When does winning become a priority?

When does winning become a priority?

In 1884 the GAA was founded by a group of spirited Irishmen who had the foresight to realise the importance of establishing a national organisation to make athletics more accessible to the masses and to revive and nurture traditional, indigenous sports and pastimes. 125 years after its founding, we must ask, how well do we honour the values of those men.

GAA clubs/counties by and large for a long time catered for the elite. It catered for the elite in county teams and it catered for the elite in club teams. If players were not up to the standard, they were thrown on the scrap heap. Call it the PR brigade or ‘snowflake’ generation but in the past decade I have noticed that GAA clubs are becoming a lot more inclusive, to persons of all abilities and skill levels.

The first introduction for most children to GAA these days is through schools coaching. This leads to children joining their local club at a young age. The Go Games model was instrumental in bringing GAA to the masses at child level. Clubs could play 7/9/11 a side teams at underage and could field multiple teams at any one time. The days of U10s playing 15 a side against one other team are gone.

One of the regular questions I get asked when visiting clubs or hosting workshops is “At what age do you start prioritising winning?”. For years, GAA prioritised winning over everything else. There has been a seismic change on that front in the recent past. Clubs are now much more conscious of treating the person as a whole and not just their sporting prowess. A lot of clubs have policies in place, where the child on the age gets priority game time over potentially better, younger players e.g. a 12-year-old will be given more game time with the U12s than a 10-year-old will.

What happened in the past was a very good 14-year-old might start in place of a not so good 16-year-old on the U16 team. This 16-year-old would then get little game time. This good 14-year-old may be playing Hurling and Football with the clubs U14 and u16 teams, might be on school teams at U14 and U15, might be on development squads at U14 level. (Beginning to see where Burn out becomes a factor?) So, over the course of a year this good 14-year-old player might end up playing 80-100 hours of matches. Whilst the not so good 16-year-old might only get 20 minutes here and there equating to 3-4 hours of game time in matches.

It is easy to see that the not so good 16-year-old would give up playing relatively soon. After all, he joined the club to play games. If he is not getting that opportunity, some other hobby might better cater for his interests and wellbeing. And, because the player was not so good, nobody in the club follows up with him to see if he will come back and continue playing. On the other side, the talented 14-year-old is slowly getting burnt out from playing too many games.

A lot of clubs have a simple policy where players on the age (or those who have no other age group to play for) get priority playing time where possible. Some clubs do this up to U14 level, some do it to U17/18 level. Some do it just for league games but when championship comes around, it is open season for mentors to play who they want. Some just put out the best team each day, regardless of age.

Each club has unique differences. Some clubs need 13-year olds to play U16, just so they can field a team. Other clubs have 3/4 teams at an age group and never need to bring younger players up, so what suits one club, may not be suitable for another.

What we find many times, is that novice coaches (those coaching their first team) are sometimes very focused on results. This comes from their belief that they are being judged as coaches, that people in the club are going to critique the quality of the coach based off his/her results at underage. Usually, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Creating a positive environment for your players and instilling strong values within the group in a fun and inclusive a setting, far exceeds results are underage level. Ensuring a sustainable program that is player centred with long term aim of keeping players involved in the club from child, through youth and into adult level should be a priority for each club.

Whilst GAA clubs strive to be as successful as they can on the pitch, it is possible for only one team in each grade to win the championship. This does not mean that all other clubs are failures. If we judge clubs on championship wins each year, then there will be a lot of negative feelings for a lot of clubs. Instead, we need to judge clubs on how it treats its members, not just its elite players. Ensuring each child has equal and fair game time all throughout child and youth level would be a start.

While some children might not be the best players on the team, it is crucial that clubs cater for these individuals as much as the elite players. The non-elite players at 13/14, could turn out to be the stronger players at 21/22, or they could end up being the best coach in the club, or they could end up being a referee for the club, or they could be the registrar/secretary/treasurer etc. If we kick kids to the side when they are young, we limit their chances of getting involved in the club at a later stage. Research shows that when players continue playing until 21 years of age in the club, they are more likely to play into their 30s.

Back to the original question, when does winning become a priority? For children, winning is always a priority but as a club, participation should be the priority with winning a positive side product.

Developing players, Step by Step

Arsene Wenger once used building a house as a similar method of player development. He said “The basement, you know, the basis of a player, is the technique. You get that between seven and 14 years of age. If you have no technical skill at 14, you can forget it. The first floor is the physical aspect of the player. Unfortunately, that is decided between 14 and 17, when you see, he will be quick enough, strong enough. The second floor is the tactical aspect; does he understand the game?” He then concluded that “the final part is decided at 18, 19 years of age, is ‘how much do I want to be successful?”
While he is speaking about the higher end talents, where small differences can be the difference between playing non-league or playing in the premiership, the analogy can be similarly attributed to skill development in GAA at club level.
Foundations: Laying the Foundations of a skill are as important as the Foundations in a house, without them the house falls and the same with Skill Development. The Foundations for a skill are being able to execute the skill competently under little or no pressure e.g. Kicking a Ball from a standing position. Once we have this done to a competent level, we need to start building.
Ground Floor: Executing the skill in a game under very little pressure is the next step. This could be something like 3 vs 1 kicking game, where the player in possession is executing the skill under little pressure but now must start making decisions on when to kick, where to kick, how high/low to kick etc.
First Floor: Progressing this to the next level is executing the skill under full pressure such as 3 vs 3 possession game with 3 passes allowing a team to kick for a score. The player needs to make runs to gain possession, needs to evade in order to release possession and needs to contest possession when the ball is passed to him. Verbal and non-verbal communication with teammates will improve in these types of games and activities.
Roof: This is executing the skill under pressure in a game situation. This is knowing when to pass, who to pass to, what type of pass to give etc. Examples of activities in training are simple 7 vs 7 matches on an 70m long pitch where players are only allowed kick-pass the ball.
With GAA, a lot of coaches tend to stay at the Foundation or Ground Floor level, doing uncontested drills. There seems to be a focus on the individual Skill development, to the detriment of the other facets which are necessary in matches. The player in possession needs to decide on a number of factors such as “Where to kick to”, “When to Kick”, “Who to kick to”, Which type of kick to give”, “How high or low should I kick it”, “Do I need to kick from my left or right”, “How hard should I kick it”, “How do I make sure I don’t get blocked down”, “How do I ensure it doesn’t get intercepted”. Only be replicating this scenario in training, will players be able to re-enact them in matches. We have all heard of the skilful players in training, but it doesn’t happen for them in matches. Are you as a coach giving that player a chance to progress? Are you moving to the first floor and finishing off the roof with the training content? Are you challenging them to get better?
To develop better players, we need to become better coaches. Challenging yourself as a coach to improve and become better will lead to a much better Coaching environment for you and for the players, where they can develop with each session.