Tuesday 25 June 2019

Colm O'Rourke: Stop wasting time and money on your elite kids

‘Good coaches see their role as helping players along a development pathway’. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
‘Good coaches see their role as helping players along a development pathway’. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

If there is a debate in science about which came first, the chicken or the egg, there can be a similar debate in football about which comes first, success at adult level or underage victories propelling adult teams to glory.

One of the outcomes of this debate has been the massive investment in elite squads (some have other fancy titles) at underage level in almost all counties. This concept has developed somewhat haphazardly around the country. Counties tend to copy other counties with little measurement of whether what they are doing is effective, or even offers value for money.

If the measurement of success is to see the numbers progress from, say, an under 14 elite squad to senior county football then the only certainty is that it is a complete waste of money and time. On the basis that few county minors actually graduate to the senior team then the numbers who make it from younger age groups will be far fewer. So the argument could be made that trying to pick small numbers in younger age groups for specialist training and matches may actually be doing more harm than good.

There is the real danger that some of these young men think they are very important and don't see that their clubs are where they should be doing most of their development. There are times when club matches have taken place where county minors were told not to play as there was a county match coming up. What sort of message does that send out? In a young player's mind it creates the very strong impression that being a county player means you don't have to have any loyalty to your club. It is precisely the wrong sort of values to be imparting. Some young lads can have a great sense of their own importance and the GAA should not reinforce that at its own long-term cost.

There is, however, a role for proper underage development. This would include a lot more players than is currently the case with these development squads. In big counties, that could be as many as 100 at under 14 level with a gradual reduction to 50 or 60 by the time the new under 17 competition kicks in. Even from 14 to 17 there will be huge changes. Players develop very differently physically, emotionally and skill wise in a few years. If big numbers are not kept involved right up to 19 or 20 there is the danger of losing the tall skinny 15-year-old, the skilful player who is a bit undecided about whether he wants to be Ronaldo, Johnny Sexton, Con O'Callaghan or maybe just a cool dude. Patience and perseverance is often rewarded.

Obviously there is a cost involved, but sponsors in many counties are often willing to get behind a particular team if they see their money going for that purpose. This is entirely different to a sponsor being asked to just put money into the county board where the perception is that it might as well be thrown into a big black hole.

So a nice casual top and a flashy gear bag are cheap ways of making an underage squad look the part. Young boys and girls at school see the bags and want to be part of the group. It may seem like a small thing but young players now need to see themselves as having a career and the GAA is in competition with soccer and, maybe even more so, rugby. Our players have to compete in areas of image and stylish gear is just one part of that.

One of the dangers of elite squads - and I really don't like that term - is that it means having managers and selectors. Too often a manager is put in charge of a team at under 14 level and he thinks it is his team by right until they get to adulthood. The emphasis is on winning, not participation or player development. Good coaches see their role as helping players along a development pathway. Unfortunately there are many in the GAA ranks whose ego runs away with them when they get a county manager's tracksuit.

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In some counties the chicken and egg come at the same time, in others the chicken definitely comes first. When Meath won All-Irelands in the 1980s, a wave of underage success followed at minor and under 21. The rising tide lifted all boats, including in schools, with much greater numbers getting involved. The underage success of the early '90s fed into All-Ireland wins in 1996 and '99 and another final appearance in 2001. My own school, St Pat's Navan, had four All-Ireland final appearances in that decade with three wins.

Then it all went south. The chicken died. Since then there have been no eggs and now we need a golden goose. The way back for Meath football is through a long-term development policy at all levels. If this is the picture in Meath then it is even more difficult in most counties who have had no success at all in the recent past. As a result it takes a huge effort in terms of organisation to make a breakthrough in all those counties which have not experienced any big days in the last 20 years.

For me, the future rests in bringing big numbers of young players into an environment where they get good coaching, where there is an emphasis on games among themselves rather than picking small groups to represent their county. Maybe it would be better if there were no county competitions at under 16 and player development could go on without the distraction of picking county sides, which add little value in the long run.

There is also an educational side to this - learning proper values, respect for clubs and the voluntary ethos. All young players are not going to be stars. Some will, the rest can be good club men or valuable administrators.

The importance of bringing in players to development squads should not interfere in the least with club football. The club always must come first and that should be reinforced in the young mind. However, there are plenty of players who are playing with weaker clubs and need the challenge of training and playing at a higher level at school and with players of a similar standard from other clubs. It is good for everyone to have a better player.

The other part of player development which causes some controversy is gym training. There are plenty who feel that young players should not be in the gym at all, but outside honing their skills. Both of these are complimentary. Some mix up gym work with lifting heavy weights, but good coaches introduce young players to stretching and exercises which have long-term benefits and this can start as young as 13 or 14.

If a young player is in a gym and lifting big weights he should be stopped immediately as this could be very damaging, but a stronger body and a better ability to play football can only come about with building up core strength. In the past that came naturally through cutting turf in the bog, pitching bales of hay or snagging turnips but I don't see many young lads at that anymore. So in its place must come sit-ups, press-ups etc.

The chicken and the egg should come together. It does not take huge money to run underage football and in many places there would be far greater long term benefits of shifting some of the funds spent on inter-county senior teams to big numbers of young players. It is certainly not a case of one or the other. Both should go together, but if a county decides that having a panel of 20 elite players training for their juvenile county team is the way forward then they would be better off just to burn the money and save everyone their time and energy. This all reminds me of the famous slogan which Saatchi and Saatchi came up with for the Conservative party for the general election in Britain in 1979: 'Labour isn't working'. Elitism at underage level is the same.

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