This is the time of year when under 8s and under 10s all over the country start their journey into Gaelic football and hurling through the Go Games.
These are small-sided version of Gaelic games and have been standard operating procedure for providing a games programme for our youngest members within the GAA since 2007.
For most, the Go Games can be a player’s initial experience of playing against another club – it’s their first ‘real’ game so to speak.
The original concept was to provide games for everybody at either seven or nine a-side on a smaller pitch in a non-competitive environment.
The scoreline in these games was never meant to be recorded and the whole idea was based on developing youngsters’ ability to play, learn and have fun, as opposed to focusing on the results and only playing the best players.
It is not unusual for there to be an inordinate amount of games finishing in a draw at a Go Games blitz. The point is, nobody is really supposed to care about the final result.
For the most part, the Go Games have been a brilliantly successful way of introducing children to the game and have provided a mechanism for clubs to focus on increasing participation rather than worry about winning and losing.
If a club has 21 players at U8 for example, that no longer means 15 players playing with six substitutes watching.
Twenty one players now means splitting up into three different teams of seven, and each team playing on three different small-sized pitches, with everybody getting loads of action.
Unfortunately, and despite the overwhelming majority of parents and mentors doing a fantastic job on the sideline of every sport, there are still people who do their best to turn children’s sport into something it was never intended to be.
Last week, Larry Ryan had a story in these pages that told of an email sent out to clubs in Cork by a Games Development Administrator in relation to some instances of inappropriate behaviour by mentors and parents on the sidelines of recent Go Games blitzes.
The email was intended to remind clubs of their responsibilities and to reinforce the key theme of participation and fun for all the children.
A section of it read: “We have had a punch-up on the sideline between parents and mentors. We have had a parent threating a young referee… some of the language and demeanour of some mentors and parents on the sideline is at best described as distasteful”.
Those things might seem hard to believe, especially at what is supposed to be a non-competitive under-8 or under-10 game, where kids are just trying to be kids, and have fun getting lots of touches and kicking ball with their friends; but while rare, those examples from Cork are not as far-fetched as you would think.
Of course, this is certainly not just a Cork problem, nor is it exclusively a GAA problem for that matter.
This is an issue with adults in every sport, in every country, whether they are parents or mentors involved with teams, who are either trying to live vicariously through the young players, or just temporarily lose all sense of perspective of what the game is supposed to be about.
They allow their own ego to take over and ruin the experience for the children and everybody else.
We’ve seen different clubs and counties bring about an increased awareness of what appropriate behaviour for mentors and supporters in the GAA should look like. Signs have gone up in grounds specifically to try and make people more aware of their behaviour, as well as sending a clear message about the values the association.
Most of the signs are a slight variation of the same theme; the players are children; mistakes are how they learn; the coaches are volunteers; the referees are human, this is not the All-Ireland final; show respect to players, coaches and referees, and the main priority is to have fun.
It’s basically a nice way of asking people not to act like an idiot on the sideline and just let the kids play and enjoy themselves. You really wouldn’t think such a plea would be necessary, but apparently those mentors, moms and dads are still out there, lurking in the long grass, like a landmine, just waiting for somebody to trod on them before they explode.
And again, this issue is not a GAA-specific one, the sport is largely irrelevant, this is very much an issue of adults acting more like children than the ones playing the game.
I read about a program in the United States recently that caught my attention. All parents of children who would be playing ‘little league’ had to attend a one-hour workshop on ‘being a good sports parent’.
The child wasn’t allowed to play a game until the parents had attended this talk. It seemed straightforward enough, but highlighted what is expected from parents and mentors when at a game or a coaching session.
The workshop included a video package of poor behaviour, such as adults losing their minds over a refereeing call, or mentors fighting and parents acting aggressively with each other, all over a game involving young children.
The workshop concluded with parents signing a declaration to promise they would act responsibly on the sidelines at games and allow the children the space to enjoy themselves. It’s a brilliant idea in theory, and one I would like to see worked into the framework of our association.
Obviously, it would be more difficult in practice, and clubs would have to police their own people and actively enforce their policy to make it effective.
If a person is consistently stepping outside of what is deemed appropriate on the sideline or in the stand, somebody needs to do what that GDA in Cork did with his email to the clubs and call out that behaviour as wholly unacceptable to try an effect a positive change and make the environment a more appealing one to children.
Volunteer GAA coaches are now asked to have a recognised qualification and have completed a child protection course before they take over an underage club side, but there are no such requirements for parents.
Perhaps a one-hour workshop on ‘being a good GAA parent’ could be something that Croke Park take a look at doing within individual counties.
Or maybe, the tiny minority of adults treating underage Gaelic football and hurling games like life and death should just take a good look at themselves in the mirror and stop spoiling the fun for everybody.
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