Mike Quirke: Modern coaching about the ability to adapt

Charles Darwin once wrote: “it is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change”.

Gaelic football has become almost organic in the last 20 years, ever-changing and evolving with each passing season.

Some coaches help it to grow, while others still desperately cling to the past and hark back to simpler times.

I’ve heard a lot about how ‘modern coaches’ are damaging the traditional fabric of Gaelic football with their incessant hand-passing, packed defences and over-analytical approach.

Modern coaching has developed something of a bad reputation. It’s been applied injudiciously to a defensive minded inter-county scene, over complicated by the savage need to win at all costs. Packed zone-defences and swarm tackling aren’t the only elements of coaching that should be highlighted when people are looking for a handy excuse as to why a game was particularly poor.

I bet you haven’t been able to turn a corner anywhere in Ireland this summer without bumping into a kid wearing their distinctive lime green Kellogg’s Cúl camp kit. Youngsters are proudly displaying their jersey as a symbol of a good week put down in the care of GAA clubs and coaches across the length and breadth of the country.

After a big summer last year, numbers attending the camps are at an all-time high for 2016, displaying a quantifiable measure of the kind of popularity that the GAA still holds in the community, as well as the exceptional value for money offered by the association to families through the summer months.

These camps aren’t about making winners or losers, blanket defences or black cards...

These camps are about coaches creating an environment for kids to feel confident enough to try to develop their movement and ball skills in a fun and cooperative way.

They are the epitome of modern coaching.

When I started playing ball, coaching was all about drills, they’d make up the bulk of the session. You get a touch of the ball, run to the back of the next line and wait for your turn to go again. The more cones on the field and the more complicated the pattern, the better the coach was believed to be.

It was purely technical work where very little, if any, decision-making took place outside of following the guy in front of you to the next cone and don’t get lost.

From a player’s point of view, it was mind-numbing stuff. Sure you could catch, kick and hand-pass the ball, but you didn’t know when you should do which of those in a game.

There was no learning. No enjoyment.

Instead of waiting behind cones for a touch of the ball every few minutes, and maybe having 40-50 ball contacts per session, I like to think of modern coaching as flooding players with footballs. For kids in particular, but right up to senior inter-county, ball familiarisation is a key part of their skill development, where you aim to get every player with their own ball, getting as many touches as possible during a session. Coaching Gaelic football today is about challenging yourself and your players into making 500 ball contacts per player, per session a realistic target to aspire to. And that is a conservative figure I might add.

Think about it, if a player in your club or your county is touching the ball around that 500 mark, and a kid from up the road is touching the ball only 50 times in a session, multiplied by the number of sessions in a season (let’s say 45), and again by the number of years they are playing. That means over a 10-year period, from 8 to 18, the first player will have touched the ball around 225,000 times compared with just 22,500 for the other lad.

Who do you think is going to have the superior hands? Who will have the better hand-eye coordination? Or be the better kicker?

It’s a no brainer. That’s modern coaching to me.

While the ball is vital to every session, there has also been a definite realisation over the past 15 years of the need to address the fundamental movement skills of players of all ages. Obviously, it’s much easier done with a younger player rather than trying to teach an old dog new tricks. But GAA coaching is now also about helping players to acquire the ability to move well off both sides of the body and be able to perform the skills of the game off left or right with equal comfort.

The final and probably most significant aspect of how football coaching has transitioned in recent years, has seen it move away from those drill dominated sessions into more games-based coaching. Here’s where most inter-county set-ups should be spending the bulk of their training time.

As player’s progress and move up the ladder; to continually improve their skill levels and their game intelligence or decision making, games-based coaching repeatedly puts them in situations which try to replicate what they’ll encounter during competitive games. Through this type of training you start to develop your great on-ball decision makers — the likes of Gooch and Diarmuid Connolly.

Instead of trying to give senior inter-county players direct instructions on how to do something in training, the best coaches try to create an environment where they put their players into situations where they have to figure it out for themselves. They create a culture of self-directed learning where players are fully engaged and enjoying the process.

It’s a process that makes better players, who enjoy their training, and enables them to be more comfortable with whatever is thrown at them during a game.

If you want to criticise modern coaching for Donegal or Tyrone setting up with 13 men behind the ball, then you’ve equally got to praise Dublin and Mayo’s coaching groups for providing the kind of training conducive to producing so many skilled and bright footballers capable of thinking on their feet and finding ways around such defensive walls.

It’s far from a perfect science, but the country is filled with coaches, who, as Darwin suggests, will help their club and county stay at the top of the tree because they have been most responsive to change. But don’t be fooled, modern coaching shouldn’t be synonymous with getting 15 players behind the ball… just the opposite in fact, it’s about enabling players to be able to think for themselves and find a way through the haze.


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