Coaching was always something that appealed to me. The notion of trying to get everyone on the same page, all striving towards the same goal... sounds lofty doesn’t it?
Then you get hit with the monsoon weather we’ve been dealing with for the past week and you quickly realise that coaching at club level, or any level, is about fire-fighting as much as anything else.
Once you quell a blaze in one place, somebody else comes at you the next day to start another forest fire; they’re going to the States for the summer, or somebody else got a tattoo and can’t play in the next game until it heals properly.
Quick, somebody pass me my fire hose ....
Speaking of soaking something with water, it is only since I’ve become involved in management I’ve truly come to appreciate the deep-seeded love groundsmen have for their beloved fields.
The wind and rain of the past week has battered GAA pitches the length and breadth of the country and while we receive various weather warnings on the news bulletins, there is no orange or red alert to prepare you for the force of sensitivity and spikiness of some groundsmen who have sworn an oath to protect their patch of green grass with all the vigour of the Bull McCabe from John B Keane’s The Field...
“It’s my field. It’s my child. I nursed it. I nourished it. I saw to its every want. I dug the rocks out of it with my bare hands and I made a living thing of it.
"My only wealth is that green grass, that lovely green grass and you want to take it away from me, and in the sight of God I can’t let you do that.”
For two weekends in a row now we’ve had games called off because different fields have been closed due to a combination of bad weather and the will of the most powerful man in every club; the groundsman.
The law of the land as ‘Bull’ called it. In fairness, in most cases, you’d be hard-pressed to argue with the logic to shut up shop.
The more traffic a field takes in this soft heavy weather, the longer it will take to recover and get back to normal condition.
With GAA pitch closures, it leads to a mad frenzy of searching for astroturfs and halls as an alternative to keep the group ticking over.
Not what I had envisioned when I took on coaching. Fire-fighting at its best. One of the greatest misconceptions about the entire coaching process I have seen from a combination of my first-hand involvement and the research I have done, is the distinction that coaching is much greater than simply the delivery of a series of individual sessions, and the accumulation of wins and losses.
Nothing describes the complexity of the collaboration between coach, player and situation quite like gaining an appreciation for the pedagogy (the method and practice of teaching) that guides them.
I know what you’re thinking, pedagogy… yeah, that’s something GAA coaches really want to hear about — like we don’t have enough to be worrying about already. Sport, or coaching pedagogy is an academic field of study, and that’s where it belongs, but there is no harm in being aware of it.
The origins of pedagogy came from Ancient Greece, where a ‘pedagogue’, was a well-educated servant that stayed with the children in the homes of the wealthy noble families.
The role of a pedagogue was to cultivate the moral integrity and sense of civic responsibility in the children of the house — they had a more holistic role in the child’s development.
Kathleen Armour (2008) described coaching pedagogy as containing the four interdependent elements; coaches, learners, knowledge, and the learning environment.
Per Armour, it is the collaboration and interconnectivity of these four elements in the middle of a dynamic social interaction that really captures the significance of coaching pedagogy.
In other words, when you hear the likes of the All Blacks or the Dublin football team speaking about their ‘process’ or ‘culture’, what they are really talking about is the pedagogic philosophy they are operating in.
It encompasses everything they do; how they learn and improve, how coaches generate trust, where they train, how they communicate with each other, with management and county board, how they self-police the group and motivate themselves… everything.
If you watched The Toughest Trade last week with Donegal’s Michael Murphy over in Clermont Auvergne, you could see an appreciation of pedagogy all over it.
For breakfast in the players’ canteen; it has become a part of their culture for each player and member of staff to exchange pleasantries to start their day. Murphy was shown sheepishly going from table to table, to everybody in the room, shaking hands and offering a “bonjour” in his best Donegal accent.
That’s only a small thing, but something the coaching staff would have introduced as a means of creating an environment of inclusivity for their players.
“We shake hands and look everybody in the eye to start the day.”
Their team manager Neil McIlroy spoke about the set-up of their facility and described the design of the training facility itself as being “transparent”.
If a group are working on cardio on the bikes, the huge clear glass windows allow them to see what the players in the gym and on the pitch are doing.
All little nuances to help develop a sense of collective accountability and responsibility. Much bigger stuff than just running sessions and counting W’s.
“We try to make sure our players have got everything, facilities, their kit is washed and all that stuff, we look after their families, housing, cars, and everything like that… but there’s a trade-off, when they’re on the field, no excuses.”
For GAA coaches operating at club level who only meet their players two or three times a week at most, and some of us who can’t even manage to get our groundsmen to let us on the field to train or play games – that professional environment is completely alien to us.
That being said, every coach in Ireland could devote more thought to how they develop their own team culture.
The content and delivery of training sessions are only a part of a broader appreciation of what makes the group tick. Concentrate on finding that, and the wins will take care of themselves.
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