Philip Kerr pictured during Derry's U21 clash with Armagh in 2017 (Pic: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile)
As sporting clubs across the country await the green light for a return to sport, we take a look into the nuts and bolts of underage coaching. Philip Kerr has been responsible for putting Magherafelt's structures in place and has spent much of his life looking at new ideas from a range of sports. He spoke to Michael McMullan...
It was impossible for Philip Kerr not to be taken in by coaching. As an impressionable young teacher, the St Pius Magherafelt staffroom dynamic around him left an indelible mark.
His sixth coaching book is a work in progress. He is part of Derry's Games Development Committee and, in 2010, picked up one of two National Coaching and Games Development Awards.
Kerr was at the helm when Magherafelt U14s beat current Player of the Year Brian Fenton's Raheny side to win the 2007 All-Ireland Féile and developed the club's underage structure that has transformed their conveyor belt of talent.
At the start, Kerr was asking questions and selecting nuggets from those around him. Some fitted and some didn't, but it was about selecting which added value.
Lavey's All-Ireland winning manager Brendan Convery was on the St Pius staff at the time. Kerr was impressed with Convery, who he said was 'a master' with a gut instinct for seeing a game-changing switch at the optimum moment.
The school Principal at the time was Sean O'Kane, who was 'ahead of his time' in his approach to preparing teams and soon became involved with successful Derry U21 sides.
“Sean was mad into football and had a great insight into it,” Kerr summarises. “Brian McIver was also there (in St Pius). He was totally steeped in it too and we have became good friends.”
When O'Kane retired from St Pius, he offered Kerr two books. One published by former Down legend Joe Lennon. The other, his own notes all bound together.
“Some of the stuff in it was away ahead of what anyone was doing,” Kerr says of O'Kane's jottings. “It was an approach to coaching, playing and working with people.
Philip celebrates St Pius' 2009 MacLarnon Cup (Pic: Mary K Burke)
“It was such a learning experience,” he added of his experience in St Pius. “You'd go out and help some of those boys and learn their ways of doing things. You'd get an insight, then you start thinking of things yourself...that's the way it happened.”
It was just the beginning. Kerr travelled to Limerick for GAA tutoring courses and later became a Master Tutor. As he admits himself, much of the brainstorming of ideas would occur away from the seminars, as everyone bounced thoughts off one another.
Alongside the late John Morrison and fellow Derry man Terence McWilliams, the trio compiled three books on GAA coaching. Over a period of time, early Saturday morning breakfasts in Cookstown's Glenavon Hotel was followed by 'four or five' hours writing and a few experiments with a ball in the car park outside.
“Terence was a fountain of knowledge, anything he talked about was beyond me, I stopped him and asked him to water it into layman's terms,” Kerr said of their journey to Limerick.
Morrison was 'a different kettle of fish' and he knew it.
“He was away out there and he was happy to be there,” added Kerr. “John was this unusual sort of man people would've taken to very quickly or they'd had found fault with him.
“If you ever saw him taking an underage training session, it was superb with his insights. He looked at things differently, but he didn't care.”
Now, retired from teaching and with a realisation of the narrow range of GAA coaching material compared to other sports, Kerr is back writing again. Amazon's self-publication model gives him an avenue to put his material out there.
One of Philip's books
“My idea is that if anyone buys them they can decide when they are reading them what they like and don't like, which might spark some other idea in them,” Philip explains.
It's better than having nothing at all. Not every piece fits. Adaption is the key.
While not having an official coaching title within the Magherafelt club, Kerr has rolled up his sleeves and sees himself as an unofficial coach developer.
A big population base gives them the raw material, but it's only as good as the hands that shape it together.
The Rossa Óg coaching group, formed at the turn of the millennium, brings together the club's youngest players - nursery to U10 - every Sunday morning.
It's reputation has been backed up with a plethora of underage titles and churning out their share of county players.
When the seniors won the championship in 2019, the minors' narrow defeat at the hands of Lavey was the only title they didn't win.
It is a model that can be lifted and shifted elsewhere, provided the basics are in place. Clubs from across Ulster would pull in on a Sunday morning to run their eyes over what Magherafelt were rolling out.
Kerr speaks highly of the club committee and their approach to youth.
“Magherafelt is one of the most forward thinking clubs in terms of promoting things for youth teams, it's fantastic.” he states.
Money is never an obstacle. Portable goals, poles, hoop, bibs and footballs of all sizes are on tap. But of all of the resources required, plenty of hands is top of the list.
“The biggest thing, for me, is the child to adult ratio. That's a major one,” Philip stresses. “If you are looking at the very younger ones, parental help is vital. The big thing for coaches to learn is that parents don't readily volunteer.”
Other clubs offer the excuse of not having parents who will get involved. Magherafelt were no different. They need to be coaxed and convinced of their place in the bigger picture.
“One who was very successful in getting parents to work with him was Marty D (Donnelly),” Kerr points out. “He would have taken that youngest group and he'd browbeat parents into helping him. I think he called them his 'accidental coaches', which was a great phrase.”
Parents came out of cars, through the gate and across to help with the coaching sessions. The devised games taught agility, balance and coordination, disguised under the umbrella of fun.
A group of Rossa Óg players, pictured with Danny and Shane Heavron from Magherafelt's 2019 championship winning team
As Kerr explains, one lead coach outlined the session and what is expected. Everyone else followed and bit by bit their 'reservoir of coaches' began to accumulate over a 'four or five' year period.
In time, parents were asked for £1 per session, which was pooled together to help the Rossa Óg concept be self sufficient and ease any overall burden on the rest of the club. At the end of the first season, 45 parents who got involved later went through their Level 1 coaching qualification, another success story of the scheme.
“People have said over the years that we were lucky to have so many wanting to help,” Kerr states. “We had to go find them, it's like selling tickets for a draw, you just have to go and do it.
“The big thing I'd tell coaches, it is not 'build it and they will come'. You have to go and seek people, convince them that they are not going to be out of their depth and they are not going to be taking a team for a year. They are going to be giving a hand, then it snowballs.”
One of the parts of Derry's new coaching plan is to have a Games Promotion Officer in every club, with two smaller clubs sharing the resource. Getting someone into the club can help in-house coaching and a 'reluctance' to travel for external coaching sessions in Owenbeg, Armagh and beyond.
Kerr trialled it in Magherafelt over a series of 45 minute sessions on Friday nights. Each club management team came, worked separately as a group on a range of coaching and game scenarios, which were collated and shared with everyone.
From the point of view of rolling the Rossa Óg model into other urban centres, including Derry City, the concept is still the same. Kerr feels the city is making 'great strides' but parental buy-in is the key ingredient.
“Steelstown have a good coaching background now. They have a GPO (Neil Forester) and quite a few parents helping. You have the same in Sean Dolan's and they have an indoor training facility coming their way.
“Brian (O'Donnell in Dolan's) was giving us numbers from a few years ago and now, with the growth in between. Doire Colmcille have a new pitch, Doire Trasna they are about to open their pitch,” Kerr adds.
“Over the years, we have heard it (Derry) was a soccer city. But the Gaelic coaches, who are prominent in Derry, say it's not. Players are there to be tapped and we have just not been tapping as well as we could.
“If parents are landing down to Dolan's with their kids and there is a good organised training session ready, with parents staying to help, it is the same as what's been happening in Magherafelt.”
Two important aspects of underage development is making sure practice sessions are both fun and pointing out the correct techniques.
For someone offering to help, for the first time, it brings with it a concern of instilling bad habits and sending children off on the wrong path.
“You are going onto the pitch to assist, not to lead,” Philip clarifies of someone coaching for the first time. “You will be led by someone who knows what they are doing and it's a matter of copying what the coach is doing.”
That's the first step on the ladder. How far they climb is irrelevant at that point. The responsibility of 'spotting and fixing' body position and skill execution rests with someone else. That's where the lead coach takes over.
Kerr was one of the early champions of spotting and fixing, something he terms a 'fantastic' idea. It sprung up during the nineties as the GAA joined with other sports to explore various coaching methods. But, 25 years later the concept is still in its infancy in 'a lot of places'.
“There are still instances where they are running things and letting mistakes go at the Go Games' age that become embedded, so they are either reluctant to change them or are not sure how to change,” Kerr states.
The window for correcting incorrect technique is small. Once players pass the age of 11 the week fills up. Competitive leagues, championships and school games take over. Finding time in a hectic weekly schedule at that point is the challenge.
In recent years, Magherafelt have begun to take a lead and have introduced player development coaching. It's aimed at individuals. A tweak here or there can lead to a collective gain for the team. The players, now in their late teens, were introduced to the concept at U14 level.
Michael Kerr was coaching the team at the time, with his father Philip and former Gerry O'Loughlin among those lending a hand to polish some of the rough edges.
One player, observed as having a wide turning arc, was taken out and given coaching pointers to turn his man and cut inside.
“That was seen as what we called a 'priority challenge' and the big thing was that if he got his turn right it would help the team as well, but it takes time,” Philip explains.
Others were singled out to improve their defensive stance and footwork, before being reintroduced to group tackling grids. Over time, it helped both the individual and the group.
“The problem I have with it is that it resided in Magherafelt for too long, without going elsewhere,” Kerr adds. “Even within the club it hasn't permeated to all the teams because people get scared of it.”
He likens it to something he saw when helping Brian McIver coach Ballinderry minors. It's about spotting a weakness and offering a solution. McIver brought a chair out to the pitch one evening to work on players timing their jump, off one leg, while performing an overhead catch. By simply getting players to throw the ball up for each other didn't allow the technique to be properly broken down.
“To put something static, the player was learning to take off, catch the ball and land on the run, rather than jumping off both feet,” Kerr explains.
With the basics in place, the rest of the skill would expand further during full practice and game situations.
“We need to make individual coaching part of our culture, so that in five to ten years time, people will say that's the way they do things in Derry,” Kerr adds.
Time needs to be afforded to it and he made reference to the Magherafelt U14 coaching team from last season. Of the five people involved, some were looking out for individuals and helping iron out any creases in their game. And from a coaching management point of view it gave everyone a value.
“The emphasis of spotting and fixing at the older age, 11 and up, has changed from just technical skills to much more about game craft,” Kerr adds.
“It is all about looking where they are running, the timing of their runs and their positioning on the pitch. Are they all sea, or do they know what they are doing?
“You'll have people who pick it up no bother, but you will have other people if you look at them on the pitch, they really won't know what they are doing there. They may occupy a space, but you have to ask why they are occupying the space.”
Every building block on the coaching journey contributes to the overall picture of developing players for the senior team. Kerr's lifetime of figuring which pieces of the coaching jigsaw fitted best served him and Magherafelt well.
The long-term gain was Danny Heavron stepping off the bus at Rossa Park, in the Autumn of 2019, with the John McLaughlin Cup glistening in the flashing camera lights.
The Rossa Óg structure, with a reservoir of coaches, will have the club regularly jostling for a place at the top table. Success doesn't appear. It takes the wherewithall to grab it.
Philip's coaching books are available to purchase online via Amazon.
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