Valerie Mulcahy: Guide young players so strengths don't become weaknesses

With Féile a wrap for another year, it is important to appreciate the fantastic opportunity it gives young players and how much these early experiences contribute to how players develop into adult athletes. At underage level the foundations are laid for the future superstar, writes Valerie Mulcahy.
Valerie Mulcahy: Guide young players so strengths don't become weaknesses

Féile is a wonderful competition and a certain highlight of any young playing career. Young players from all over the country have the opportunity to create wonderful memories being involved in preparations, months of training, getting kitted out in new gear after much fundraising, showing off the attire, and self-made flags in the parade. It all culminated in an action-packed weekend of games. Bliss for the young aspiring player. For some it will be the highest level they will play at and for others it will be a stepping stone to other national competitions.

I love the skills competition facet of Féile. Key skills are tested — two-footed kicking, shooting, and soloing — along with testing speed and precision in executing the skills, all under the watchful eye of time and an audience. Placing an emphasis on the ability to kick with both feet is beneficial to the young participants. It raises the bar for them in later years.

Preparations for the skill test alone requires coaches to encourage young players to move beyond their comfort zone and challenge their natural inclination to stick to what they know, or the use of their preferred foot in this example. This is vital as it highlights the need for players to work on different aspects of their game from an early age. It is important to do this before habits are fully formed, before they find it hard to break old habits or are reluctant to create new ones.

Players may not push their own boundaries for fear of not being, or feeling, competent enough at executing a skill. Or in some cases, not experiencing failure enough to sit comfortably with it. Or they may be afraid of a potentially negative reaction from their coaches or parents. If mistakes are met with bad reactions early on, players will shy away from trying new things or being inventive, stifling their potential in the long term.

The role of the trainer is key. While it isn’t easy, it is necessary to see the long-term gains of developing a player, beyond coaching in a way which simply produces underage wins. It is crucial for coaches to aim toward moulding a well-rounded player. It can be tempting to always encourage the top player to go on a solo run — literally and metaphorically — and do what has always been done to save the day or win the match.

In the greater scheme of things, a player needs to be nurtured in a way that allows them to contribute to the teams they are playing with underage while also contributing to the longevity of the player’s career.

Almost all players, in all codes, competing at elite levels were once successful underage players who hugely contributed to underage victories. For some, it is difficult not to become somewhat limited by the habits that they have developed in their formative years.

We’ve all watched a player who is used to going on a solo run, effortlessly and productively at club level, weaving in and out of whole defensive units at ease, suddenly find themselves armour-less when they are tested at a higher level or grade — becoming smothered and dispossessed, or just stopped in their tracks, at a much earlier stage of their attack.

Competing at senior county level requires a player to be versatile, to contribute in the way the team needs at any moment. Reverting to long-term habits engrained from earlier years can be counterproductive.

The most important skills to cultivate in youth are vision and adaptability: How players take on their defender, whether they keep their head up when soloing to scan for options, whether they predominantly go one direction when attacking, whether they always use the same foot to pivot and turn on.

The influence of the coach in both the short and long term is enormous. If coaches can create an environment where the underage player has an awareness of what their skillset encompasses, and consider how they could expand on that, then young players could begin to challenge themselves and the habits they are forming. I believe this would go a long way towards making multidimensional, as well as reflective, players.

Ultimately, if players can learn to recognise their strengths and work on their weaknesses in their younger years they could prevent their strengths from becoming their weakness later on.

Players should continue to do what they find easy or what comes naturally, while also working on what they find difficult or what doesn’t come so naturally, so that they can build a set of skills that can be called upon when the need arises, when opposition gets tougher and more alert to their characteristic tendencies.

Let’s encourage enjoyment, team play, skill acquisition, and allow for mistakes to be made in order to allow young players the time to develop into more rounded players and not just promote what a player is already good at for the short term.

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