Cuthbert: Secondary schools should be academies of the future

Former Cork football manager Brian Cuthbert has proposed an overhaul of the under-age coaching mechanisms in the GAA in which designated secondary schools would become inter-county academies.

Picture: Inpho/James Crombie

The principal of Bishopstown primary school, Scoil an Spioraid Naoimh, is in the third year of a PhD study in UCC’s Department of Sports Studies and Physical Education under the supervision of Dr Fiona Chambers.

Last night he delivered an address – Modelling Best Practices in Talent Academies – to the GAA coaching conference in Croke Park, which was partly related to his study on how GAA academies support the holistic development of elite youth Gaelic footballers and hurlers.

Cuthbert, who led Cork in 2014 and ’15, breaks down the definitions of talent identification and talent development, which are the premises for GAA academies.

His core principle is that individual athletes’ abilities can be affected through processes, which are influenced by relationships such as those between the coach, the athlete and the coach and between coaches. They in turn, can be swayed by the governance of talent development.

He addresses the nature v nurture argument and points to the conclusions now realised by the likes of Australian expert Dr Stephen Cobley that achievement is no longer considered to be “singularly determined by genes or the environment. Human achievement is now represented in the literature by models of gene-environment interaction”.

It’s Cuthbert’s belief that players from U17 down are governed by one body, the coaching and games unit within the county.

While different entities would be delegated various responsibilities within that unit, the buck would stop with one person.

It’s logical, he says, to assign schools as academies. “In terms of developing academies, the model suggests that despite the many idiosyncrasies visible across the country, the most obvious place where development could take place is in the second level schools. These should be the academies of the future. In most counties, five or so schools provide the majority of prospects to the county academies. It makes little sense extracting them from a setting that can perfectly accommodate development and instead, trying to build a system within a county that may suffer from the issues associated with talent development.

“So, what I am suggesting is that these schools become the academies in many instances, and counties provide these schools with the necessary tools so as to aid appropriate development.

“By doing so, you automatically are creating a new approach to talent identity and development – the catchment is far greater plus the level of influence is much improved since prospects are in situ for 150-plus days in the year.”

In a county the size of Cork, regular weeknight and weekend academy sessions have put a strain on both players and parents.

Schools would remedy that, Cuthbert points out. “You have now eliminated travel, which in some counties is a huge burden on families.”

Schools would also elongate the assessment process

. As he explains: “Most importantly, de-selection now should not happen until much later so a more informed decision can be made on who actually are the most talented players. Don’t forget, the earlier you enter a talent regime, more than likely, the earlier you will exit.” Cuthbert cites three major strands as comprising his model – coaching and mentoring, sports science and medicine and psychosocial skill development.

As Physical Education soon becomes a Leaving Cert subject, the possibility of making such a proposal a reality will grow stronger and Cuthbert envisages the sports science element being co-ordinated by a specialist.

He recommends the roles of county management teams altering slightly to accommodate work with GAA development officers “to support teachers and club coaches to deliver the necessary coaching to prospects at the local level. They could, of course, take sessions in the school or the club and help drive standards this way.

“When school finishes in the summer, they can obviously prepare for the associated competition but this no longer becomes really relevant with the suggested approach.”

Cuthbert also sees former elite players contributing as mentors in the schools.

He suggests development of these teenagers’ psycho-social skills being incorporated in the PE syllabus under the well-being umbrella.

“It would imply that through fieldwork and classwork, prospects would develop commitment, control, communication, concentration and confidence.

“These skills would be transferable to other areas of the prospects lives whilst also equipping them to make the necessary psychological transition to becoming an elite Gaelic footballer.”

Cuthbert is mindful of those who won’t make the transition to senior elite inter-county football but highlights the strengths they will have gained from being part of a school-based academy.

“It will allow those who don’t make the jump to senior elite inter-county football to have developed a level of confidence and resilience so that de-selection becomes more manageable in terms of remaining in the sport and not struggle with self-identity.

“In adopting such an approach, the GAA would be an organisation like no other in terms of providing youths with a sound holistic approach to their sporting and personal development.”

Cuthbert cites Kerry captain Fionn Fitzgerald’s Relative Age Effect (RAE) findings that 73% of elite adolescent Gaelic footballers are born in the first six months of the year.

However, he also points out recent research in two sports in the UK where there was evidence that the number of players transitioning from academy to adult level were more representative of the latter half of the year despite the presence of RAE at initial entry into the academy – “the RAE bias does not present at senior elite level despite its presence at academy level”.

That discovery backs up his conviction that school
provides the best environment to nurture GAA playing talent because “the ultimate selection of the talented is delayed and prospects are allowed to develop at their own pace within a ‘safe’ environment”.


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