Mike Quirke: Time for GAA coaches to put the game back into training

You know the smell of cut grass isn’t far from the nostrils once coach education season kicks off in earnest — this is the time of year when GAA clubs up and down the country are cranking up preparations for the year ahead.

For some senior teams, that means finding a manager, either from within or without, and if you don’t have one by now … you’re going to be choosing from slim pickings. 

The circuit is usually at saturation point by February, so you’ll probably be dipping into the bargain bin and hope to get lucky.

For the rest of the club, most of the underage groups have been lying dormant for a few months and are only now frantically filling positions and starting to get organised.

With clubs desperately competing for numbers and some modicum of success, everybody wants to make sure their coaches are up-to- speed with best practice in terms of the content of their coaching and how its delivered to the different age groups.

Last weekend I was asked to give a workshop to a group of juvenile mentors in a club down here in Kerry. We had 30 people in the room, all with varying degrees of knowledge and experience. 

Some were coaching for 20 years or more, and others were parents who wanted to volunteer and help out the club for the first time. 

Coaching, not too dissimilar to giving a talk or a presentation, is about trying to create the right environment to make people feel comfortable enough to engage in the process of learning.

I started by asking them to solve the simple children’s riddle;

A boy and a doctor went fishing. The boy was the doctor’s son, but the doctor wasn’t the boy’s father. Who was the doctor?

There was a bit of squirming on seats and some eyes quickly shifted to the floor for fear of being asked the answer, but we got there in the end. The brains were switched on.

In years past, much like player ratings in the papers after a big game, most fellas got five just for togging out — coaches too were seen as contributing a great service just for showing up and taking a group of kids for one hour a week.

These days though, clubs have realised coaching their kids is about much more than just showing up and ticking a box.

It’s incredible to think how far GAA coaching has advanced and developed over the years, and yet, even with all the complicated talk, we have travelled full circle and find ourselves right back where it all started; the game.

In Gaelic football, the player and the situation exist within a very dynamic environment, it’s an open-skill team game played under variable conditions.

For years, coaching didn’t really answer the questions being asked of the kids in the game. The coaching session and the game appeared as two separate and isolated parts.

Games-based coaching is the latest buzz term to emerge from coach education literature, but all it really means is there is now a realisation the game should be the central theme of every coaching session.

That doesn’t necessarily mean a full game of football. It could be a two v two, four v three or any other small-sided combination you want to come up with. 

Games-based coaching is about putting kids into situations in training that replicate and mimic the demands of the actual game, and forces them to make many more decisions that they would in a traditional session filled with predominantly drills-based activities.

That traditional use of science in team sports tended to focus on the technical skill development actions through the use of repetitive practice drills, most often times done completely separately, and with little or no tangible link to the context of the game.

According to the latest coaching research, it is recommended your session is broken down in a 75%-25% ration of games to drills.

Where kids are benefiting from increased touches of the ball in a game situation, it leads to an increase of their perceived enjoyment and competence in their skill development, as well as the improvement to their decision-making ability.

The simple math is; the more touches kids get in a game-like scenario, the more decisions they must make, the more they make, the better they will become at making the correct decision.

I came across a fascinating piece of work by Mickey Whelan last year, who carried out a research project for his PhD thesis in DCU back in 2011.

He looked at the impact and benefits that small-sided games can have on Gaelic football compared with research from around the world. 

He found “small-sided games are a mechanism to help develop the technical, tactical and physiological abilities of players under similar constraints to those experienced during a full-sided adult game, and therefore the likelihood of transferring those technical skills and decision-making abilities becomes a more natural progression for players as they get older and move to more competitive full- sided games”.

In a nutshell, there are no real negatives, only benefits to using the game as the main tool in training to help the kids improve and develop a better understanding of how to play. 

Of course, nobody is saying drills should be made extinct… if the kids are playing a small-sided game in training and the execution of a skill is weak, then you stop the game, take them out and work on that skill for a few minutes before re-entering the game again.

It’s no joke coaching an underage club team in today’s GAA. It’s quite the task to try to balance the fun and enjoyment with the games-based coaching, the ball familiarisation — where every kid has their own ball and is getting several hundred ball contacts per session, as well as working on advancing their fundamental movement skills.

It’s a challenge, but if you want to develop your players and give them the best opportunity to continue to improve, make sure you put the game back into training and let the kids play.

By the way, the doctor was the boy’s mother.


Working Life: Dr Carl Fagan, consultant in intensive care medicine, Beacon Hospital, Dublin

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