MIKE QUIRKE: To winter well, coaches must work on their craft

The winter Gaelic games hiatus is nearly upon us. There’ll be plenty of senior club action to satisfy our desire for competitive GAA action over the coming months, but the majority of clubs around the country are just about shutting down after another busy year of action.

The Saturday or Sunday morning academy sessions may move indoors for a few weeks, before a complete break will take hold until the new year.

Coaches will ask the players to work on their skills during their off-season. It’s always a great time to improve on aspects of the game that may be deficient, whether that means specifically ball work or movement skills. Absence from competition affords players the time and space to get better.

But what of the coaches?

I appreciate the need to switch off for a while, to put some distance between you and a football pitch after a year of weekly volunteering, coaching, and dealing with players, parents, and pressures.

But the off-season shouldn’t just be a time for players to improve.

Once the batteries have been recharged, the next few months can provide a huge window for coaches to work on their craft also and seek out better ways of doing the job.

It is important for every coach to reflect on the season just passed, whether you are an academy coach of under-six boys and girls, or in a position with a minor or senior club side or anywhere in between. And I don’t necessarily mean reflecting on your win-loss record.

That rarely tells the whole story.

Look at your training attendance log. How many players started the season? How many did you finish with? How many sessions did each player miss? How many players suffered muscular injuries during training sessions?

Often times, those numbers can be a far more accurate reflection of the work you’ve done in the club, away from trophies and titles.

Looking back at the season just finished is always the best starting point for improving for next season. The problem is, too many coaches at all levels get a little taste of success and reckon they have it all figured out and stop learning and growing as a coach.

Instead of moving on, they continue to repeat the same jaded sessions year in, year out. And somehow the clubs can’t figure out why they can’t seem to hold on to the kids they once had.

Now is the time for coaches up and down the country to put some work in to get better at what and how they are delivering. We ask kids to practise their skills all the time, but with Gaelic football descending down a dreary staircase into the unknown, the reality is coaching also needs to improve.

To winter well, coaches must work on their craft

Instead of settling for playing 13 men behind the ball and being satisfied with winning or losing a close game six points to four, this time should be about developing your coaching repertoire and exposing yourself to the possibility of coaching a different way.

I always urge coaches to read books. Go on Amazon and type in “sports coaching books” and you’ll get a plethora of reading material from every sport coaching context right across the globe. They don’t specifically have to be about Gaelic games. Look to pull information from every sport. Take what is relevant and use it, discard the rest.

Type “sports coaching” into YouTube and you’ll be bombarded with resources. Again, some useful, some not.

This is when club coaches should be calling on their GDA (games development administrator) to organise coach education courses and workshops. Tell them what you want to get covered and they’ll organise it.

The GAA recommends that at least one coach involved with each team has the minimum of an Award One coaching qualification in either child, youth, or adult stream. But that should be looked on as a baseline requirement rather than a mountain peak.

Those coaches aiming to improve over the winter will be attending whatever coaching conferences or forums are coming up and will look to soak up as much information as possible.

Mentoring is another very powerful tool towards improving your own coaching. On the job learning, so to speak.

And again, it doesn’t necessarily have to be with another Gaelic football or hurling coach — it might be that you ask to help a basketball, soccer or an athletics coach for a few sessions. Observe what they do well; how they interact with their players. How do they speak to them? 

Do they challenge them and ask them questions or give them all the solutions? How does the content of their training sessions differ to GAA? What can I use to make my coaching better?

To winter well, coaches must work on their craft

Building coaching relationships across different sports is very useful for developing a wider perspective on how to get the most out of your players.

It can also be very helpful to get somebody from outside the club to observe and listen to you conducting a coaching session. Get them to record how many times you ask questions. How many times you shout or swear at your players. How many touches a player gets. How much of your session is spent on games-based activities as opposed to drills? You could even have it recorded so you can watch it back.

Most of us have a poor recollection of exactly what we say or do during a session. That’s just what happens when one becomes engaged in the process. We might think we are giving players ample opportunities to improve certain aspects of their game, when in fact a different set of eyes may point out a flaw in the delivery or content of our sessions.

I’m not suggesting that every GAA coach in Ireland needs to start doing everything I’ve mentioned here, but I am saying that all of us as coaches have a responsibility to put in more time towards becoming better coaches.

There no point bitching about the state of Gaelic football if we as coaches don’t challenge ourselves to improve both the delivery and content of our message. And there’s certainly no value in asking our players to get better if we as coaches aren’t prepared to make a similar effort.

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