Alan Quinlan: far too much pressure in schools rugby

Winner-takes-all mentality putting too much pressure on our young players

Blackrock form a huddle before their supporters. “It’s wrong that we build these competitions up so much that kids end up being so devastated when it doesn’t work out for them.” Photograph: Colm O’Neill/Inpho

Blackrock form a huddle before their supporters. “It’s wrong that we build these competitions up so much that kids end up being so devastated when it doesn’t work out for them.” Photograph: Colm O’Neill/Inpho

 

I was at Crescent Comprehensive College in Limerick one day a couple of weeks back, bringing the Six Nations trophy around with John Hayes. What I couldn’t get over on the day was the atmosphere in the school. There was a real despondency in the air. When I found out the reason behind the gloom was that they’d just been knocked out of the Munster Schools Cup by Glenstal Abbey, I couldn’t believe it.

I know sport is important. But school is school. The whole atmosphere of the place shouldn’t be dictated by a game. When you’re getting to that point, then I think maybe you’ve gone too far.

The more I watch schools rugby, the more concerned I’d be about the amount of attention it gets and the level of importance put on it. It takes young people and turns them into semi-professional rugby players before they’re ready for it. It turns them into the heroes of their schools, with all the pressures and expectations that come with along that.

There are tons of good sportsmen who come out of these schools and I played with plenty of them in my career. But for every one of them that makes it through to play for their province or for Ireland, there are dozens and dozens who go through all that work and training and expectation for just one day.

That’s one thing that would worry me about the competitions, especially in the Leinster schools. It’s one shot and you’re gone. For all the work they make these kids put in, for all the months of training and early mornings and late nights they go through, it seems a bit much to have it as straight knock-out.

One thing

And not just for the kids.

I met a Dublin woman a few weeks ago whose son was distraught because he hadn’t been picked on the schools team. I got the feeling from talking to her that she was nearly more upset at the fact that he hadn’t made the team than the fact that he was in such a bad way about it.

Young people are faced with disappointments in all walks of life.

Second Captains

But by making such a big deal out of this competition that is supposed to be peripheral to school-life, I think we run the risk of turning young people off the game. If you’re 17 years old and you’ve put your heart and soul into it but you’re gone after one day, it can be a lonely place to be. Especially if that’s as far as your rugby career is likely to go. You must be there afterwards wondering was it all worth it.

I know in the Munster competition, you get a second crack at it even if you lose your first game but overall I’d like to see schools rugby organised like the Champions Cup. Divide teams into groups of four and give every school three games at least. Let them qualify through to semi-finals.

That way, you can take some of the pressure off these kids and let the playing squads breathe a bit so that different players get picked each week. It would give guys more opportunities to get into the team and make it a more fulfilling experience for everyone. Instead, we have one highly-pressurised situation and then nothing afterwards. It’s a bad environment to create for kids.

I watch it and wonder would I like to send my young son into that environment. Do I want to send him to a rugby school? Is it fair on him to put him into that environment? Do I want him being in a place that is elitist because of the sport he wants to play? I’m just hesitant – rightly or wrongly – to want him to go to a school where it’s all rugby, rugby, rugby.

Vital part

I’m not sure if I’d like my son to be in that environment where they put so many hours into training, five or six days a week, gym in the morning, rugby field in the afternoon. School is for school. Or it should be for school.

I never regretted not going to a rugby playing school. I maybe regretting not putting enough work into my schoolwork right enough but that’s another story! I never looked at the guys I played with in later life and thought that I had missed out because I didn’t have that school-team experience where the senior cup was the be-all and end-all.

The likes of Ronan O’Gara and Donncha O’Callaghan and Anthony Foley all speak highly of their time in that environment but everybody has to go their own road. They were the ones who were talented enough and hard-working enough to make it to the top. It was a big part of what made them what they are. But tons of kids were turned off by the experience too.

Schools rugby has got so big now. It’s in the media, on the TV. The schools have high-profile coaches. Everything builds up towards the schools cup competition and nothing else matters. Schools players are told to concentrate on their school team and they drift away from their clubs. It’s all-consuming.

What messages are you sending out? You’re telling kinds that it’s all about winning. That success on the pitch is everything. That schoolwork is secondary to rugby. None of this is good for a 17-year-old in my opinion. At that age, the most important thing for players and for the sport itself is participation. Winning is great, yes, but it’s still just a game. It’s not what you go to school for.

I don’t think we, as adults, should be instilling that winner-takes-all mentality into them at that age. Not at school. It’s fine if they’re playing at the weekend in a club and rugby (or soccer or hurling or football or whatever) is the main reason for going. But your school team should just be something you happen to do while you’re at school. It shouldn’t be the reason you’re there.

Odd feeling

But it was as if the school was defined by the success or failure of the senior rugby team. I just find that a shame. I couldn’t get my head around it. I really think you’ve lost a bit of perspective if you’re placing that much importance on a schools match.

Over the past few years, I’ve talked to a few kids in the aftermath of schools games. Parents get in touch the odd time asking will I chat to a lad who’s made a mistake that cost his team in a senior cup game. I always just tell them that the future is not going to be defined in any way by what happened.

But also, I always just come away from those chats thinking that it’s wrong that we build these competitions up so much that kids end up being so devastated when it doesn’t work out for them.

At such a young age, you shouldn’t be allowed to feel like your life is ruined because of the result of a schools cup match.

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