Rethink needed if significant adult fall-off is to be avoided
The GAA needs seriously to re-consider its approach to its games if it is to avoid a significant fall-off in its adult playing numbers. Michael Martin, chair of Croke Park’s National Games development Committee, has told The Irish Times that the association “has to educate” its membership about the need to change.
“I was looking at a graph,” he said, “which showed there was a 30 per cent increase up to the under-12 level but after that the graph drops. I’m aware that every sport experiences some sort of a drop at that age but our drop is really alarming.
“We’re starting to lose players at 14 and 15 and it really drops at 16, 17 and up.”
Martin cites four main reasons for the failure to maximise participation at youth and adult level.
Lack of a developmental ethos and a culture of keeping the best (players) and ignoring the rest.
Inadequate competition frameworks with too much emphasis on championships and the absence of a meaningful programme of regular, scheduled games.
The numbers dropping off, especially in urban Ireland.
Postponement of fixtures often for the flimsiest of reasons – to accommodate a small minority to the detriment of the vast majority.
“There are three distinct groups,” he said: “child, youth and adult. I think the development work in the children’s category has been very successful and we need to look at replicating that at youth and adult levels.
“We made a submission to the FDC (Football Development Committee). Their immediate focus will be on the rules of the game but later we’d be keen to promote the importance of providing a decent programme of games at senior level and get rid of the situation where players don’t know when they’re playing.”
Attitudes to child development have been revolutionised by the introduction of the Go Games model, small-sided formats which prioritise participation and fun, which was introduced at the 2010 annual congress having been advocated by now GAA president Liam O’Neill in the face of some strong opposition.
Participation rates have soared with an increase of 29 per cent in the past two years. “I’ve been at meetings where people who opposed the Go Games initiative now acknowledge that it was the correct way to go,” according to Martin.
“Our big challenge is to change the mindset on adult games. We’re trying to develop a system where the player comes first but a lot of the reasons we get from people who disagree are based on the effect on clubs and teams.”
One of the most obvious examples of this is the problem of multi-eligibility – which leaves young players open to playing for a range of teams across clubs, colleges and age-groups – and contributes to fixtures chaos when commitments with one team forces postponements of matches involving another.
“Multi-eligibility is a problem and we’re looking at it. It’s unlikely to be addressed at next year’s congress because it’s one of those things requiring an education campaign. My view is that we should drop minor to under-17 so that it would be part of the youth structures, from the age 13 to 17.
“That would leave 18-year-olds as part of the adult game, able to concentrate on their Leaving Certificate and allow minor players focus on youth games. The overload is having an impact at senior level as well and there have been examples of senior matches being affected in counties where the minor county team is going well.”
Attempts to rationalise under-age competitions have struggled to gain acceptance. A proposal to amalgamate minor and under-21 into an under-19 grade was advanced by the work group looking into the issue of burnout five years ago but it was defeated.
“Some clubs are of the mentality that they’re just waiting for young players to reach eligibility instead of working to develop 19- and 20-year-olds or even managing players in their 30s so that they could continue to contribute.
“This isn’t a great use of resources. I read the comments of Caolan Mooney (former Down player now with Collingwood in the AFL) and he was saying that he’d had enough of football at home. I can see how that might happen.
“I remember when I was involved a couple of years ago with the Wexford minors, we had a challenge match against Down on a bank holiday Monday. I’d heard a lot about him (Mooney) by reputation but wasn’t that impressed when I saw him. It’s only looking back I realise that playing that game was probably the last thing he wanted to do, as he’d probably been playing on both days of that weekend.”