injured parties were obliged to attend. Anything less than full compliance would result in omission from the initial 25-person squad.

It's fair to say Cuthbert's story, while illustrative, shocked few with recent experience of Féiles, the Under-14 competitions that have become notoriously competitive affairs.

There is, however, mounting anecdotal evidence of such an ethos being employed at even younger age grades.

"One of the biggest challenges we have is that player who retires at 37 or 38 and then goes down to an Under 9 team and starts trying to impart the same philosophy as they had playing senior adult sport for so long," says Shane Smith, one of Dublin GAA's leading coaches.

Smith, a former Thomas Davis senior footballer, holds an honours degree in sports science and health along with a Masters in primary education.

He is also coach to 2018 Dublin SFC champions, Kilmacud Crokes.

"They probably come in with the best intentions. But children simply don't respond to that sort of environment," he explains.

"Never under-estimate the impact a coach has on the retention of children in sport.

"A welcoming, easy-going coach will set children up for inclusion and success. At very young ages, it really is about retention and not elitism."

Retention, Smith insists, is the most important role of a child's coach. Not success.

"It's about meeting the needs of the child," he stresses. "When a child arrives into a GAA club at five, six, seven years of age…Croke Park is a very distant dream away.

"When we look at the motivational theory behind why children play sport, there's the 'task' versus the 'egotistical'.

"The 'task' is when children go out and do their best at a skill and practice that skill. The 'ego' side of it is a child who wants to win. And generally speaking, we don't see too many children motivated by the ego side of it. It's more the task.

"In a lot of cases," Smith notes, "it's the parent that wants to win an awful lot more than the child does."

The Féile example relayed by Cuthbert isn't an isolated example or arguably even an extreme one.

Smith has encountered managers of U10s teams requesting strength and conditioning programmes and a coach warning an Under-11 side they would have to undertake a bleep test following a defeat.

"S&C is very important at an appropriate age," Smith explains.

"But adult-level S&C for children is just something they just don't need.

"S&C for children is climbing a tree. It's playing chasing. It's throwing stones in the river.

"It's multi-directional movement games. That really is S&C for children.

"And that's the sort of environment that they will condition themselves naturally in; by running, jumping, throwing, climbing, balancing.

"S&C has crept in a little bit too young," he states. "There is a race to elitism too young in the GAA."

Proof of the prevalence of results-orientated coaching is, Smith asserts, in the drop-out rates for playing Gaelic games.

In 2013, the ESRI produced a report entitled 'Keeping Them in the Game' for the Irish Sports Council (now Sport Ireland), on the proportion of people in Ireland taking up and giving up sport and exercise.

It revealed an almost a 75% drop off rate between the ages of 21 and 26 in Gaelic football and 60% in hurling/camogie.

Smith, who also oversees teams at juvenile level with Thomas Davis, says coaches who demonstrate an "intense, win-driven," approach can "set a group of children up for drop-out," in their early teens.

"Every coach that takes a team does so with the best of intentions," Smith stresses, "and we're doing so much right in the GAA right now.

"There was over 100,000 at Cúl Camps last year.

"But for me, the word 'play' is the most important word in coaching children.

"Play isn't standing behind a cone waiting for your turn. Play is three on three. It's scoring goals. It's making catches.

"If you watch children at the start of a session, it looks so chaotic. They're running and chasing and scoring goals and chatting to their friends.

"But one of the key skills for a coach is knowing when not to coach. So that ten minutes at the start of a session is nothing to be afraid of.

"That's the self-directed learning."

One of their recommendations of the GAA's Talent Academy and Player Development Committee was that Under-17 be the first time a player would concentrate on an All-Ireland championship at inter-county level.

The Committee deemed that all grades up to and including Under-17 should be developmental in status to save the GAA from overworking, burning out and ultimately losing its greatest asset - its young players.

Elitism, Smith readily acknowledges, is an intrinsic element of sport.

But in his own experience, it's also counter-productive if encouraged before time.

"People say to me 'if you're having so much fun, how can you find your superstars?' But the superstars often find themselves.

"Look at all the late developers.

"Miroslav Klose was 26 before he played in the Bundesliga and now he's the all-time top scorer. Conor McManus, one of top three forwards in the country, didn't play minor for Monaghan.

"So I think when players get into their teens, they start to take ownership of their own performances.

"So our role as coaches is to keep children involved for as long as possible.

"Some will drop off. That's inevitable. But we shouldn't have a coaching structure that forces them away.

"I think all of us coaches at juvenile level need to realise that we're not Jim Gavin and we're not Joe Schmidt and we're not Brian Cody.

"We're facilitators for children to come out and meet their friends and have fun.

"And," Smith goes on, "when it comes to play and fun, we're not really the experts. The children themselves are the experts."