Waterford GAA’s strategic plan, launched last week, proposes an innovative approach to improving participation levels and energising clubs.
Former Waterford senior hurling captain Fergal Hartley puts flesh on the bones of that plan.
“First off, we’re trying to increase participation,” says Hartley. “Second, we’re trying to energise clubs. Participation is something for the players, but the energising the clubs part comes in part at least from the parents, getting them involved.”
To that end they’re driving the Well!Kids initiative as part of the plan.
“Parents can be reticent, particularly if they’re from non-GAA backgrounds, about getting involved in coaching kids.
“And usually there’s one former senior hurler there with two county medals already there, and parents with no GAA background may feel self-conscious about getting involved with someone like that in a team.
“We want to create a buzz and an energy in the club on a Saturday morning, so we want to create a soft entry for those parents. Our programme’s based on fun activities rather than skills — throwing bean bags into buckets, hula hoops, fun stuff like that.
“It’s still developing hand-eye coordination in the child, necessary fundamental skills, but anyone with a bit of energy can get involved in it.
"They can fall in with that and then become more involved in the club down the line, maybe attending fundraisers and so on.
“Eventually they might go on to a foundation coaching course. We’ve all seen parents get involved in clubs who had no background in playing themselves but who are great at coaching. So that’s the energising element.”
Making that Saturday morning experience enjoyable is one of the main goals, he adds.
“The more people get involved, the more activity leaders that are there, the better the experience is. We’re hoping to boost participation rates among four to eight-year-olds by 20% and the cumulative effect of that over ten years can be truly transformative.
“What you’re trying to create, for want of a better term, among kids in that age group is almost a birthday party feel to the experience — that they have so much fun on the Saturday morning that all week they’re thinking about going back for more. The other thing is to involve parents who aren’t directly engaged as activity leaders, maybe through coffee mornings, to show the club is about more than hurling and football Those are the core activities of the club but there’s more to it than that.
“I see it in my own club (Ballygunner) on weekends — we have numbers but on a Saturday morning there’s a great energy in the place because there are so many parents and kids buzzing around the place. It electrifies a club, and that’s what we’re trying to stimulate.”
Waterford have already seen the model in operation in the county.
“There was a mini-pilot scheme carried out in Clashmore which was very successful, and something we’ll be rolling out is that every kid will get their own Well!Kids jersey in their own club colours, rather than generic Cúl Camp tops. So that’ll build the connection with the club, and kids love wearing jerseys anyway. That’s a small point but an important point.
“There’s a Cúl Camp feel to this where we want all the kids in school to talk about it but as I say, one key point is that fun camp atmosphere we won’t be neglecting core Gaelic games skills either. There’ll be something for everybody.”
Hartley points out that the days of “two or three people” driving a club are gone, adding that Waterford also has specific demographic challenges when it comes to clubs and structures.
“I would think there’s a lot of potential that’s not engaged in clubs - everywhere — where you have parents with children involved who could be involved in the club more, and this is hopefully a step along that road.
“For us in Waterford there’s an unusual mix to the population in the county in that 70% of the population is beyond Kilmeaden, and a much smaller number of clubs in that space.
“Activating and energising the clubs in the city area will be key, because that’s where the population is and where it’ll continue to rise. That’s not to suggest for a second that it’ll be focused entirely on the city, but it’s a specific challenge.
"Waterford city to Tramore and then to Kilmeaden, maybe Kilmacthomas, that’s where the bulk of the population is. We have to activate that.”