Friday 15 November 2019

GAA's policy shift clears path to keeping youngsters on the pitch

It is no coincidence that the first big dip occurs when children leave primary school and move into the second-level system
It is no coincidence that the first big dip occurs when children leave primary school and move into the second-level system

John Greene

Keeping young people involved in sport as they grow older is one of the great challenges facing all sporting organisations - perhaps the greatest. It's a global issue, with over half of children who play sport at some point in their young lives having drifted away by their early 20s.

There are lots of reasons for this - and no doubt some of the blame can be laid at the door of the sports themselves. But of course it goes much deeper, it is a wider societal problem which is not being adequately addressed here.

The first point to note is that there has been a huge failing on the part of the State in nurturing sports participation and levels of physical activity through the education system, and by extension in dealing with inevitable lifestyle changes as children grow older. There is plenty of evidence to show that the central message about the importance of exercise is getting through. The problem is not in getting people involved in some form of physical activity when they are young - nine out of every 10 primary school children play sport - it is keeping them at it through their teenage years and into early adulthood.

It is no coincidence that the first big dip occurs when children leave primary school and move into the second-level system. Schools are best placed to manage this transition and to liaise with families to help tackle the problem but they are just not equipped to do so.

The gap - as is so often the case in this country - has been filled by thousands of volunteers working ostensibly on behalf of the various sporting organisations, but the primary motivation is to look after the well-being of young people. Yes, two of the biggest factors in a volunteer becoming involved in youth sport in the first place are being drawn in by the attachment of their children to a particular sport, or simply because it was a sport they were involved in themselves.

Two years ago, the high rate of fall-off in the GAA was highlighted in a report published by the ESRI: "The problem of drop-out appears to be particularly acute for Gaelic games," it said, adding: "It may stem from greater local loyalty among GAA players, or perhaps some other aspect of how the sports are organised. The GAA itself might do well to investigate this issue further: why do participants in Gaelic games not connect with other clubs when they move to new life stages or new areas? Can something be done within the GAA to promote such ongoing contact and reduce the high rate of drop-out?"

As it turns out, the GAA began investigating the reasons behind its high drop-out rates three years ago. And after researching the problem intensely and then testing solutions with hundreds of children, the findings were published last week and they mark a significant moment in dealing with this problem, not just for the GAA, but for sport in general. Part of the study, conducted in partnership with the University of Stirling, has already received international recognition.

Most of the research in this area has been in identifying the problems around drop-out rates as opposed to searching for ways to deal with it. "There is very little in this space anywhere in the world in how you can address this," agrees Pat Daly, the GAA's director of games development and research. "We are now approaching this from the point of view that a three-pronged solution is needed, the performance side, the participation side, and a sort of halfway house in between."

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This halfway house, he says, will see the development of an online system of introducing coaches to each other to organise sessions with groups of players which are not necessarily performance-driven.

The point is that sport, by its nature, is centred on performance and coaches of young players are in a system which is ultimately counter-productive. Sporting organisations need to be more creative in how they interact with young people because a system that values only performance will continue to drive people away. The culture it creates marginalises children, placing greater value on the outcome than helping each child to achieve his or her full potential. Coaches, parents and team-mates are key to keeping people involved.

There were revealing comments by young players included in the report, such as: "If you take a shot and it misses and then no-one says anything to you, you can then get down, like you make sure you pass it next time. Like you won't go for a shot again. But if somebody gives you positive feedback you might go for a shot again and you might get it next time." And: "If I'm being shouted at every week, what's the point in going back?" And finally: "So last year I was very unfit and I didn't play a match at all I don't think, for sure. So I finally got sick of it anyway. I was going to leave."

The GAA's Go Games initiative was introduced in 2004 to curb the trend of drop-out between the ages of seven and 11. A study in 2007 found that children playing in small-sided games enjoyed them more, worked harder, and had more touches of the ball. The number of children aged 10-12 registered as members of the GAA increased from 39,778 in 2010 to 51,768 the following year. This latest initiative is now seen as the next logical step.

Over a 15-month period, a pilot initiative was set up across 10 counties offering a 24-week games programme to 430 players aged between 12 and 16. The centres, which the GAA are calling Super Game Centres (SGCs), were multi-purpose facilities, not necessarily ones devoted exclusively to GAA activities or owned by GAA clubs; the games were 10-a-side and involved all players, and the coaching was values-led, as in positive feedback during games with coaching only allowed before and after, not during, games; and the schedule was planned in advance so families could work to a time that suited them. Indeed, location and timing emerged as a critical element in reducing the potential for drop-out.

The plan now is to oversee a change in policy so that all young players have an opportunity to play games and develop relative to their age and needs, that there is a change in adult mindset on the needs and motives of young players and to roll out the SGC concept nationally next year.

Educating coaches to change their outlook is crucial, but equally county boards must help clubs and coaches by creating the right environment around them. There are plenty of good coaches, and plenty of clubs too, who are willing to change their methods but they need help on the ground from their boards and that has not always been forthcoming.

The feeling is that more clubs are aware of their duties to young people and with this structure which the GAA has devised the path ahead is clearer than it has ever been. Expect others to follow suit.

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