Are times changing? There is a feeling in the air that changes are afoot. The groundswell of admonishment that normally follows vanquished teams after a weekend of championship action was somewhat more diluted last weekend than is usually the case.
Are we finally beginning to see a shift towards process-oriented analysis with some recognition that what we see on the field of play is not always reflective of what is important for a county’s development and progression? A perfect example of this was seen in Monday’s edition of this paper, where Conor McCarthy detailed the steps that lie ahead for Cork football.
As he said himself, the quality of the performance last Saturday evening in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, even in defeat to Kerry, probably helped his case, as he argued the need to stay with Ronan McCarthy and his backroom team at least through to the end of their term. But even if the performance had been less inspiring, you have a feeling he would still have called for the county to stay strong with their current appointments.
Because of the recognition that the wheels of change are finally moving forward for Cork. Though they may be slow right now and significantly behind other counties, the current regime are not to blame and deserve their chance to experience the inter-county environment with good structures in place.
In addition, the players also deserve a degree of stability and an opportunity to experience what it’s like to develop and progress without the constant feeling of disruption and upheaval lurking around the corner. If Cork are finally beginning to conduct their business off the field in a manner that will see them fulfil their potential on it, then it will need the gift of time from all quarters, to have any chance of success.
So many match reports from last weekend’s action in the football championship mentioned ‘a step in the right direction’, even after a loss. For example, both Derry and Down went the way of pre-match predictions and lost to Laois and Mayo respectively, but both performances were seen as a step in the right direction for two counties who’ve been struggling in recent years.
It is no coincidence that both counties are also amidst critical restructuring and implementation of strategic plans to see them bring some consistency back for their fans to enjoy. There’s that process before results paradigm once again. Maybe it’s not a cliché after all.
One result meant the end of the road for a manager after Monaghan’s defeat to Armagh. Malachy O’Rourke retires after seven seasons at the helm and again the resounding feeling this week is that it was an excellent tenure after two Allianz League promotions, retaining Division 1 status for the last five years, two Ulster titles and respectable runs, over the last two years, in the championship to a quarter-final and a semi-final.
However, there are some salient points for consideration in this story also. Monaghan are over a decade into a long-term plan for development of players from their underage academy through to the senior set-up. First came their commitment to a centre of excellence, followed by a school-led initiative around skill development, supported by a countywide strength and conditioning programme that started with the fundamental principles of movement and physical preparation.
Finally, and possibly most importantly, is their commitment to coach education and coach mentoring. Former players were only drafted into the underage inter-county scene after they had shown a genuine interest in becoming a coach. No one was going to be asked twice. Playing history was a secondary consideration, and a bonus if it was present, suggesting an understanding of how playing and coaching are very different skills. A lesson some counties still have to learn.
Next, they were supported through their coach education journey and encouraged to coach at a club level with younger players while also being included in the background of the inter-county academy grade. This form of mentoring, while also providing a pathway of succession, is a proven model in other sports — basketball being a standout in this regard.
Furthermore, anyone who has attended some of the many coaching conferences that now populate the annual calendar across the country will be familiar with the heavy presence of Ulster counties, notebooks at the ready. Monaghan GAA make up a lot of these numbers. Then again, Ulster GAA has always had a rich coach education philosophy. One only needs to check out their online resources to see the extent of their investment in coach education.
Moreover, this all suggests that long-term thinking and succession planning takes time and patience from everyone involved, through the dark early days of a new dawn.
There is no doubting the challenge to committees to support a struggling coach, when even the dog on the street is suggesting they should be moved on. Yet, maybe the strong move — in fact the correct move — is to double down on the coach in the hot seat and provide them with support in the area or areas where they are coming up short.
The job of a coach is often a thankless task, and the higher up the level one progresses and the more public the performances, the more apparent are the weaknesses. So go after the weaknesses, have the hard conversation, and suggest that a specialist coach comes in for a few sessions.
These sessions can be on the obvious tactical elements of the game, attack or defence, but they may also be on the more subtle areas of the sport, such as communication with the players pre-game, post-game or at half-time.
It is worth mentioning that this is not a quick fix either. Do not make the mistake of bringing someone in for one session and thinking the job is done. Nothing is ever that simple. Commit to a minimum of three sessions where the outside eye has a real opportunity to add value to what is happening.
Whenever a team is struggling, the easy thing to do is to look at the results and make a quick decision. But it is far more rewarding to instead look at the performance and all the variables that potentially contribute to it. The traditional hurler on the ditch, who has no skin in the game, will always play the role of ‘the spotter’ with aplomb, because they’ll always hedge their bets, suggesting they’d love to be proven wrong.
Make way for ‘the fixer’ in the conversation, someone who is prepared not only to offer suggestions for improvement, but to also offer their time, experience and expertise to the implementation process.
Coaching science has two terms in this regard, knowledge of performance and knowledge of results. The aforementioned dog on the street can read a scoreboard and tell you the result of the game. But they will offer little more when asked how to make amends, especially if they’re asked to show what they mean. They are your quintessential ‘knowledge of results’ merchant.
‘Knowledge of performance’ requires a greater understanding of the process and goes to the result only as an afterthought, because of a deep understanding that if the process is out of kilter, the scoreboard will need a healthy serving of luck for the result to be right.
If ‘the process’ has survived the threat of becoming a cliché, then better times lie ahead for teams and sports across the country. Even if more dark days need to be endured first.