Laptops around the country had hardly shut down before the bush telegraph crackled into action.
Over 1,100 coaches logged onto the GAA’s Eamon O’Shea webinar on coaching last Tuesday, and the reaction was glowing. (“Fantastic,” said one of those coaches told this writer. “Practical. Superb. I could go on.”)
O’Shea’s background as a Tipperary hurler, manager and coach meshes nicely with his day job as Personal Professor in the School of Business & Economics at NUIG when it comes to online learning.
“It’s a challenge for any of us in the business of communication, whatever form that takes. It’s a bit strange to do a webinar when you’re sitting at home in your study and you have some ideas, a narrative, but you have no way of judging whether that narrative is landing.
“There are nuances you get from having people directly in front of you, obviously. When you’re speaking to people you can judge things better.
“You can say to yourself, ‘this is an interesting avenue to go down, maybe I should go further in that direction’, or the exact opposite - ‘they know enough about that’. That’s hard to judge online.
“It’s the same as being in class teaching, you get a sense of whether there’s a difficulty that needs to be teased out further. But online it can be hard to work out whether you’re actually making sense or just off on a complete solo run.
“And that’s something that applies to all our relationships now, that difficulty, because we’re social beings. We’re being practiced into being non-social beings, and it’s important to remember exactly what we are even with the constraints we’re working under.
“I’d hope those relationships aren’t damaged, but we have to work hard to make sure that doesn’t happen despite the physical distancing that’s necessary now.”
The response is typical O’Shea, an overall view leavened with common sense and a nod, as always, to hurling: hence the complete solo run. Lessons learned in the lecture theatre are applied on the coaching field.
“When you’re not on the pitch it’s obviously very difficult, because there’s two-way communication. That’s true of all interactions and communication - they go both ways, the communication isn’t just from teacher to student but from student to teacher and from player to coach.
“In my own work you get a lot from a student asking a question and interacting in class. It helps with your own thinking, and it’s the same on the pitch if you believe in working with the group.
“I’m old now, but I’m still learning how to get through to people, learning how people learn and communicate in the age of social media in particular. Kids talk about Instagram and so on, for instance, which I don’t do myself - but I have to know about them because I’m dealing with people who use them.
“You have to know how people get their messages, and people are very different in how they absorb information. We all know that.
“You might be out on the field giving a great speech to your team, but this lad over here has switched off because he prefers visuals.
“Therefore you have to do it differently with him. You might put him onto a one-minute video that would give the message, while another guy prefers music, he prefers a beat to help him take in the information.
“That can be difficult, but it’s also a learning experience for you as coach. Now there’s the element of responsibility - players can do a strength and conditioning session on their own, or head to the wall ball on their own, and they can do really good sessions - but you’re learning what’s important as a coach.”
So what is important as a coach, ultimately? ‘Guiding’ is a key term for O’Shea when it comes to coaching: “Think in terms of less is more, and of guiding players to understand the game, and their role in the game.
“And I’m not talking intercounty either, this is true of your U16s as well: you can have a half-hour session focusing on the skills but in that half-hour you can also drop in an idea or two for them to consider.
“Let them take those ideas and work with them, then. Don’t get too concerned as a coach about what you’re not doing, because anything you’re doing is worthwhile in terms of communication and connection. Guide them in a direction and let them interpret for themselves.” There’s also a basic question that coaches can ask themselves when it comes to their reasons for setting out the cones in the first place.
“I’d often say that the journey can be the rewarding part, even though sometimes that journey can be very short!
“But that journey has to be one where as the coach you’re trying to create not just . . . ‘mood’ isn’t the right word, and at the elite level it’s called ‘culture’, but just to illustrate the point: you can be coaching U12s and in the session think to yourself, ‘is this really fun here or are we just going through this as a grind?’ “Especially with young people - and amateur sport generally - we’re not highly paid professionals. We’re there to give something, to work with others, to create something interesting, exciting, or fun.
“I know ‘fun’ might sound a strange word, and in using it I don’t mean you don’t want to win your matches. There’s nothing wrong with that, or with being disappointed if you don’t win that match.
“But it’s also just a match. You go again. You should try to stay fairly consistent in what you believe in and also try to get better at the same time.
“I think the environment is key, and getting people around you who believe in the same thing, and making sure the group is a cohesive group - and that you’re learning all the time. But it doesn’t always entail a cup at the end of the year.
“Only one person gets that but you can still have a massively enjoyable experience without it, and by ‘you’ I mean coaches, parents and kids. Everyone.” Like everyone else, he’s at home picking through the classic games on television. Of course, some of those can be personal . ..
“It’s interesting for me to watch the 1980 All-Ireland, for instance because I was playing then, so I can remember those games. I was at games then and the flight of the ball going into the square generated fair excitement.
“I’m involved now and it can seem different. There’s still plenty of excitement being generated, but I can remember playing against Joe McKenna, for instance, and he scored three goals in a Munster championship game. That’s excitement. That’s brilliance. And I’d never knock that, it’s just different.
“You can see back then there was far more spontaneous pulling on the ball and you were depending on colleagues down the line to win the ball, whereas now players don’t tend to give the ball away like that because it’s harder to get it back, it’s a more of a possession game.”
Which isn’t to say players weren’t thinking their way through those games, as he says.
“I watched Eamonn Cregan in the 1980 game and he was trying nuanced ways to break down a good Galway defence, thinking his way through the game.
“The same with Noel Lane against Tipperary in the 1988 final, which was also on recently. He was opening up space to his right and wanted the ball there, so it would be wrong to say people playing then weren’t thinking about how to play the game.
“Another example? Iggy Clarke would be a superstar now because he had good positional sense, good movement, good balance, all you’d want.
“He wasn’t out of his time when he played, obviously, and he certainly wouldn’t be out of his time now.”
Is that down to technique? O’Shea has some good examples on that score.
“I read (Johann) Cruyff’s book again recently. Watching him when I was young was a revelation.
“At one level he understood the glory of the game, in the old-fashioned rather than the personal sense - that the game is all about glory.
“But he was also a person who had to be so dedicated to his craft - passing, kicking, everything - and it all shouted out, ‘I’ve put in the hard yards’. The same watching the Michael Jordan documentary, it shows what someone puts in to be the best.
“That got me thinking about what has changed in the GAA, but the player who’s dedicated to technique will always be at the top of his game, no matter what the decade is.
“We may change the structure or the movement, and the connectivity has changed: one time the full-back would clear the ball eighty yards, now he lays it off twenty yards, and we have to learn different ways to do that.
“But that’s still connectivity. Thinking about where you want the ball, as Noel and Eamonn did - that still matters.
“Fundamentals matter whether you’re Michael Jordan, Johann Cruyff, or a hurler. I watch a Joe Canning or a Patrick Horgan striking the ball and I’m watching the strike, listening for the sound.”
The fundamentals. Those never change.