GAA and the art of ageing gracefully - if not relatively!

Kieran Shannon reflects on the ever growing importance of the Relative Age Effect in  underage sport.

GAA and the art of ageing gracefully - if not relatively!

Last Saturday, the same day that we wrote about just how much it helps to be born in the early part of the year to ever play for the Irish national soccer team, the 2017 Munster Hurler of the Year, Mark Coleman, celebrated his 20th birthday.

While the matchday squad that lost 5-1 to Denmark in the recent World Cup play-off didn’t feature a single Irish-born player born in the last four months of the year, the hurling year’s outstanding newcomer was blowing out the candles on December 23, a birthday he must have cursed at times growing up for being eight days short of the January 1 cutoff point.

The example of Coleman isn’t just one that Irish and professional football could learn from, but so could anyone working with talent in the GAA, especially as we enter something of a landmark year in the history of underage inter-county hurling and football.

As we illustrated last Saturday, the phenomenon that is known as the Relative Age Effect is rampant at underage in a sport like soccer, both in this country and internationally. Back in 2005, the Netherlands hosted the World Youth Cup, the age group being the same as that which the minor grade in inter-county GAA will operate by from next year on — U17.

Two-thirds of the players were born in the first half of the selection year. Half the teams in the tournament had no players at all born in November or December. The eventual winners of the tournament, Mexico, didn’t have a single player born after July.

At least the Irish team that were hammered by Denmark last month featured an August baby in Stephen Ward.

Recent studies have shown the same dynamic is at work in underage Gaelic Games — there is a bias for kids born earlier in the year because they’re likely to be stronger and faster and thus more impactful.

Roger Keenan, a coach education manager with Ulster GAA, has conducted and cited numerous case studies, including one of 2010 Ulster U16 elite squads in which there were seven times more players born in the first three months of the year than those born in the last three of the year.

The new Kerry captain, Fionn Fitzgerald, as part of his masters in sports performance degree in UL, carried out a more extensive study, involving 15 counties and 2,200 participants aged 13 to 19 who would have been on underage GAA development squads.

And while he also found there was no discrepancy in the general population — in every quarter either 24.5% or 25.5% of the population was born — there was a significant bias towards players born earlier in the year. While 30.3% of teams were made up of kids born in either January, February, or March, only 18% were born in October, November, and December.

As we’d have explained last Saturday, the older kids have likely have had something of an advantage from as early as U6s; after all, a kid born in January is going to be 20% older than one born in December, the equivalent of a 16-year-old rubbing shoulders with a 20-year- old. The more they stand out, the more likely they are to gain positive feedback and recognition, and thus with it, confidence. They’re viewed as ‘talented’. Naturals. And so they get exposed to more game-time, better coaching, better competition.

And thus their advantage is compounded, leaving the younger kid further in their wake.

Crucially in Cork though they didn’t when it came to the likes of Coleman. During the summer Ronan Dwane, now the coaching officer of the county board, spoke about how the Cork development squad system had long recognised Coleman’s level of skill and commitment.

“Everyone knew he was going to be a Cork minor because he just needed to grow,” said Dwane, who coached Coleman during those crucial years. “His hurling was fantastic but he was tiny.”

Kevin O’Donovan, who Dwane succeeded as coaching officer before being voted in as vice-chairperson to the new executive, made a similar observation this past summer about Coleman and two of his fellow sensational newcomers.

“The interesting one about Mark Coleman, Darragh Fitzgibbon, and Luke Meade [another fourth-quarter kid, with an October 29 birthday] is that they were not underage superstars. They only blossomed as minors having been part of the development squad system on B teams and subs benches.

“Now, is that a sign the development squad system is working? Yes, because it was kept broad enough. They were all smaller when they were underage. The development squad is supposed to still incorporate the smaller guy. Now, he might be in the backseat instead of the front seat, but the thing is he’s still on the bus, he’s still in the fold, he’s still in the family.”

An interesting one for all coaches entering 2018 now though is what do you do with a prospective Mark Coleman?

He could be there in your very own club field, among the U6s and U8s, but might you have him being paired up and ploughed out of it by a kid almost two years older than him, making him wonder if this is the sport for him?

Or suppose he does stick it out with the club, developing some grit to go with his skill.

Will he make your county development squad? Will he be on the bus, still in the system, still part of the family?

And what about when him when he’s U17? Coleman didn’t make the Cork minor team that year; he was kept on the system because they knew he’d be good enough at U18. But what happens now that there is no U18? Do you have him on the bus?

Do you have him on the team? Or do you do a Mexico and just try to win now with the bigger kids all born in the first half of the year?

It can be quite the dilemma for a coach, especially one at minor. In the late 1990s and early noughties, Diarmuid O’Donovan, the current Cork senior county administrator, was the minor manager to successive Cork football teams. He’d have his critics wondering why he didn’t win more Munsters and an All-Ireland with talent like Goulding, Kerrigan, O’Neill, Shields, Kelly, and Cadogan.

But all those players were born in the second half of the year. In another system they might not even have been there to bring through to win All Irelands at U21 and senior.

Because there are gems in that last quarter. Five of the six forwards who started for Galway in this year’s league final were born in the last three months of the year — Joe Canning, Cathal Mannion, Conor Cooney, and Conor Whelan (all October), and hat-trick hero Jason Flynn (November 16). Lee Keegan, who never played minor for Mayo, was born on October 25.

Players born in the third and fourth quarters of the year are well represented on the current Dublin team; in fact 52% of their 2016 and 2017 All-Ireland-winning panels were made up of players born in the second half of the year.

It’s quite the contrast to Kerry, whom 18 (67%) of their 2016 All-Ireland series panel was made up of players born in the first half of the year, and to other primary sport in the capital, soccer, in which, as we illustrated last Saturday, 44% of the kids selected from the Dublin District Schoolboys League were all born in the first quarter of the year.

It hasn’t just happened by accident. In Dublin football they’ve tried to keep their development squads as broad as possible to include as many as possible, accommodating the smaller player and the smaller club.

Paddy Christie, the former All-Star, was instrumental in establishing those development squads and on the eve of the county’s breakthrough All-Ireland win in 2011, spoke extensively to this paper about their approach to nurturing and identifying talent. If they saw a small skilful player, particularly one who could kick and pass off both sides, they picked him.

They weren’t concerned if he was brushed off the ball by someone bigger. He’d probably grow bigger. In time he could become or made bigger, stronger.

The bigger, fourth-quarter kid was accommodated and coached too. Because, as Waterford IT lecturer Laura Finnegan pointed out in these pages last Saturday, often that kid can be a victim of the Relative Age Effect too. They’re allowed to get by on just pure brawn and power instead of being encouraged to develop skills they’ll need when they no longer are bigger and older than everyone else.

Christie’s message and that of Keenan’s and the better talent coaches is to think less of what you see now and instead think of what might be. Check out their dates of birth. Prioritise skill development ahead of just trying to get the next win, even when it comes to the GAA’s version of the carnivorous Kennedy Cup: Its fellow U14 national competition, Féile. If you — or preferably your national governing body can — alternate the cutoff date. Instead of always January 1, some years let it be April 1, then July 1, November 1; that way every kids gets to experience being among the oldest and youngest.

Above all, encourage, coach and challenge them all. Your Mark Coleman might be right there under your nose.

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