A look inside Ireland's first Multiskillz Academy in Nenagh

Ireland’s first Multiskillz Academy is helping children develop key skills in a fun way, writes Nuala Woulfe.

A look inside Ireland's first Multiskillz Academy in Nenagh

Ireland’s first Multiskillz Academy is helping children develop key skills in a fun way, writes Nuala Woulfe.

Ireland’s first Multiskillz Academy, to help children become skilful in catching, passing, jumping, throwing, and having spatial awareness has been set up in Nenagh, Co Tipperary, by Frank O’Keefe, an international tennis player and organiser of the weekend programm.

According to Mr O’Keefe, vital co-ordination skills, which should be honed before puberty, are being eroded “with the overwhelming influence on screen time” as children spend more time indoors.

“I was coaching children in tennis and some of them didn’t seem to have the basic skills that I thought they should have for their age and I started wondering, what’s going on? Why are kids losing abilities? I started to do some research and I came across Multiskillz, which was developed in Belgium by tennis and strength and conditioning coach Kenneth Bastiaens.

Multiskillz is a new and unique method to help children, regardless of their current ability to develop motor skills, speed, balance, and co-ordination, abilities that will stay with them through life but which are important to develop when you’re young

Tipperary is the first place in Ireland to run the course and Mr O’Keefe has also started to demonstrate the programme in some Munster primary schools.

The programme of fun, playful drills using cones, balloons, balls, and hoops for those aged 4-12 lets children work in teams, regardless of abilities. Mr O’Keefe explains that the programme can be used by children who may have co-ordination difficulties, along with children who have more developed skills so parents need not worry that any child stands out or feels awkward.

“All activities are coded for the child; the programme challenges them all the time but in a fun way. With 4- to 5-year-olds, we could be giving them balloons while they run, they think they’re just having fun, I know we’re helping them develop fine motor skills. About two-thirds of kids coming are involved in other sports but the rest, parents are saying, are not involved in any sports.

“We need to realise that you don’t need to be good at sports to do activity, but the idea is Multiskillz will help children progress to any sport that interests them in the future,” says Mr O’Keefe.

“If we’d been aware that there was such a thing as Multiskillz, I don’t think we would have had to go to any other activities, they learn so much but it’s structured in such a way kids think they’re just having a good time,” says Natasha Harty whose daughters, Abigail, 8, and Chloe, 5, Murtagh are both fans of the programme.

There’s lots of games, one of the things we had to do was practise with balloons at home to learn how to control them more

- says Abigail.

“I do basketball and the balloons help me play better,” says Chloe.

All-over strength Stephanie Coughlan, from Nenagh, has two sons Harry, 7, and Max, 6, who do Multiskillz. A pharmacist, she’s training to be an amatsu therapist (whole body soft tissue therapy), “where there’s also that reasoning about the need for kids to hit key developmental milestones”.

Although her boys play a good bit of sport, including hurling and tennis, she feels they’d be naturally, “overly dependent on the right side” and thinks they’re already benefitting from all-over Multiskillz strengthening.

“The instructor makes stuff fun and there’s a lot of hand-eye co-ordination. They just did a session where they balanced a ball on a towel and said it was the coolest obstacle course ever. What I like about this programme is that kids of all abilities take part, nobody gets left out; everybody has fun.”

Stephanie says she grew up on an estate where she “skipped, climbed, played hopscotch, and rode bikes but the world is changing. Now people are looking at ways to get their kids moving and off screens. We’re just like any family — we’ve Xbox, my kids would be on screens too, but I live in the real world, sometimes it’s Ireland and it’s a rainy day. I think as long as we have balance it’ll be OK and all we can do as parents is the best we can with the information we have.”

Sports psychologist consultant and equestrian athlete Aoife Quinn says there’s evidence that when children have less time “to play generally” and specialise early in a sport, it can result in “reduced motor skill development” — programmes that focus on multi skills could be useful.

She says research into screen use and impaired motor development is only beginning, but “we do have an issue that kids are finding it hard to write or hold a pen because they’re so clued in to screens. There’s nothing wrong with technology, it has its use but worldwide children are exceeding recommended screen time, we need children moving but we also need to understand why are kids disengaging from sport and over-using screens.”

Frank O’Keefe says adults “just expect children today to know how to catch, throw, jump, or have spatial awareness”, but they don’t. “Children sometimes only get to throw a ball in school or once a week at training, the art of catching, kicking or throwing a ball is being lost. Our motto at Multiskillz is moving is winning, life is not all about winning medals or cups and activity doesn’t have to be about competition.”

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