The importane of well run Go Games
A FEW years ago I was coach of Silverbridge u-10 team. Mick McGeeney was manager. Or maybe he was coach and I was manager. Anyway, we reached the final of south Armagh championship and our opponents were St Patrick’s Cullyhanna.
It was a tense atmosphere because the senior match between the sides just a few weeks earlier had descended into some of the ugliest scenes of fighting ever witnessed and feelings were quite brittle between the two clubs. But the children had more sense, the game was played in a fantastic spirit and after extra time, the sides were level.
As the last seconds of the game ebbed away, we agreed to share the trophy and both sides shook hands and headed off as winners. But officials from the south Armagh board weren’t impressed and informed us that if the final wasn’t replayed, there would be no referees for either clubs the following year.
And so, under sufferance, the rematch took place two months later and we lost and the children, some as young as eight roared and cried at being beaten.
The sight of young players, many of whom couldn’t even tie their shoelaces, wailing in the aftermath of defeat, and feeling they had let the club down, would be enough to deflate even the most battle hardened of coaches and make you question your very involvement in GAA.
Thankfully, Headquarters was plotting to intervene in this nonsense at a national level and now, thanks to research, strategic planning and a motion at Congress, no child u-12 years of age has to suffer the trauma of defeat, or find themselves thrown at an early age, into the parochial hatreds that can blight the GAA.
A cautionary tale, but one which has significant relevance in the context of, the Olympics, English soccer and the GAA. It is quite remarkable that a country as small as Britain should be sitting in third place in the Olympic medal table.
It is an outstanding tribute to the investment the UK makes in sport and how it values the status that high achieving athletes can give to their position on the world stage. And yet, on a night when they won three golds within half an hour from Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah and Greg Rutherford, yet again, their soccer team failed and went out of the Olympics on penalties.
Alan Hansen made an absorbing documentary last year on why England can’t win major soccer competitions. He went around the country seeing how young people are prepared for the top level and discovered that from the age of seven, children are put into leagues, cups and high stakes competitions.
The result of this is that the priority of the coach is not to develop the team, but to win the game and with that comes all the rejection of the lads on the line who won’t get a run out because the one nil lead has to be protected.
The same was true of underage GAA where competition was the order of the day. If you were playing Cross and leading by a point going into the last quarter, the clutch of subs tugging your jumper to get on hadn’t a hope because pride of the parish and the historical baggage of years of hurt would ooze its ugly way to the surface.
Victory would have to come at any price, even if that resulted in the wasted feeling of a dozen subs who got no football that day, not to mention their disappointed parents.
I remember one Sunday morning in 2009 as chairman of the 125 committee, I had the Sam Maguire and Liam MacCarthy cup in the boot of the car to take them to Limerick for a club that was having a centenary dinner.
We were playing Cross in the u-8s and after the game, which we won, I threw the two cups onto the bus as a novelty for the kids to marvel at on the short journey home. And what did the driver do?
Drove the bus round the square and him beeping the horn like a lunatic at the puzzled passers by coming from Mass. It was hilarious looking at the congregation doing double takes at these youngsters cheering, waving their jerseys and holding aloft the two most coveted cups in Irish sport. All because we won an u-8 match!
And for every child walking off the field in exhilaration after a derby won, there is another one whose self esteem has been wasted by spending the match on the line. There is a limit to how long a young lad, or his parents, are going to put up with this treatment.
So the GoGames are the way forward. No leagues, or championships, or rivalry; just plenty of wee games, blitzes and the most important thing; fun.
And for those who criticise it saying that the children want to play competitive games, I would say yes, but they also want to eat Coco Pops for dinner, but we are the adults and are supposed to know what is best for them.
The only thing is, we do not have a barometer to gauge how successful this approach is proving, or how it is going to make our games better in the long run. We know for example that England ranks fourth in the World FIFA rankings, the Irish Republic 26th and Northern Ireland 102nd and from this we can assess what the state of each of these sports within a global context.
But for obvious reasons, we don’t have a similar gauge for Gaelic games, so at best we are just surmising about whether the game is better, or worse than years ago.
Certainly, if you were to listen to the purists, you would be depressed about the current state of Gaelic football. Apparently it is cynical, without much skill coupled with a ridiculous emphasis on fitness and bulk at the expense of the natural beauty of the game.
They might be right and maybe they’re not. However, if you watch the Donegal, Mayo All Ireland semi final from 1992, you would be disappointed. An error ridden, mistake laden chore of a match, only redeemed by the exciting prospect that one of these underdogs would get to the All Ireland final. No comparison to what we saw on Sunday at all.
One thing is sure however. We are on the right path in terms of coaching if we continue placing the emphasis on fun and not on victory at all costs.
And we shouldn’t be too enchanted by the gold medal winners either. This is only part of sport. The elite part, the painful part and at times the ridiculous part – have you seen the synchronised swimming, not to mention riding a horse sideways in a field?
Perhaps we need to realise as well that as long as the GAA, with its tangible presence in every parish in Ireland, takes each child with any sort of athletic talent and gives them a ball, a pair of boots and a team to play for, the prospect of us getting any sort of a medal haul will remain a distant aspiration. We can’t have it both ways, but perhaps it’s a price worth paying.