Donegal were there in the shape of Karl Lacey, a coach in Declan Bonner’s new management team. Former inter-county bosses James Horan and Aidan O’Rourke were also sitting up in the bleachers, while from hurling, Clare’s Donal Moloney as well as members of the Tipperary and Limerick backrooms made the trip out to Abbotstown.
Tellingly, no county was better represented at the event than Dublin themselves. As well as Gavin, who sat in on a good deal of the earlier sessions, Jason Sherlock intermingled among the 400-plus delegates, while from the Dublin ladies football management team, Ken Robinson was soaking up further knowledge, indicative of that group’s desire for further success.
Yet for all the coaches and service providers that were there, the thought struck us that such a knowledge-gathering and sharing expedition out to the National Sports Campus would have been even more beneficial to GAA administrators or whoever it is that is supposed to be responsible for the long-term strategic development of the games in their own particular county.
Their equivalents from other sports were in attendance. From Swim Ireland, for instance, their new performance director John Rudd gave a keynote presentation while CEO Sarah Keane sat in on many of the other sessions outside of her own contribution to a panel discussion on leadership in Irish sport.
There they’d have absorbed as well as imparted some nuggets on best practice. Dr Kate Baker, the lead performance pathways scientist for the English Institute of Sport, spoke about how Team GB are only directing 60 percent of their current investment towards Tokyo 2020; 40 percent is going towards preparations for Paris 2024.
Finbarr Kirwan, the Bishopstown-born high performance director now working with the United States Olympic Committee, was looking even further, towards 2028. With the games back in LA, he and his colleagues are now all the more closely monitoring and supporting the current national junior squad as those 14, 15 and 16-year-olds will likely be the prospective medallists of 2028.
Such thinking has already permeated some parts of Irish sport. James O’Callaghan, the high performance director of Sailing Ireland, reminded us how the sport was considered toxic in this country when he assumed that post in 2005. And yet it did not deter him from dreaming big. Within months of his appointment, he’d established the goal and the vision of an Irish sailing team standing on the podium at the 2012 Olympics.
Resources were deliberately invested into emerging young talent, such as a kid from Rathfarnam called Annalise Murphy; if anything, O’Callaghan reckons, Sailing Ireland went over the Team GB model of 60-40, by investing as much in preparations for London as the more imminent games in Beijing.
As we all know, Murphy fell just short of medalling in 2012. Which is why she medalled in 2016. It didn’t happen just by accident. As Kirwan put it, “Medals happen by design, not by accident.” There is a direct correlation between good governance and performance.
And yet in the GAA too few counties – and clubs – have made that connection. The odd manager, like a Jim McGuinness, might think in terms of Olympic cycles but county boards rarely do.
A lot of it is mindset, a lot of it is cultural and part of it is structural too. Most chairmen and secretaries aren’t geared or qualified to think like an O’Callaghan. The old administration model is simply not fit for purpose – unless it accommodates new positions.
It’s why someone like Kevin O’Donovan, the coaching officer in Cork, has been advocating for directors of hurling and football in his native county. De facto performance directors – answerable to a board, of course – who understand performance, have some background in coaching and a keen appreciation of athletic development.
Another expatriate speaking at the conference was Ken Lynch, currently working with New Zealand as a high performance development manager. In his role he actively identifies and supports the right coaches along the pathway. At youth level results are welcome, but not a necessity; there’s an appreciation that short-term competitive goals can compromise key technical and team development blocks. At youth level New Zealand want coaches without ego. Coaches, as Lynch put it, “who don’t want to go to the moon, they just want to prepare the rocket.” As the coach educationalist David Passmore stated at HPX, we still don’t appreciate talent coaches enough in this country. Even at underage coaches can feel pressurised to produce trophies instead of players, and emphasise winning over the basics.
Again, that could be structural as much cultural; as Passmore, originally from the UK, noted, competitions in this country tend to be knockout – lose and there’s no more games for your development!
Counties wishing to compete seriously and consistently have to think and organise themselves differently. By dreaming and planning big like O’Callaghan. By asking themselves to reflect on what the future might look in eight years’ time, not just four. By appreciating and identifying those talent coaches without ego who will help that rocket get to the moon, just not right away. By having someone with enough sway as well as common sense to co-ordinate those various coaches and work with the various stakeholders, including competition committees that can provide more meaningful games for players to develop and enjoy.
Dublin with John Costello at the helm are already on this wavelength with their Blue Wave strategy. Unless other counties, even currently competitive ones like Mayo and Tyrone, are planning more with a view to 2028 as much as 2018, then they’re just going to be swept away.