On Sunday in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, a Youth Health Forum was Cork GAA’s first step in dealing with the pressures and stresses piling up on elite young players.
Run in conjunction with Red FM, more than 250 young hurlers, footballers, camogie players and ladies footballers attended — as well as more than 70 coaches and parents.
Cork senior hurler Stephen McDonnell described his journey from playing for Cork as an U14 player to lifting a Munster senior title as captain.
Sports Performance coach Stephen Casey talked about lifestyle and nutrition. Conor Quinlan, a psychotherapist, looked at mindset and mental state and coping mechanisms for young people under pressure.
Clinical psychologist Dr Jennifer Hayes gave a presentation to parents and coaches focused on the minds of young teenagers and how mentors can recognise and deal with the challenges they face.
While Cork ladies football legends Rena Buckley and Brid Stack talked a lot about the need to maintain a love for the games. And one of Cork’s most experienced and regarded coaches, Eamonn Ryan, focused on dealing with players as people; how to manage the good and not so good, how to handle players who aren’t interested, or players you have
to drop or discipline.
Des Cullinane, Children’s Officer with the Cork County Board talked about the initiative on Monday’s Examiner Sport GAA Podcast. You can listen here from 27 minutes.
“When we’re trying to develop Cork players, we look after them from the point of view of skills,” Cullinane, who is also a school principal, said.
“We teach them how to play hurling, football, ladies football, camogie; we give them a small bit of tactical awareness; but we don’t focus on the long-term plan to keep these 14-year-olds involved in Cork sport up to the age of 25, 26, 27.
“There's a huge amount of pressure on young people that can impact on their sporting careers. We’re looking at the full package and how we can help them get through that journey and come out of it at 19/20 as a serious hurler, footballer, camogie player or ladies footballer.”
At the event, McDonnell spoke powerfully for almost an hour to young players who’d love one day fill his boots.
“Stephen shared the ups and downs and challenges he faced as a Cork player,” Cullinane says.
“There were a lot of external factors which impacted on him as a player. Things that coaches would never have been aware of. Stuff in his family life or at school. Or just things in the back of his head that on any given day could impact on him. He talked about anxiety, all that kind of thing.
“You often don’t know what that player went through that morning or the night before.
“A coach now is a performance manager. You can‘t just turn up with cones and expect people to do a session for 45 minutes.
“To get the maximum out of them, you have to prepare and you have to know your players and what makes them tick. That’s not something we teach our coaches how to do.”
It hasn’t always been done right in Cork’s underage squads, Cullinane freely admits.
“As children’s officer, my first year, I got a lot of complaints from parents that the coaches were too demanding. That they were communicating poorly with them.
“We had cases where kids were dropped by text message. We had a case where a guy who played in a tournament wasn’t notified for the medal presentation. Genuine mistakes, and I’m not blaming the coaches. But if you’re that young person, and you’re a bit unsure about how good you are, that can be quite traumatic.
“So we are seeking to improve communication. When you increase the stress levels of players, they certainly don’t perform. Some very good players will disappear because they lack confidence, because there are other issues going on in their life. They mightn’t have a structure in their life which allows them come to training. It’s the ability to recognise these things and do something about it.
“It could be the difference between keeping an U14 hurler who could be the next Patrick Horgan or Conor Lehane and losing that person
“That’s what we’re striving for. It’s a lofty ideal, but it’s a work in progress.”
Naturally, parents have an important role to play too.
“Most parents are brilliant, the amount of time they spend driving players places is phenomenal. But there are parents who have unrealistic expectations of their kids and put them under pressure.
“That pressure doesn’t always help in the development of the child.
“For 14-, 15-, 16-year-olds, you have to give them a small bit of space to grow. There are kids who will be brilliant at 14, and that will be the highpoint of their sporting career. But there will be late developers as well who will get better and better if you allow them to flourish. And that's a big challenge if you’re under pressure to deliver medals and trophies.
“We put a lot of our coaches under pressure. If Cork don’t win the Humphrey Kelleher (U15 football) or the Tony Forristal (U14 hurling) we’re saying we’re not successful.
“But if you track the players who won tournaments underage, the vast majority of them never come through. And you have to ask yourself why do we lose an awful lot of guys who win Féile na nGael medals, who win under U15 titles. Why are we not keeping them?
“And the point is there is too much pressure being put on those players, too young. They are also given an elevated status too young. They are the 'dream team'. That pressure can be very hard to take, especially in a county like Cork where we are desperate for success.
“Every team is going to be the next great team. But you really have to take the long-term development plan.
“It‘s something we are very conscious of in Cork. We’re looking at an advisory group that will keep an eye on things and advise people when they are under stress, or playing too many games.”
Two Cork schools in this week’s Harty Cup final and two more in the Munster B colleges hurling final is an indicator of the fine work being done underage.
“It’s absolutely brilliant. I don’t think it will be the panacea for our underage hurling problems, but it an indication that Cork hurling is alive and well and the strategies that were put in place a couple of years ago at underage are now paying off.
“But there is still a long way to go. We need to be back in Croke Park for an All-Ireland at U20 or U17 and certainly at senior level.
“It’s phenomenal how much work is being done in the schools, in development squad level, in the clubs. And really what we need to do is join that up and work together instead of working in different directions. If we do I’m sure there is a healthy future for Cork underage.”