‘Creeping competitiveness’ is having a negative impact on developing young players:
By John Harrington

One of the six key principles of the Gaelic Games Player Pathway is ‘As Many as Possible for as Long as Possible’.

Just how well do we do this? Not as well as we could or should is the uncomfortable truth.

A 2013 ESRI report on participation levels in sport discovered that the likelihood of an adult dropping out of Gaelic football, hurling or camogie between the ages of 18 and 22 was “greater than one-half”.

It also revealed an almost a 75% drop off rate between the ages of 21 and 26 in Gaelic football and 60% in hurling/camogie.

In 2017 the LGFA commissioned a survey that revealed, by the age of 13, one in two girls will have dropped out of sport and are three times more like to drop out of sport than boys.

There is always going to be a natural drop-off in participation rates as you go up through the age grades and people develop different interests from adolescence through their teenage years and into adulthood.

What should be much more worrying for clubs though is if there’s a big drop-off rate in their younger cohort year on year. If there is, the explanation is a simple one – a lack of fun.

Fun and the opportunity to share it with their friends is the main motivation for young children to play team sport, which is why the Go Games model has been such a huge success since its inception in the early noughties.

GAA Go Games are Hurling/Camogie and Gaelic Football for children up to and including 11 years of age, where every child gets to play (a Go) in every game, for the full game.

The games are small-sided and no scores are recorded so the emphasis is on fun, participation, skill development, and parental encouragement.

The Go Games were devised to prevent the often corrosive damage caused by coaches and parents who put too much of an emphasis on competitive outcomes, and the increased child participation numbers since they were introduced are a testament to their success.

But as GAA Director General, Tom Ryan, acknowledged in his Annual Report which was published last week and can be viewed at the bottom of this article, even the Go Games are now under threat from what he described as the “creeping competitiveness” that’s such a danger to juvenile player retention.

“Too much ‘meaning’ is being assigned to games for the 7-11 age cohort,” said Ryan.

“Where blitzes and fun predominated, we now see the emergence of leagues for such age groups.

“We also have the growing emergence of unofficial tournaments which are being treated like All-Irelands for children as young as 10 years of age or younger.

“We hear of the ‘best’ children playing while others are left on the sideline. The damage that this does to children, families, clubs and the Association is profound.”

Another example of the ‘creeping competitiveness’ at juvenile level that is unfortunately becoming quite common in some of our bigger clubs is ‘streaming’, the practice of dividing a panel of players into groups based on perceived competency, and having an ‘A’ team a ‘B’ team, and potentially even a ‘C’ team in bigger clubs.

It’s not meant to be part of the Go Games model, but some clubs still do it with their youngest age-groups and in other clubs it can be the source of a lot of tension among coaches/parents who disagree on whether it should be done or not.

Unfortunately, some underage coaches are still more motivated than they should be about winning, rather than focusing on fun and participation.

And in their desire to win, they often put too much emphasis nurturing who they believe are their best players at the expense of the rest.

Those who believe this elitist approach is the best path to success would do well to take note of the philosophy of Cork club, Nemo Rangers. Winning isn’t their priority at underage level. Instead, enjoyment and participation is the ‘Nemo Way’.

According to Kevin Barrett who stepped down as club secretary in December and was previously underage chairperson, they’re totally against streaming or any form of elitism at underage level.

“We’ve all seen the statistics as to why kids play sport, and it’s so they can have fun and play with their friends,” he says.

“They want to enjoy themselves so you have to make it enjoyable for them as much as you can and that’s why we don’t stream them.

“There’s work to be done as well, but we can do that and enjoy ourselves as well.

“As a club we’re not going to let anyone get away with doing things that are against the ethos of how we want to develop our players. You have to be vigilant.

“The biggest thing is watching who is involved with the teams, that’s critical. You don’t want people involved with underage teams who are purely in it for the winning. Because that can do a lot of damage.

“We actively weed them out and we’ve been lucky so far. From the age of 14 on then, winning can become more of a thing.”

Nemo Rangers have won 23 county senior football championships, including 13 in the last 23 years, which is far more than any other club in the county.

Clearly their approach to player development works, though Barrett admits it also requires a lot of patience. They’re less successful at underage level than other clubs who stream their teams and put a big emphasis on winning, but have found that playing the long game eventually pays off.

“In my son’s age-group we won nothing until we got to U-16,” says Barrett. “And then we started beating teams who had been beating us all the way up and got to a county final that year.

“Our players don’t win that much underage, but we’re not worried about that, it’s not our priority. We just want to be competitive at underage and bring through as many players as possible to the senior ranks.

“We would always maintain too that hunger can come from dealing with a bit of adversity at a young age. If you put a focus on developing an elite team that wins a lot at a young age and win everything coming up, when they hit that bit of adversity for the first time they can struggle to deal with it.

“One of the guys I’m involved with said the first thing we’ll teach these lads is how to deal with losing and build up their desire to win.

“When we were U-12 we played Carragaline , I’ll never forget it, the score was 4-18 to no score. They were apologising to us afterwards and everything. But then by U-16 we went down there and beat them. And you could see our lads were about a foot taller going off the pitch.

“Their time had come, we just had to suffer all those defeats along the way. There were other clubs we could never beat either for years, but we eventually got the better of them too when the lads got older.

“It was proof that what we were doing was right. You just have to go through a lot of pain and suffering before you come out at the other end.”

The pitfall that Barrett sees with trying to identify and cultivate the best players at a young age and not put as much time and effort into the rest is that every player develops along a different timeline.

A player who excels at the age of 10 because they are physically more mature than their peers might have come back to the pack when everyone else catches up in their teens.

And the obvious danger with taking an elitist approach with a young group of players is that you’ll alienate those perceived as being less competent, which will drive them away from the sport. Perhaps they would blossomed in their teens rather than their adolesence, but instead they were lost to the game.

It should be obvious to every club, but the more players you keep involved for as long as possible, the greater chance you’ll have of success the older they become.

“We had a player who at the age of 7 was already really talented,” says Barrett. “He was head and shoulders above the rest. Brilliant at U-7, U-8, U-9, U-10, U-11. Played soccer as well, and slowly but surely the soccer started pulling him.

“By the time we got to U-16, the other boys got physically stronger than him, and skill-wise got as good as him. It’s an amazing thing to watch how kids develop physically as the years go by. You could come back after Christmas and some guys are after growing nearly a foot.

“By U-16 that young lad was only an ordinary player like the rest of them. So if we had picked our best 11 guys at U-11 I guarantee you we wouldn’t have been as strong by the time we got to U-16.

“You have to be very careful when it comes to identifying who you think are your most talented players, because it keeps changing. They change a lot both physically and mentally as they get older and lot of them too will be drawn away from other sports so the priority should be to continue developing as many players as possible as equally as possible.

“I don’t believe in streaming at all for young kids. They’re only kids, it should be about having fun with your friends.”

Nemo Rangers only separate their players into ‘A’ and ‘B’ teams by the time they reach U-14 level, and continue to train the group as a whole rather than separate them based on ability.

“Kids aren’t stupid,” says Barrett. “Some of them will realise they’re not as good as others and might want to play for a second team, but you’ve got to treat them with respect and treat them all as equals. So even if we have an ‘A’ team and a ‘B’ team, they all train together.

“And if you’re not on the ‘A’ team you’re playing with the ‘B’ team and you’re getting plenty of matches and staying on the pitch and everybody is happy.

“What you don’t want is kids standing on a sideline not getting the opportunity to play. Imagine you’re a parent and you’re watching your kid in that position.

“I’ve been there myself. My daughter played basketball and she had a match all the way over in Kanturk that I got off work early to bring her.

“They were winning the game and she came on in the fourth quarter and I watched the clock and she got just two minutes. That’s all she got. That’s not treating a kid with respect, it’s just not acceptable.”

Last year Barrett helped coach Nemo’s U-16 LGFA team and had a policy that all girls who were in their final year in the grade played a full playing part throughout their championship campaign regardless of ability.

“The girls who are 16 will never be 16 again and they deserve the opportunity to play as much as possible,” he says.

“The really talented 14-year-olds will have another couple of years in the grade.

“We got to a final and the other team won it and brought on two girls for the last five minutes who were clearly 16 year-olds. Five minutes was all they got, while some younger players played the whole match.

“Now, that other team won the cup and were very satisfied with the achievement and that’s fair enough. We lost the final, but I’m satisfied that our 16-year-old girls got to play a full part in it.

“I’m not pontificating to anybody else about what you should be doing, but that’s my take on it.”

The GAA’s Manifesto, ‘Where We All Belong’, prioritises active lifelong participation for all our members.

How can we ensure as many as possible want to have Gaelic games in their lives for as long as possible? Barrett believes the answer is to treat everyone with the same respect, regardless of ability.

“If you join a club you deserve to be treated with respect, and that’s what we always endeavour to do in Nemo Rangers,” he says.

“Some players will become senior club players and some will play for Cork, but only a very small number.

“You have to do your best for the many, not the few, and we have over 1,000 kids in our club who are all entitled to be treated with respect.

“Some of them will be very good and some of them won’t be, but they’re still turning up and you have to give them the time they deserve for the effort they’re making.

“And you have to make that clear to your team coaches and mentors. If they want to be in charge of an elite team, then tell them to try to get involved with a county team.

“But we don’t want to know about it in Nemo and we don’t put up with it.”