Is the price of winning at all costs too dear?

Joe Brolly’s address to the GAA’s annual coaching conference raises a valid issue


At Croke Park on Saturday Joe Brolly brought the house down. Delivering the final keynote address of the GAA’s annual Games Development Conference, the Derry All-Ireland winner and Sunday Game pundit revisited last year’s most controversial pre-occupation – winning at all costs – and delivered a thought-provoking and entertaining manifesto on a playing philosophy not based on fear but “on adventure and fun”.

He told the story of how in the course of coaching children at St Brigid’s, Belfast, he had scrupulously encouraged a deflated player after losing a juvenile final – narrowly – by emphasising the positive. The usual stuff and I paraphrase: you’ve no reason to be upset, you were a hero out there and it was just the bounce of a ball etc, etc.

The response was blunt and showed that kids, as well as adults, value outcomes. “Joe, would you ever f*** off.”

The serious point at the heart of Brolly’s discursive presentation was that the natural desire to compete and win shouldn’t be confused with winning at all costs. Brolly is an unlikely Pollyanna given his flair for controversy and the relish with which he embraces it but he was posing a valid question.

Gratify ourselves
Is it worth subverting everything we’re raised to believe about Gaelic games and their values to gratify ourselves with success? As Brolly suggested, win well and everyone celebrates but win at all costs and no-one else really cares.

He took issue with George Orwell’s 1945 essay The Sporting Spirit, inspired by the famous Moscow Dynamo tour of post-war Britain, alluding to its central theme that all meaningful sport has to be competitive. The full quote from Orwell is interesting, particularly in a GAA context.

“You play to win, and the game has little meaning unless you do your utmost to win. On the village green, where you pick up sides and no feeling of local patriotism is involved, it is possible to play simply for the fun and exercise: but as soon as the question of prestige arises, as soon as you feel that you and some larger unit will be disgraced if you lose, the most savage combative instincts are aroused.”

It’s hard to argue with that as a portrayal of the passions that drive championship competition where it converges with Brolly’s view is in effectively acknowledging that the rules of the game have to deal adequately with those who disregard them in order to benefit their team by simply making such behaviour more of a disadvantage or discouragement than has been the case. Consequently Brolly supports the black card, introduced to combat cynical or calculated fouling, and an example of how the GAA are trying to change attitudes.

It is perfectly correct to hold that encouraging children to obey rules and play fair is a primary means of influencing the adult environment but it equally needs reinforcement at senior level by ensuring that crime does not pay because despite the higher ideals espoused by Brolly, sticks as well as carrots are needed.

In other words you don’t have to agree fully with Orwell to accept that the threat of disadvantage is important to ensure fair play.

Rob feel-good atmosphere
Moving the coaching conference from the end of the year to January initially seemed to rob the event of the feel-good, end-of-term atmosphere that it had developed but increasingly it looks like a good decision.

It can be hard to feel the pulse racing when the subject of coaching is raised. For many sports followers, the subject of how games are developed and taught is too tight a focus compared to the excitement of playing or even watching.

Yet Saturday was a bracing blast of enthusiasm going into the new year. The quality of the presentations guaranteed audience attention for the casual observer as well as the involved coach even if the range of topics was more restricted than it would be in a year when adult coaching modules are on the agenda.

It also demonstrated that everything is connected from the earliest age upwards. It is for instance now nearly a decade since the Go Games initiative was introduced for children. Based on emphasising participation rather than outcome and incorporating small-sided (only a few players taking on each other) and conditioned (making a particular skill such as tackling or passing the purpose of the match) games it has had a significant impact on football and hurling – an impact beginning to make itself felt at the highest levels.

Christy O’Connor, the journalist, author and hurling coach, made the point at the conference forum about Clare’s senior success citing the influence of PJ Kelleher from Bodyke who urged underage coaches to open their minds to the possibilities of more skilful, albeit smaller, players – an approach running contrary to the Clare tradition of physicality – reared in the more carefree environs of Go Games.

Pioneering work
The culmination of this pioneering work was seen in the team which enchanted last year’s All-Ireland championship with their speed, touch and exuberance, the type of qualities exalted by Brolly later on in the afternoon.

If a good start is half the work, 2014’s off to a flier.

nThe full video record of this year’s Games Development Conference can be seen at the end of the month on the GAA portal, which will be re-launched on 30th January.

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