Participation and fun at the heart of Go Games
Changes to the under 12 grade will pay off in the long run for the GAA, says Liam O'Neill
F ollowing on from the strong vote at Congress last month, the GAA's stated policy of promoting the Go Games model up to and including the age grades of under 12 will bring an end to championship involvement for players up to this level from January 2011.
Contrary to some reports, at under 12 level mini-games may be introduced to complement Go Games, which are small-sided, non-competitive games played on a reduced-size pitch that guarantees game time for all players.
This hasn't happened overnight and long, far-reaching consultation has taken place as part of the process that has brought us to where we are with this issue. Research undertaken at DCU involving Prof Niall Moyna and Mickey Whelan tracked the same seven players in a seven-a-side game and a 15-a-side setting. The results were difficult to ignore. Players worked harder which improved their fitness levels. The ball came into their possession more often, enhancing their decision-making process and skills in addition to providing more scoring opportunities.
Most importantly, the children reported a greater level of enjoyment, perceived confidence and self-esteem. Small-sided games are now recognised across all sports as best practice for improving the skills of young players.
No one is denying the familiarity of our members everywhere with competitive underage games and how deeply enshrined they have become in the psyche that accompanies the playing of our games. However, while acknowledging this, it is incumbent on us to move away from an approach that is based solely on the 'survival of the fittest' for players 12 years of age and younger. Young footballers and hurlers have plenty of time to discover how far their talents will develop and to what level their playing strengths will bring them but the under 12 grade is not the level for this type of assessment to happen.
We all know and have witnessed legions of children being left to sit on sidelines game after game, week after week with peripheral involvement for weaker players only a possibility when the result is beyond debate, one way or the other.
Some players develop skills and athleticism relative to their age group later than others. Why should the late developers be cast aside at such a young age, categorised and boxed off when there is a viable alternative that places a special emphasis on inclusion and allows players to hone their skills? The simple answer is that they shouldn't.
Just because there are no championship medals to be handed out does not mean that a level of individually driven competition does not apply in these games and it's in this non-pressure environment that children find their way and express themselves.
These same players could in fact be playing championship football for the 18 years that follow and more. What's the rush to hoist this type of competitive activity on them so young?
To take any one grade that will now fall out of the championship loop in isolation is to miss the point and the cumulative effect of annual championship 'win at all costs' football and hurling at such a young age is obvious for all to see by the time many of these same players reach their mid-teens.
No one would deny the merits of the competitive championships that take place as players enter their teenage years but someone must question the validity or logic behind the anecdotal use of ice baths and other excessive preparation methods that have been reported in recent seasons for underage players.
The 'hot housing' process that goes hand in hand with involvement with some teams in these championships where excessive pressure is placed on young players in a very short period of time is something that we need to examine. It can have an off-putting effect that sees players drift from our games and could be considered as a case of 'too much too soon'. This approach is neither helpful to the players nor does it aid efforts to produce a playing environment that is conducive to promoting long-term involvement in our games for as many players as possible.
Studies conducted as part of the research for the development of the GAA Respect Initiative estimated that as many as a third of the comments from parents and other adults present at underage games on the sideline were of the negative or critical variety. This too is a by-product of the win-at-all-costs model and one that has a detrimental effect on players, whether they are on the receiving end of the vitriol or not.
The new approach is not about mollycoddling underage players or wrapping them in cotton wool away from the cut and thrust of straight knock-out competition. It is about giving every player the chance to be as good as they can be and to enjoy the process of discovery. Our Respect Initiative places the player at the heart of the programme and few will argue against the need for such a scheme in light of the challenges that we face across the broad spectrum of our games.
Another positive dimension to the introduction of Go Games is that it caters for all of our sports, meaning there is a game for everyone in football, hurling, camogie and ladies football. We have always cared about our games and the promotion of them and we continue to do so.
Now it is time to show that we also care about our juvenile players. All of them, strong and weak, big and small, early learners and late developers. Sport is supposed to be about fun, especially for children. The Go Games initiative aims to restore some of that enjoyment and should be supported before competitive championship activity which will remain with players from the age of 13 onwards. Isn't that long enough?
In the final analysis, Go Games serve to ensure the boys and girls are provided with a quality introduction to Gaelic Games. Nobody can ask for anything more or should settle for anything less.
Liam O'Neill is chairman of the GAA's National Coaching and Games Development Committee