MIKE QUIRKE: A leaf we can all take from Dublin’s coaching book

Winning hasn’t softened them an inch, writes Mike Quirke. Getting their weekly pre-planned meals and sponsored this and that hasn’t quenched their thirst for success and their edge is as sharp as it ever was.

Dublin really are something to behold, aren’t they?

Despite Kildare’s best efforts in front of 60,000 supporters in Croke Park for the Leinster final on Sunday, the Dubs just kept on rolling.

No Diarmuid Connolly — no problem. Have you heard of a youngster called Con O’Callaghan?

Twelve points later, six from play, you know him now.

Or how about a black card for Dean Rock? Stay calm and just give Bernard Brogan a shout. Let him know that the whole country thinks he’s finished and point him in the direction of the pitch. Just a handy five points from play for him off the bench.

What about mainstays Jonny Cooper, Paul Flynn, or Michael Darragh Macauley being unavailable against a Kildare side that some were tipping to end the Dubs run? Don’t sweat it. Next man up.

Take Paul Mannion. He was another who had seemingly slipped into obscurity before this championship season, but after another blistering display last weekend, he looks completely at home with the responsibility of a starting jersey.

That was their seventh provincial title in a row. Seven years of minnow after minnow coming into their house and trying a variety of different tactical approaches to get a win, or in some cases, to just keep the beating respectable.

They’ve all failed and whatever the questions posed, Dublin have repeatedly found the answers. They can think on their feet as good as anybody and better than most.

For all their abundance of skilful and athletic players, as well as their apparent riches and forward-thinkers at county board level, it’s what motivates this Dublin team that fascinates me the most.

Winning hasn’t softened them an inch. Getting their weekly pre-planned meals and sponsored this and that hasn’t quenched their thirst for success and their edge is as sharp as it ever was.

A leaf we can all take from Dublin’s coaching book

What is it that Jim Gavin is doing that continues to drive them to keep improving and keep performing at such a high level?

It’s an area that every sports coach, every teacher in education, or HR person in big business is looking to find an answer to.

How can you motivate your players, students or staff to be the best they can be?

And it isn’t just for those elite county teams. GAA coaching at all levels needs to embrace the nuances of understanding what motivates players to want to practice and play.

According to the ESRI report in 2013, the number of children between the ages of 10 and 12 years that were registered members of GAA clubs in 2010 increased from just over 39,000, to just shy of 52,000 in 2011, and rose to over 59,000 by 2016.

These numbers were another indication of the positive impact that the Go Games and the associated benefits of a small-sided games model was having on players’ motivation to be involved in Gaelic games.

According to research, self-determined motivation is the most powerful form of motivation. It is primarily made up of intrinsic motivation, which refers to choosing to partake in an activity for the pleasure and personal satisfaction experienced from doing so.

Being actively engaged in sport out of personal enjoyment and fulfilment has been highlighted as a critical factor relating to longer-term persistence in sports.

In simplistic terms, the more intrinsically motivated the player, the more likely they are to work at getting better, and the less likely they are to drop out of the sport.

Unfortunately, once players move past the U12 age group and out of the Go Games structure, the participation graph declines sharply.

This isn’t just specific to the GAA, but our numbers don’t make pretty reading.

Contained in the same ESRI report in 2013, it highlighted a shocking drop-out rate of approximately 75% between the ages of 21 and 26. Effectively, that means that only one 21-year-old Gaelic footballer or hurler out of every four will continue playing the game by the age of 26.

Research in the academic domain has examined motivation through the prism of self-determination theory, as well as attempting to gain a better understanding of how to create the type of coaching climate most conducive to developing players with high levels of intrinsic motivation.

They recommend that to create a positive coaching environment, satisfaction of the three psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness is needed.

One of those fundamental tenets of developing intrinsic motivation, particularly as players mature and get older, is that they perceive the coaching environment to be satisfying their need for autonomy.

The idea of autonomy support essentially gives context to the motivational climate in which all activities takes place. The significant aspect of autonomy support is that the coach places an emphasis on the players self-initiation, independent problem solving as well as being actively involved in all decision making affecting them.

For example, by offering the players different options in terms of choosing between different games or drills to do in a training session, or by discussing what type of system they want to play and why, or even by offering different options in terms of training days and times etc; you as a coach are contributing to development of their sense of autonomy, which in turn can lead to enhanced intrinsic motivation.

A leaf we can all take from Dublin’s coaching book

I know it might sound complicated, or perhaps like a pile of baloney, but the likes of Jim Gavin and other top managers and coaches in sport find a way to make their players feel like they are an active contributor to the decision making that impacts on every aspect of their training and gameplay.

Even go back to former Kerry manager Jack O’Connor during his time in charge of the senior side, and the famous meeting that took place in Killarney to discipline a few boys that went on a solo run and out on the beer after beating Sligo in the qualifiers down in Tralee.

Looking back now, an academic researcher would describe it as the definition of an autonomy supportive coaching environment.

Jack set the scene for 60 seconds at the start of the meeting and then left. Only the panel of players were inside in the room to decide the fate of the lads who had strayed offside. The players owned the entire disciplinary process. We were the ones who had to make the decisions. That’s where the autonomy and intrinsic motivation comes from. You’re doing it for yourself.

Dublin are no different. Any top team or sports person are the same. For them, it’s about finding the extra 5%.

Jim Gavin’s greatest attribute as Dublin senior manager mightn’t necessarily be his tactical nous, but like other elite set-ups, he and his coaching group have managed to create the type of coaching environment that is seeing his players flourish into independent thinkers who have the capacity to solve nearly every problem they encounter on the field.

And crucially, they seem highly motivated to want to keep working on their game to keep getting better.

Of course, there are a plethora of reasons why players pack it in, or why some get satisfied and stop working as hard.

But whether you are operating at the very top of the tree like Jim Gavin, or down at the roots like most of us, if you want your players to experience the most powerful form of motivation, then you better start thinking about more than just the X’s and O’s if you really want to stop your charges walking away from the game.

Instead of the coach constantly being the one doing the motivating, coaches must learn how to create a coaching environment that allows the players to motivate themselves.


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