GAA coaches across Ireland must find a way of curbing the drop-off rate after U14 level. (Pic: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile)
Last week, this column advocated for as many games as is possible within what will be a packed sporting calendar.
Players have endured a year of 5K runs and skills challenges via Zoom. It's time to get balls whizzing around coaching sessions, in house games on tap and a multitude of fixtures.
Supporters will be absent. As will the use of dressing rooms. But that's okay. In time that'll return. For now players need action. That's the priority, though it would be a nice touch if some of the older fans, who have already been vaccinated, could get out to see a game.
This column has also been pushing for the importance of young people getting out and active. The buzz from the endorphins flying around the body is one aspect, but the social interaction they have missed has been colossal.
Underage coaches don't realise how much of an influence they have on the players under their watch. From interviewing players from various teams for nostalgic features, they will often recall their early days playing sport.
Just last week, former Ballinderry player Martina Devlin described Rita Moran, a coach at St Mary's Magherafelt, as a 'fantastic person and mentor', a 'role model' and the 'most influential' person on her camogie career. It was more than just sport.
As teams go back to training, it makes me think how clubs have a second chance to make a first impression on our youth. Just as a teacher can shape the career path of a student, a coach and sporting memories will determine how far a player will develop. You can't make a horse drink, but it still has to be brought to the water first.
Seamus Downey still talks about Lavey's 'one ball each' philosophy at underage that helped hone a group of youngsters at a club languishing in the realms of 'B' football into one of the top sides in Ulster. Their indoor facility was a help, but working on the basic skills all year round has worked wonders.
The same can be said for Glen, who got their house in order before totally dominating underage football with a group that has their seniors jostling for a place at the top table. People will point to the size of their catchment area, but it wasn't until they organised themselves properly that things started to change.
Underage coaching in clubs should be about bringing everyone up a level.
Not only will it give everyone an enjoyable experience, which is the number one priority, But, in the long term, it will be a much healthier club.
I always remember chatting to Crossmaglen player Cathal Short and looking on with envy at their success. What made them stand out?
Yes, they had county players like himself, Oisin McConville, the McEntees and Francie Bellew. But, in club football, if, on a given day, the county players from each team were to cancel each other out, Cross' other players were of a higher standard. This made the difference.
His uncle Aidan, a coach at the club and former teacher in St Patrick's Maghera, spoke at an underage coaching camp I attended one weekend in St Mary's Magherafelt. He revealed something that has always stuck out.
Other clubs in Armagh judged themselves on being able to beat Crossmaglen at underage level. A victory over the Rangers constituted a successful year.
In Cross, their benchmark was for the minor team to produce at least four players, every year, to push into the senior panel the following season.
They didn't concentrate on just the elite. Some years they would churn out more, but four was always the target. Underage medals were a welcome addition and driving the standards of coaching would invariably have them at the cutting edge of competitions.
Their underage teams seeing All-Ireland titles being paraded into the hall helped with the motivation, but it still doesn't kick the ball over the bar for you.
The biggest challenge in the GAA is giving everyone a chance to play on a regular basis. The Go Games format at the younger ages has been brilliant in terms of smaller sided games. Not only does it give more touches, but a panel of 21 can be split into three teams of seven. There will be no subs and everyone has the chance to test their coaching in a game.
The problem started at U14 level, with full dug-outs. A bigger club, of which there are a few, can add in a few extra U12s to take the total to 30 and enter two U14 teams. It's not ideal, if there is a case of playing across two codes – football and hurling or camogie.
The case mentioned above is common, with three teams of seven becoming a team of 15, with 6 subs. This is where underage coaches need to ask themselves questions?
How can I finish the season with 21 players still coming to coaching sessions? We have all heard stories of the top three or four players not going as far as senior level. Emigration, injury, a loss of interest or their sheer size at underage no longer allowing them to dominate a game at minor level and above.
In the long term, it's bringing everyone up the ranks so that come senior level, there are enough numbers to field senior and reserve teams with regularity. That's a healthy club.
Bringing more players up through the underage grades is more important than success. Winning the odd trophy is great and if you are able to win U12, U14, U16 and minor titles while bringing everyone along, then that's the ultimate.
Underage players will stick with you if they are getting games. In a squad of 21, like above, starting the same team every week is criminal. Ten minutes at the end of a game every week isn't development. It is tokenism.
The greatest prize you can give anyone is a starting jersey. Based on attendance at training, everyone should be given a chance to play a full game as often as possible. If someone is seen as a key player, use games to rotate them into different positions. Challenge them to use their weaker side, to develop a dummy. Give them the best possible chance to better themselves. By senior level, they will thank you for it.
If you have big numbers at training, divide them up and play seven a side games. Two teams on, the other working on skills with another coach before swapping places. Introduce a competition every so often. Count the blocks, count the assists, count the dummies. Stick a photo of the winning player up on the club social media. Anything to keep things fresh.
It is up to coaches at nursery level to give players the skill base. By U14, they should be playing as many games as possible. And the more they get at training, the better placed they are to shine in a league game.
When the final bell tolls for the season, if a coaching group can still boast the same amount of players, they have delivered in spades for them.
That's the sort of impression a coach will leave on a child. After that, their development will take care of itself and a greater sense of self-esteem will see them blossom away from the pitch.
What does 2021 hold for the teams in your club?
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