John Allen: Holistic approach required when coaching kids
Imparting life values like humility, honesty, sincerity and integrity vitally important
Limerick hurlers training. “I can’t imagine that there is too much fun in being an intercounty player. It’s a serious business.” Photograph?: James Crombie/Inpho
The Irish soccer team gave their many followers value for money in their Euro 2016 campaign. Iceland (and Wales) though really lit up the competition and, in Iceland’s case, not an ash cloud in sight.
With a total population of around 334,000 people it was some achievement to be as competitive as they proved to be. After their draw with Portugal in their opening group game, Cristiano Ronaldo moodily dismissed their defensive play and their chances of going any further in the competition. How wrong he was.
But this overnight propulsion to glory didn’t actually happen overnight. Since the beginning of the century the island has invested in a player development system that is now reaping rewards.
From the age of three, any child can access Iceland’s army of 600 qualified coaches. They train on a vast network of purpose built heated indoor pitches, many of them near schools. These pitches, apparently, were developed with Uefa and government help. Sure enough, after 15 years (and in spite of those ash clouds and economic storms) the system has produced some really good players.
But, of course, while infrastructure is important it is the people and what they do, how they do it, and the support they provide that are the most important.
As I’ve written before, I can’t say I remember anything of what was said in dressing rooms but I do remember how a coach or two made me feel.
The other request was always for drills. It seemed the more drills the better – and the more complicated the more impressive it would be when they were delivered at the under-12s training.
Much has changed in those 20 years. There is so much more knowledge, information and guidance available. The constant, though, is that people are still people and there is a growing awareness and realisation that children are not young adults (well mentally anyway) and shouldn’t be treated as such.
There is so much more science involved in sport today and so much change in approach as new studies bring new or differing thinking to the fore.
Recently I watched a group of children on the beach in Lahinch taking, what I think, were their first lessons in surfing. I was impressed with what I heard and how gentle the instructors were with these primary school kids.
I then watched for a good while as all the kids participated all of the time. I could understand why the total participation could have so much appeal. Once they were in the water they were completely engaged. They fell off and got on again. The waves and current were the teachers. Lessons were being constantly learned and a little guidance was thrown in now and then.
For the GAA, children’s sport has to be the skill-learning model. Total participation, the correct gear and a little guidance and patience. But of course there’s more to it than that in a team sport.
In an ideal world the coach should be always aware that the life values he has are hugely important especially when dealing with children and youths. Values such as humility, honesty, sincerity and integrity can carry people a long way in life. The bigger picture has to be the most important one. Sport, hobbies and pastimes are just that, a way of filling in free time. Life is what happens the rest of the time and surely it is more important to prepare the child for life and teach them values through sport that they can carry with them forever.
Another area that, in my estimation, is important is the one of teaching the children to think. The more I watch hurling at adult level the more I realise how important it is to have players who can think for themselves. There’s a body of opinion there that there are too many tactics involved in the modern game and that players at that level are almost always playing to a system which all has some truth in it. The player who has the ability to think for himself will stand out in today’s fast-moving game. How much easier was it when 15 set up against 15 in an orderly fashion?
The modern day coach should be constantly asking questions of his players and not constantly endeavouring to provide the answers. Ask the questions during training games, pre, post and at half-time in real games. Discussion and not blame should be the aim and a real effort should be made to get the players to provide the answers.
For the coach, manager, mentor of the adult player it is important to have an interest in the players’ life away from the sport. We all like to be valued and appreciated and understood. Players at senior intercounty level have much to deal with. Their life styles are very much dictated by their attention to their sport. I can’t imagine that there is too much fun in being an intercounty player. It’s a serious business.
For the child, fun has to be the hook that will keep them coming to their clubs and ensuring that they stay involved until the time comes to make a decision on what part sport will play in their lives in this fast -paced demanding society.
And maybe, like Iceland, in a sporting context, all our counties will develop young people who will progress to be ‘overnight successes’ themselves .