Natural Learning

Why we should harness individual creativity.

For hundreds of years, children played games. These games were never structured, apart from a few rules that were inserted as the games went on. Away from the prying eyes of adults “who knew better”, children harnessed skills that allowed them to prosper at their chosen game.

As we progressed to a more “cultured time”, it became more common practice that adults took charge of these games. With each passing generation, adults are becoming much more influential on children’s play time. The only time my father would of seen an adult disrupting (because lets be honest, that’s what adults do 98% of the time) their play time was the 1 or 2 pitch sessions (which entailed a match or a training match, they only had 1 football) they attended as children 50 years ago. Other than that, he and his brothers, friends, neighbours ran free and wild around the streets and green areas playing games. 95% of their active time was Free Play while 5% was structured.

As time passed to our generation, Coaching became a more popular term. When adults were involved, we did DRILLS (which means “instruction or training in military exercises”). When adults were not involved, we played games. Our games were multi sport, multi disciplinary. Before school started we played Headers and Volleys, at break time we played either soccer, hurling or handball depending on the time of year, at lunch the same. After school, we either cycled the woods, went to the pitch, built bridges across the river, climbed trees. We were given a freedom to experiment at various different disciplines. Today, a child is not allowed play sports before or during break times in school due to Health and Safety, they are not allowed run at break time. They are not allowed cycle to school for safety reasons. Their afternoons are taken up cocooned in or very close to their home. At evening time, they are brought to training for whatever sport is on that night. Children might be active 5 or 6 hours of the week in structured training for different sports be it swimming, soccer, rugby, hurling, football. They no longer have the “Free Time” that my generation and the generations before me were accustomed to. This generations active time is 20-30% Free Time and 70-80% structured.

How do we, today’s coaches attempt to alter this balance back in favour of Free Time. We are the highest educated Coaches in the history of our sport. From a GAA perspective, more coaches are getting better Coach Education now than any time in the history of the association. Same for soccer, rugby, hockey etc. Yet, the fall off rate of children participating has never been higher. How could this happen? Coaches are supposed to be better, yet children are becoming more and more disillusioned by the sports we coach. Where is this imbalance coming from? Is society a factor. Are we limiting children from their Play Time, which our generation took for granted. How can we, the coach engage children more in the process?

The GAA have tried to be proactive with the introduction of Go Games and lately the introduction of Super Games Centres. This is a key concept, that I have seen personally which I think is a fantastic initiative. All clubs from a local area are invited to send in boys of a certain age to a pitch. The assigned Coach then puts them into 4 teams. Over the course of the hour, each team will play 3 matches. No referees, no team managers, nobody directing matters except the kids on the pitch. It places the power back into the kids hands. They call their own frees, they decide if it was a score or a wide, they make positional changes on the pitch. They own the game, like we used to in our youth. To show how successful this was in one venue, there were 6 players who took part who were no longer members of a GAA club. Why did these kids come to the Super Games Centre but would not go to their local club? Could it be the fact that they got to play matches, there were no subs, no manager giving out to them for making mistakes?? Anyone of those 3 reasons is why kids give up sports, and in one swoop, the Super Games Centre eliminated the 3 biggest causes of why kids give up sports.

The other area we can encourage this Free Time is in our training sessions. Games Based Coaching is the new buzz word in the GAA circles. This basically entails more Games in the training sessions and less drills. Can you change a drill into a game which will be more enjoyable for the children and also provide the Skills development that you are looking for. The traditional straight line drills, that we were accustomed to as children do not serve purpose any longer. The reason we did straight line exercises was because of 2 main factors, lack of equipment and lack of mentors. It was easier for the 1 or 2 coaches we had, to set up 4 cones opposite 4 cones and have 5 players behind 4 cones, run out around the far-off cone and hand pass/strike/kick the ball back to the next person at the front of the Que. The coaches grew up with those drills and there were not enough resources around at the time to show new exercises to these coaches. As you can see from some of the session plans on this twitter feed, it is very easy to put in place a full Games based training session. Kids/Adults find these sessions far more engaging and of more benefit to the player. With all the additional aspects that improve in Games Based Exercises such as multi directional movement, peripheral vision, tactical know how, decision making etc. it is really an area that should be used more by all coaches.

The training sessions that you plan need to be conscious of the children’s needs. Every time I get to see the U7 and U8s training in my own club, before the session starts they are playing multiple games of World Cup into the main goals. There could be 5 different games ongoing at the same time, with another few lads just kicking balls over the bar. Nobody tells them to do it, they just do it. And in fairness to the coaches of the group, they usually have a decent amount of time committed to Games Based exercises such as a chase game to start, no mans land, rob the nest, a tackling game and matches. As soon as the training is finished, what do the kids do? They go back to the goals and resume their games. To the untrained eye, it looks like complete chaos, but the kids are developing so many additional skills by playing in that environment.

The role of the Coach is more about facilitation in this scenario. Facilitate the start of the games and the organising, and the coaching happens during the games. If a player is struggling with a technical aspect, you help him/her during the game while the rest of them carry on. Challenge the good players to work on new aspects and skills within the games and assist the weaker children with the simpler aspects. As children get older, ask questions about incidents in the games and see if they can figure out the solution rather than you telling them. They will always know when they make a mistake, how you deal with the mistake will dictate whether they learn from it or try to stricken it from memory.

We are lucky to get more than 1 hour a week coaching a group, we must ensure that children enjoy that hour and want to come again next week. Challenge yourself to ensure this happens with more child friendly sessions. The retention rate of a team can be traced back to the coach they had. Be that good Coach. #LetThemPlay


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