David Gough: GAA must cater for 80% of under-12s who thrive in a non-competitive environment

All-Ireland final referee questions judgment of those advocating for competitive games for young players

David Gough, one of the country’s leading intercounty referees, has defended the GAA’s Go Games policy which states all matches up to and including under-12 should be non-competitive.

Gough, who will referee the Cork v Kerry All-Ireland SFC round-robin game at Páirc Uí Chaoimh on Saturday, is a school principal in Inchicore and a former chairman of Cumann na mBunscol in Dublin.

The Meath referee was also on the Games Development Committee established during John Horan’s presidency, where among the areas they examined was participation for children under the age of 12.

“I’m a huge advocate of the Go Games mentality and the rationale behind it,” says Gough. “Coming from a teaching background, we know in any school that generally 80 per cent of children will learn and thrive in a co-operative environment and 20 per cent will learn and thrive in a competitive environment.


“Within the GAA, the competitive children will always be catered for, they will always be the ones first picked on the team. The difficulty comes with the 80 per cent of children who don’t thrive in competitive environments, historically the GAA haven’t always catered for those.

“That’s why the idea of the Go Games is so important, because the children who are competitive will have the opportunity to be competitive at under-14, under-16, all the way up, so they will be catered for.

“At its very fundamental, sport is supposed to be fun. The competitive children will know if they won or lost either way, but Go Games takes all the stress off the children, the parents, the managers and referees. The children are just allowed to play and enjoy their activity for what it is.”

Gough, who was the man in the middle for the 2019 All-Ireland SFC final, believes a win at all costs mentality contributes hugely to a drop off in participation levels among children.

“Firstly, because there is too much pressure and stress put on them,” he says. “They are told they have to turn up for training two nights a week, and maybe they can’t play a soccer match, or a rugby match, or a tennis match.

“Then, after turning up for a game, they might not even get a chance to play because the win at all costs mentality forces coaches to leave players on the sideline.

“It is absolutely dreadful to think children are brought to a fun activity, a sport, but left on the side of the pitch and essentially told, ‘you’ve come here for an hour but you can’t play because you are not good enough or as skilled as the person beside you.’

“It’s a dreadful thing to do to a child’s personal development and their self-esteem, that a coach would turn around and leave them sitting on a bench.

“I do understand people talk about building resilience and those characteristics of winning and losing and accepting your victories humbly and your defeats, but all of that will come for those children.

“It’s hugely damaging to a child’s mindset to be excluded from something. Maslow will tell you, one of the most basic needs a human has is to belong.

“That is why we play sport, that is why children play sport and that is why adults put them in sport – not to win an All-Ireland medal, but to socialise and become healthy human beings, to grow a love for Gaelic games and become lifelong members of the association.”

The issue, sparked off by a GAA circular last week reminding clubs of the Go Games policy, has generated huge debate in recent days, with some parents and coaches putting forward the counterargument that kids should be offered the chance to play Gaelic games in a competitive environment at that age.

“I would have to question their judgment,” adds Gough. “I would ask where have they got their opinion from and if they could back it up, because education psychologists and educationalists will tell you there is no need for children to be involved in competitive sport before the age of 12.

“I’d ask them to validate or justify their point. It’s fine that they have that opinion, but back it up. Don’t just throw it out there.”

Gordon Manning

Gordon Manning

Gordon Manning is a sports journalist, specialising in Gaelic games, with The Irish Times