KIERAN SHANNON: Even the greatest coaches know they don’t know it all

When Billy Morgan and Michael Ryan questioned the GAA’s insistence that in a few years’ time all senior club and inter-county coaches or managers will have to have undergone a recognised coaching course, they had a point.

Morgan talked about how the best coaching apprenticeship he served was as a player learning from the likes of Donie O’Donovan. There was now a danger that textbook coaches and coaching would become all-pervasive. “The GAA wouldn’t want to get too hung-up on theory,” Ryan, the former Waterford hurling manager, noted. “Certainly it is a good idea for young people coming into the game [to do these courses]. But for those who have been managing for 10 and 20 years at club and inter-county level I couldn’t see how it would benefit them in any way.”

On the last point is where we’d differ. And we’d guess so too would Eamon Ryan.

Like Brian Cody — and indeed Michael Ryan himself — the Corkman has won multiple All-Irelands, in ladies’ football. Yet not so long ago he was one of those people who had “been managing for 10 and 20 years at club and inter-county level”. Then he went on some of those courses that his namesake Michael in Waterford wouldn’t “see how it would benefit” him “in any way”.

And it benefited him massively.

“Years ago,” he once told this writer, “coaching was all about me, what I said, what I thought. But then I started going to the NCTC [National Coaching Training Centre] in Limerick and began reading and to reflect on how to go about the job.” What he learned there completely changed how he viewed something he had been doing for decades. He was there to serve the players, not for the players to be there to serve him.

As it turned out, I spent the past weekend down in the NCTC, or Coaching Ireland as it goes by now. Twenty-eight coaches from 16 different national governing bodies were undergoing a course under the masterful guidance of Liam Moggan, Coaching Ireland’s coach education development officer. Among those coaches essentially learning how to coach coaches was one of Eamon Ryan’s former players, multi-All-Ireland winner Amy O’Shea.

There was no passive learning on view. It was active, in every sense. Every coach had to take a 25-minute session with the key being to allow their fellow coaches coach. When O’Shea took a session on something as basic as catching the ball and handpassing it, she immediately engaged her fellow coaches. When she was catching the ball, what did you notice about her head? Her hands? Her feet? She wasn’t telling you how to catch a ball, she was interested in what you noticed were the key components in catching a ball. By being more involved, you were more engaged.

Even on something as basic as the catch there was something every coach could learn from. Not so much the WHAT of coaching but the HOW of coaching. Even now too many coaches lecture their players about what is happening or what should happen. But what’s beginning to click with the best coaches is that you get a better response when players get a chance to figure out for themselves what is happening and what should happen next.

A couple of decades ago Ryan would have berated a player: “Amy, you should be moving here, not going over there!” What he’s learned is far more effective is to ask: “Amy, was that your best option to run over there? What other options had you?” The more a player figures it out for themselves, the more likely they are to make better decisions in games.

O’Shea would go on to exhibit so many other subtle coaching skills, getting her coaches to devise their own drills and games, asking them to reflect on when they stepped in to comment, suggest, encourage. Where or even how were they standing? For what it’s worth, Moggan himself is wary of mandatory courses. “There’s too much governance and compliance and regulations in Irish sport.

“Thankfully we have some geniuses like the Brian Codys and Brian Kerrs who slip through. Having said that, some coaches can be very dismissive of some formal stuff when they can forget that the formal stuff can give them the connection to make the more informal stuff more valuable.”

That is the key. Cody has been a teacher and school principal for years. He knows that getting a qualification from a teaching college doesn’t necessarily make you a good teacher — but it increases the chances.

Mick O’Dywer didn’t attend a lot of coaching courses but a formative moment for him was sitting in on a coaching course taken by Kevin Heffernan in early 1975. O’Dwyer didn’t take the exam but he had absorbed the lesson.

For every Cody and Mickey Harte there are tens of long-serving coaches who could benefit from having to undergo coaching courses. They can’t look to get off the hook just because Cody and JBM should. There might be a few too many textbook coaches out there but there have been far more untrained and ignorant ones too.

For reflecting on their methods alone, every current or future club or inter-county coach could learn from an Amy O’Shea. Even a Cody. Even a Michael Ryan. Even an Eamon Ryan, the master who was humble to learn again.


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