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


Ball Wall and using the area

Note: This is a worksheet for a Hurling Ball Wall Workshop

The Hurling/Football wall is an excellent piece of infrastructure to assist clubs and mentors in essentially having the ability to train year round. Traditionally, the Hurling Wall has been used as a Drill heavy area where many repetitive exercises are done. There are lots of resources on Youtube and online where there is drill after drill of Ball Wall activities. I would ask that you utilise the Wall and the adjoining space differently, to engage the players mind, to challenge him or her in different areas of their game in a more holistic development, as opposed to isolated skill development. Here, I will outline how to mix in the traditional drills with more game based exercises that will develop a more rounded player.

I will use two distinct formats, the traditional “Off the Wall (OTW)” and a more games based “In the Area (ITA)”. I will move between both and show how the drill we used OTW can be then brought into a Games Based environment ITA.

  1. Handpassing
    • OTW: In groups of 3, the players line up 5m from the wall, one behind the other. Player 1 handpasses the ball off the wall and player 2 collects the ball, handpasses it off the wall and then player 3 collects and the group repeats.
    • ITA: Piggy in the middle, players keep the ball off the designated Piggy by handpassing only.
  2. Striking for a Catch
    • OTW: In groups of 3, same format as above but 10m from wall. Player 1 strikes the ball so that it bounces before the wall and then bounces up for player 2 to catch and repeat for player 3.
    • ITA: Piggy in the middle, players keep the ball off the designated piggy by Bounce passing (ball is struck into the ground before bouncing up to partners hand).
  3. Long Strike and collect
    • OTW: In groups of 3 with same format as above but 20m from wall. Player 1 strikes the ball low against the wall and runs into the ball to collect with first touch or catch if above knee. Handpass to player 2 who repeats.
    • ITA: Piggy in the middle, players keep the ball off the designated piggy by striking low and hard to partner, who is more than at least 10m away.
  4. High Catch
    • OTW: In groups of 3, player 1 throws the ball high against the wall, player 2 runs in and catches overhead. Player 2 then repeats for Player 3 and they repeat.
    • OTW: Same activity but this time the last player 3 will put on token pressure on player 2 while he is trying to catch the ball.
    • ITA: Player 1 hits the ball up between Players 2 and 3 who compete trying to win the high ball. The player who loses then becomes the passer and continue this.
  5. Side Step and Feint
    • OTW: In groups of 3 as above, player 1 starts on the 10m line. He passes the ball to player 2, standing on the 20m line, who must try to get past player 1 before striking the ball at the wall and collecting. He then passes to player 3. Player 2 is now the defender and player 3 is the attacker. Keep repeating. (Once the player in possession passes the 10m line, he wins, and the defender stops pressuring)
    • ITA: One player goes in goal and he hits the ball out between Player 2 & 3. Whichever player wins it must solo the ball past the 20m line before turning to try to go past his man and score a goal. Continue for 90 seconds, then rotate the goalkeeper.
  6. Jab Lift:
    • ITA: In groups of two. All the balls scattered around the area, player 1 is the designated picker whilst player 2 is the designated defender. Player 1 must try to jab lift as many balls in the 30 seconds as possible, whilst player 2 tries to stop him. Swap roles and repeat 2 times.
  7. Hooking:
    • OTW: In pairs, Player 1 runs out and jabs lifts a ball and tries to strike at the goals. Player two tries to hook. Player 1 continues running for 2 more balls and repeat. When this is done, players return to the start and swap roles.
  8. Games:
    • ITA: 3 vs 3 possession game. Whichever team has the ball after 1 min is the winner. Repeat vs different teams.
    • ITA: 2 vs 2 with 1 goalkeeper. Keeper pucks out the ball, whichever team wins the ball, they must try to score a goal after completing 2 passes. Whichever player scores goes in goals for the next possession and repeat. Players can only score by “Flicking” the ball into the goals
    • ITA: Criss Cross, make 4 teams with 2 pitches criss-crossing each other. Play for 3 minutes and whichever teams win, play each other and the losing teams play each other.
    • OTW: Players in one or two groups, depending on size of group. Each player starts with 3 lives. Player 1 hits the ball against the wall at a target (goal/between cones etc), next player has one touch, then a strike to do the same. If you miss, you lose a life. Last man standing is the winner.
    • OTW: Cross bar challenge as a fun game to finish up.

Coaching the Kick from the non dominant foot

One of the greatest challenges for club coaches is to coach the kick from the non dominant foot.
It is a skill that each player needs in their arsenal to ensure they can play to their full potential. Becoming a competent kicker from both feet will double a players options on the field of play. Instead of only being capable of kicking from one foot and limiting opportunities to one half of the pitch, we are now increasing these opportunities to the whole pitch and both sides equally.
Head, Hands, Feet is one of the most common coaching methods for executing a skill. So, for the kick with the non dominant leg, coaching tips would go along these lines:
Head: Scanning the pitch and where you want the ball to go whilst keeping your eye on the ball as you go to kick.
Hands: Ball is held in non dominant hand and is dropped to non dominant foot to kick the ball. Dominant hand is used to keep balance.
Feet: Step forward with dominant foot, kick the ball with the instep of the non dominant foot and follow through with the kick.

The only thing lacking from the above Head, Hands, Feet description is “Body Positioning”.
Body Positioning is as important as each of the other 3.
What you will notice once players become competent kicking the ball, is that players will start altering the way their body is positioned. For example, a child kicking with their dominant right leg, will start to angle their body slightly towards the right hand side. This can start with small angles before progressing to a full 90° angle for the “Hook Kick”. As children practice in a non controlled environment (in the garden, in school, before and after training etc) they will usually focus 90%+ on their dominant leg. They are developing muscle memory on their dominant side whilst doing this. When we then ask them to kick with their non dominant foot, their muscle memory kicks in and their body positioning reverts to what they do for their dominant foot.
As coaches, this is the important part that you need to be aware of. Kicking from the non dominant foot can actually become very easy for children, once they are shown the steps. They are essentially being asked to do the exact opposite of what they usually do.
So, for a dominant right sided player, the following changes are needed:
Instead of dropping the ball with their right hand, they are dropping it with their left hand.
Instead of body angled to the right, it is angled to the left.
Instead of stepping forward with the left leg, they are stepping forward with the right leg.
Instead of kicking with their right leg, they are kicking with their left leg.
Breaking down each of these parts is important for you and the player. If a child can do all of these correctly, then the opportunities to become truly 2 footed is there.
For future reference, instead of Head, Hands, Feet we will use “Body Position, Head, Hands, Feet”.

As the year ends, the learning continues

Coaching the GAAme firmly believe that learning and development as a coach is an on-going process and should never end, with opportunities for formal, non-formal and informal learning year round.

However, at the end of each season, Coaches are prone to putting all the gear and equipment into the shed and closing the book on another years coaching. Juvenile teams may do this after their end of year blitz, whilst teenage and adult teams shut up shop after their final knock out game of the season. Coaching and mentoring is then put to the back of the mind until January when everything kicks into gear again.

Are Coaches missing an opportunity to continue their learning and development through non formal and informal methods? This learning can begin with an end of year review. A meeting with fellow mentors can form one of these reviews. Finding out what went well, what didn’t go so well, areas to improve on and if you could go back 12 months, what would you have done differently? These form some of the questions that make up the discussion and feedback.

Depending on the age of the group (16+), a players meeting discussing similar topics and also finding out what areas they felt they could improve on, things they will do differently next year etc. And for younger groups (6-15 years) a joint parent/player review. This could be done in the form of a focus group with parents in small groups discussing topics and players doing similar. Just because the children are young, doesn’t mean they should not be listened to. They are the people that will eventually be voting with their feet, so it is important to know their thoughts and opinions.
Whilst, you may not agree or like everything that is said in the reviews, it is important to not view anything potentially negative as direct criticism but instead view it as an opportunity to become a better coach and learn from the feedback. On the flipside, if everything is largely positive, this does not mean you can sit back and relax, “Just because something works, does not mean it cannot be improved”.
The by product of doing reviews is that those who take part, will embrace the sense of ownership that is bestowed upon them. Rather than complain when things aren’t going well, they are now part of the solution. This type of parental/player involvement can be a very powerful ally.
As a mentor and coach, this is where the learning and development continues. Rather than starting from scratch next January with a blank page, you can start from an advanced position. Can you build on what you learnt and achieved this year and take all that on board for next year. Arsene Wenger used the analogy of how building a house is similar to building a player. You build layer after layer at different times of the players development. Coaching is the same. Last year, you put down the foundation, this year you are building the ground floor. Be proactive in your planning and build long term targets for long term gains.

The Club Nursery (4-7 year olds)

The Club Nursery, along with Primary School Coaching are the Foundation on which every GAA Club is built. The stronger and better those two are, then the stronger base the GAA Club will have.

Reasons for having a Club Nursery are many and we will outline a few here:

  1. A place where there is a Fun environment for children.
  2. A place where Fundamental Movements can be practiced.
  3. A place for the children to play in a structured and safe environment.
  4. A place for children to learn about playing in team games.
  5. A place where skills are introduced and developed at an age appropriate rate.
  6. A place for children to develop an identity with their local club.
  7. A place where families become ingrained in the culture of Gaelic Games.

These are just some of the benefits to having a Nursery in your club. With more clubs now aiding in their local Primary Schools, having a Club Nursery is an important side product of this. Primary School Coaching is very much about introducing Children to Gaelic Games and the Club is where the children continue their skill development.

An important factor of the Skill Development is to focus on making it as enjoyable as possible. If children enjoy it, they will want to do more of it. Children at this age are still experimenting and want to “Play”, so it is important that “Play” becomes a large part of the Nursery Program. Children want to have a ball at all times. They go to the Nursery to Play. They don’t go to the Nursery to wait in line while other kids play with the ball. Every child should have a ball or be playing a game in which, they are trying to get the ball.

Every skill needed that a 4-7 year old needs, can be learnt and developed in Fun Games. Games like “No Mans Land” will focus on Catching and Kicking the Ball. If a child needs further assistance in any of those skills, the coach can take the child to the side of the game for 1 on 1 coaching. You don’t need a drill for this. The Bounce and Pick up can be learnt in a game like “Rob The Nest”. Again, where a child is struggling, the coach can pull to the side and do 1 on 1 coaching whilst everyone else continues to play. In Hurling, stopping a moving ball and striking can be developed in a game like “No Mans Land”. Dribbling and eventually the Jab/Roll Lift can be developed in a game like “Rob The Nest”. Straight Line Drills are not needed. But what is needed is lots of Balls and Equipment. The Balls don’t have to be official GAA Balls, any type of ball will do. Sponge, plastic, leather etc, the kids don’t discriminate against balls.

The other side product of starting the kids young in the Nursery, is the opportunity of getting parent involvement and a greater chance to up skill the potential coaches over a longer period. Like a child starting at 4 vs a child starting at 8, it will take a while for the late starter to catch up. The same with coaches. A coach who gets a 4-year head start in coaching, has much greater time to be up skilled by the club and to also continue to up skill themselves outside of the club setting. Trial and error of things early in their coaching journey will be easily rectified.

The Clubs involvement in the Nursery is very important and the club should ensure that they have their best coaches and best Coach Educators spending quality time with this group. If Clubs can up skill their mentors and their players in the Nursery, it will lead to a fruitful harvest in the club for many years to come. It is an area often neglected by many clubs as there is no silverware won at these age groups, but the foundation of future enjoyment and maybe success can be started here.

For those interested in Coaching in Nursery or currently doing so, we have released a Pocket-Sized Nursery Coaching Manual which will help all coaches especially novice Coaches. There are several Games for Fundamental Movements, Hurling and Football. Everything is Games Based and from using these Games already it leads to far greater engagement and enjoyment for the children.

To purchase, visit: