Development squads offer more than those on outside may think

Participants in the Hike Hungry Hill fundraiser for Kieran O’Connor, the former Aghada and Cork senior footballer who is battling Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare form of cancer. Picture: Anne Marie Cronin

I got a phone call during the week from a father whose son was involved in a football development squad up the country. He described his young lad as being ‘lean and scrawny’ but a good footballer who was playing multiple different sports. He sounded like your typical active teenager.

Basically, he was looking to get my perspective on how other counties ran their academies because his son wasn’t progressing as quickly as he thought he would. He was referring primarily to his physical development and he thought the strength and conditioning side of the development squads would ‘bulk him up’ quicker. It was a real eye-opener.

When John Horan took over as president of the association last year, he wanted to look at the whole area around these squads, and there is a national review concluding at the moment which examined different aspects of how counties run their academies.

I’ve long held the view that all counties should receive more support in terms of the content they deliver as opposed to just basic guidelines on the number of sessions and games they are permitted per group.

There needs to be a greater uniformity of expertise spread throughout the country so that every county is receiving a similar level of help to guide their coaches towards delivering the very best practice in terms of what they are working on with players on and off the field.

There should also be greater transparency and publicity about what exactly goes on within these development squads.

If parents of kids who are actually playing with the squads don’t fully understand the purpose, it’s probably time for the GAA to bring some clarity to what has become an area of the association which is tinged with misinformation.

We’re constantly being told that development squads are inherently elitist and as a consequence, negative.

They are commonly misrepresented as being about creating muscle-bound robots, who drink protein shakes for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and are forced to practise their hand-passing and tackling drills for hours on end.

We’re told that players on the squads are sequestered away from their clubs and must agree to never play or even watch another sport again (okay, I made that last bit up but you get the picture). It’s all nonsense.

It’s a perception that has been created to suit the narrative of the wider issue with the promotion of elitism within the association.

Of course, there’s a certain element of truth to it depending on your context, but it shouldn’t be the predominant take away from a well-run development squad programme.

There are a number of hugely positive elements that very rarely receive the type of publicity they deserve. While the focus of the squads is obviously on the players, improving the volunteer coaches by exposing them to enhanced and concentrated coach education is a significant by-product.

Those coaches should be getting up-to-the-minute best practice information about how to create the type of environment that allows players to flourish and also have their own community of practice going on where they can exchange ideas with other like-minded people.

Ultimately, those coaches go back to their own clubs and improve the standard of what is being done at the grassroots level.

It should be a priority for counties to concern themselves with developing their coaches through the squad system as much as the players.

Squads can do some winter work, which is indoors. The purpose of such sessions is about improving their mobility, flexibility, and core strength and is specifically geared towards injury prevention as opposed to developing big guns for tight t-shirts.

The players practise once a week on the field on a Saturday morning during the summer and the focus of those sessions is all about developing good decision makers with a two-sided skillset. It is certainly not about getting players playing to some kind of a prescribed rigid system that restricts their ability to be creative and independent thinkers on the field.

In Kerry, the players on the squads are also exposed to a broad range of different educational workshops throughout the summer in a concerted effort to take a more holistic view of the whole process.

The idea being, even if they never go on to play for the county team, they will take something positive from their experience.

They’ll get everything from nutritional information and how to do some basic cookery, to having an opportunity to hear from current inter- county players about the

importance of finding a healthy balance between your commitment to the game, being an ambitious student and enjoying life at the same time.

Development squads have their flaws, but there is no doubt, if run well by good people, they also have the potential to have a very positive impact in the GAA.

The emphasis should always be on development: having a wide net to improve coaches, players, strength and conditioning people, and eventually counties will benefit from that best practice trickling its way down to the clubs at grassroots level.

I’m not sure my caller got what he was looking for, but his call certainly highlighted a need for counties to be more open to sharing information about why and how these squads operate.

If they did, it would go some way to dispelling some of the myths and negative perception that exists around them.

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