The news that the GAA is clamping down on the provision of any form of competition for players under the age of 12 has provoked a frenzy of debate.
It is worth looking at what exactly is being done. The GAA is reminding County Boards that – as Cahair O’Kane inreported there “is no facility, under association rule, for any competitive aspect within these games”.
Sanctions may be brought against those who break the rules. This includes the keeping, recording or publishing of scores; the organisation of competitions, blitzes or events that involve knockout stages up to and including a final; and/or the awarding of winners or runner-up medal, trophies, awards or prizes.
Further, all clubs either hosting or attending blitzes are to make an online application to their county’s Games Development Manager for approval.
The GAA points out that – as things stand – all games played at Under 12 level and below are organised under the auspices of Go Games, and these are designed to be non-competitive.
Some people who are opposed to this approach have been strong in their criticism. That their views are genuine is not in question. For example, the former Meath player Anthony Moyles tweeted: “This is absolutely ridiculous and is virtue signalling at its upmost. Some kids are born competitive... others develop it. Others don’t. That’s life. I lost more than I ever won. You learn from it. You grow as a person. This idea that we are all winners is unbelievably damaging.”
The former Kilkenny hurler Brian Hogan replied: “Completely agree Anthony. This is crazy. The GAA is losing the run of themselves. The restructuring of underage grades has been a huge own goal and this is another ridiculous plan.”
Others seem to think the GAA's Go Games are now part of the culture wars, with comments along the lines of that there are “too many snowflakes around that's the problem” and that this is “wokism at its finest”.
Others made points that are eminently reasonable, noting that many kids thrive on competition and that they had “no major problem with introducing a competitive element”. More noted there are exams in schools with grades given, that medals and cups are given out for Irish dancing or gymnastics, and that competition is a basic aspect of life.
Ultimately, their message is that getting used to winning and losing should be an essential part of sport – and ultimately a life lesson – for 8, 9, 10 and 11-year-olds.
Others are fully supportive of the GAA’s message. Among the most balanced was: “Adequate and equal guaranteed game time is a much better objective at that age. Kids always know the score. Proper development, encouragement and coaching for all abilities a much better goal.”
Another said: “This needs to apply to Cumann na mBunscol too. The practice of schools nurturing the best and neglecting the rest is thriving, there to feed the egos of a lot of teachers.”
As is often the case in these debates, we cleave most usually towards what our personal experiences and desires and interests are. And there is enough scope in the argument – and enough fair points on both sides – to allow us make whatever case we want from our own particular perspectives.
For example, it is obviously true that when it comes to Gaelic football or hurling some children are really driven and deeply competitive. And it is equally true that others are timid or reticent or don’t really compete with aggression for the ball. Many more kids are — depending on the day — a bit of a mix of everything. How do you accommodate all?
On top of that, the levels of competitiveness or commitment manifest in the play of a child can wax and wane over the years. This is fascinating to watch. What is also fascinating to watch is that there are other children who grow from near-toddlers into and through their teenage years and hardly seem to change in this at all. It is as if every game or every drill or all words of advice have disappeared on the wind, leaving not a trace.
Having just taken a girls’ team from Under 7 to Under 18 – and being in the middle of the same passage with a group of boys – the only thing I am fairly sure of is that people who make absolute statements about lessons on character and behaviour when it comes to children’s sport are what you could politely describe as unconvincing.
It fits with the belief that sport is inherently a good thing, a sort of universal framework of positive values. But surely only the naïve or the wilfully blind can really believe that?
If the idea is true that sport offers valuable life lessons to kids – and the implication seems to be that it teaches people to win or lose, and in that teaching they get values – then what are the lessons we actually want to offer. If we’re into life lessons, do we really want to teach a ten-year old that the best thing they can do to help their friends win is to sit on a bench and watch?
If we could be relied on to stick always to basic principles of respect, integration, inclusion and decency, then there would be no need for any rules on competitive structures for under-12s. We could be left to organise things as we see fit unto any occasion or place.
The problem is we know that is not how things work. The evidence stacks up high and keeps on stacking regardless of what people say. If we are really honest, we know that we can’t really trust ourselves at all times not to want to win when there is a win to be had. We all want to do right by the kids in our charge, but we can make mistakes and misjudgements.
And this means we do things like leave kids on a bench or moan at a ref. These are things that happen too often to be brushed off as isolated incidents.
Organised sport is inherently competitive. And in playing sport children compete with each other. But there is a difference in competing in a game – as against for a competition.
The kids will get plenty of competition between themselves just by setting up goals and pitches and throwing in a ball. We have never needed to put formal leagues or cups in place to guarantee that.
In Go Games, the kids who are competitive all keep score. That’s fine too – we don’t really need to keep it for them.
But we shouldn't create conditions where parents and coaches think it is okay to criticise or abuse the teenage refs of Go-Games, or to leave children on the sideline in order to win anything, no matter how big or small.