Forget systems, coaching should always be about the players and never the coach

I’m conscious that I write about coaching on these pages quite a lot, but it’s not the case that I’m claiming to be some sort of all-seeing, all-knowing Oracle.

I write about coaching because I’m passionate about it and appreciate how powerful it can be when it is done well.

I take great enjoyment from seeing people showing a desire to improve and deliver a better-quality environment for young people to develop while playing sports.

At it’s core, sport is supposed to be about physical activity and skill where an individual, or team, compete against each other for enjoyment and entertainment. Sport has always been a microcosm of real life. The lessons you learn competing between the white lines will often become internalised over time and will help guide and assist long after you’ve finished playing the game.

Life pillars like dealing with adversity, honesty, integrity, respect, fair play and so many more can be fostered within a healthy sport environment. Those ideals are the base layers of competition and their acquisition is far more important than what the scoreboard says at the last whistle.

I know that sounds fluffy and unrealistic, but there are so many learning opportunities to be gained and developed from playing sports that have nothing to do with the final outcome.

Does that mean you don’t compete to win? Of course not. But it’s important for coaches to remain aware of the bigger picture.

Towards the back end of last week, an secondary schools football game between St Patrick’s Maghera and Abbey CBS from Newry hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons. The game finished 0-2 points to 0-1. That’s right… there were only three points scored after 60 odd minutes of play.

A short video emerged of Abbey CBS with all 15 of their players back inside their 45-yard line, just sitting there trying to suck their opponents onto them. They were making no attempt to win the ball back or even engage with the opposition. Having only seen the two-minute video bouncing around social media since Friday, I admittedly don’t know the full context of the game, but reports have since revealed how they played much the same way for the majority of the contest.

St Patrick’s, for their part, seemed content to knock the ball around outside the mass defence, under no pressure whatsoever. Players were able to drop the ball, take their time picking it back up, kick across to the next guy, pull out a sun lounger, read a newspaper, and repeat.

Their lack of offensive urgency was more understandable given what they were faced with, but it was equally farcical and maddening that they weren’t even trying to break it down.

I’d like to be crystal clear and point out that the two sets of players involved in the game are completely irrelevant in my view.

These were kids representing their school and only doing what they were instructed to do by a coach or manager who completely lost sight of what youth sport is supposed to represent.

And again, I have no interest in trying to vilify any individual here either. I don’t know who was involved with coaching either side, and their identity is completely unrelated to the wider point.

If you are coaching Gaelic football, or any sport for that matter, particularly at underage level, and your main priority is forcing kids to play in a ‘system’ that focuses on negating the opposition as opposed to giving your own players the opportunity to express and explore their own talents and abilities, you are better off packing in coaching.

Really, it’s not a system at all. There is no great tactical nous attached to getting a bunch of 15-year-olds to run back inside their 45-yard line whenever they don’t have the ball.

Do we ever think about the reason why teams bring so many bodies behind the ball? They are effectively saying that their defenders are incapable of stopping the opposition forwards by themselves.

Instead of investing so much time working on a negative style of play, why not challenge the kids to become better defenders. Why not coach them to use proper tackling techniques.

Teach them about good body position when isolated one on one.

Put them in situations in practice where they learn to move their feet to stay in front of their attacker.

Give them the basic guidelines to become better team defenders rather than dropping the entire troop back inside the 45 every time you fear a quality opposition.

Or better still, why not use your coaching sessions to look at ways of breaking down the mass defence. Everybody is so focused on stopping teams, while not enough effort is put into breaking it down.

Encourage players to take on the man when the opportunity is there. Work on their shooting and their support play. Show them videos of the way Dublin forwards make space and loop around the ball to create an easier scoring opportunity for themselves.

There remains a minority of coaches up and down the country trapped in this negative mindset, who allow their own ego to get in the way of what their role is supposed to be about.

A coach is supposed to create the type of environment, particularly for children and youths, to develop both as people and players.

It’s meant to be about empowering those under your leadership to strive to make the best of themselves, both on the field and off it.

Coaching was never meant to be about turning a game that is inherently challenging and enjoyable into something rotten because a coach is trying to meet some imaginary stereotype of being a tactical genius who outsmarts the opposition management at U12 level.

I would love for players, parents and supporters within schools, clubs and even counties to voice their displeasure with this type of nonsense in the right way. Talk to the school principal or contact the club executive. Better again, get involved yourself and volunteer to do it better.

None of the trial rules advanced in the national league tackle the root cause of the negative tactics within Gaelic football directly enough to affect a long-term change to the way the game is played.

If we are to be serious about opening the game up, it will demand a restriction being placed on the number of players allowed to retreat back inside the defensive 65-yard line.

To put it another way, every team must always keep a minimum of 4 players up inside their attacking 65. That keeps it easy for the referee to monitor and it reduces the defending team to a maximum of 11 players they can have behind the ball.

I believe the introduction of that rule would make a significant impact on the game, but getting rid of those overly negative minded coaches would be far more beneficial to the sustainable appeal of the game for players and supporters alike. That only happens if you speak out and get involved.

Coaching should always be about the players and never the coach.

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