Sports clubs losing members over under-age competitiveness

Oireachtas committee hears children dropping out because they can’t get games

The GAA said a sea change is coming in its approach to participation at under-age level. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

The GAA said a sea change is coming in its approach to participation at under-age level. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons


A Co Dublin sporting organisation lost hundreds of child members because of its competitive ethos at under-age level, an Oireachtas committee has heard.

Fine Gael TD Alan Farrell, chairman of the committee on children and youth affairs, said two clubs in his local area were the beneficiaries of a policy which developed at a club elsewhere.

Mr Farrell said the competitive nature of the club, which he did not name nor the code involved, started at under-12 and effectively excluded hundreds of children because it was only focused on the best of them.

“I think that is wrong,” he said. “There should be an encouragement for kids to participate up to a certain age where there shouldn’t be competition involved.

“For a child to show up and to train just as hard as everybody else, and not have that talent, for a sporting organisation to exclude them, I don’t think that is good enough.”

The committee is examining how to combat childhood obesity in Ireland.

Excessive competitiveness

Mr Farrell stressed that excessive competitiveness at under-age level is not solely the preserve of the GAA but is widespread in other codes too.

Colin Regan, the GAA’s community and health manager, told the committee the association is working toward a “sea change” in attitudes towards competitiveness at under-age levels.

All under-age coaches now have to participate in a foundation-level coaching scheme, he said, where the emphasis is on participation rather than competition. He acknowledged that it might take a generation to deliver the cultural and philosophical changes needed.

Mr Regan criticised the culture in some GAA clubs where competitiveness starts at the earliest age because “some coaches within our clubs would seek to live vicariously thorugh their underage teams”.

He told the committee that the ethos of participation rather than competitiveness was at the centre of the 150 GAA clubs participating in the association’s Healthy Club Project. This was set up in 2013 with a view to making GAA clubs “healthy hubs” focused not just on competition, but on health and wellbeing.

“One of their big motivations is to address that motivation within their own clubs. We see that project as a further antidote to the win at all costs ethos that can carry across all codes,” he said.

Junk food

Mr Regan also said the GAA had turned down sponsorship from companies involved in junk food “on a case-by-case basis”. He said alcohol companies had “zero” sponsorship of underage teams.

Senator Catherine Noone (Fine Gael) suggested that Kelloggs, the sponsors of the GAA’s highly successful Cúl Camps, produced cereals that were “pure sugar” and “confectionary sold as cereal”.

However, Mr Regan said many of its cereals would fall into the “acceptable parameters” for children’s nutrition.

He said that since Kelloggs came on board as sponsors, the number of children attending Cúl Camps, had almost doubled so some 142,000 participants every summer which made the camps one of the biggest promotional events for children in the world.