Sport

Enda McGinley: Clubs should play the long game when nurturing players

Silhouette of boys playing football against a warm sunrise sky.

WATCHING new recruits to the inter-county scene attempt to make a name for themselves during the Dr McKenna Cup is a stark reminder of the difficulties of trying to make it to the top of the game.

Their efforts, however, are not unique. They are replicated across every team, every code, every level and every age group. Listening to some of the black and white comments that arise from well-meaning supporters across all these teams regarding the level of the various players reminds me of how harsh we as the viewing public are.

We are very quick to dismiss a player as just not good enough. Often, though, our judgements are very far off the mark.

At county level, there will be young players in the next few weeks, who, after just a few McKenna Cup games, will be informed that their inter-county hopes and dreams are at an end.

It is certainly harsh, but then top level sport is not known to be a forgiving environment and the cut must be made somewhere. While it is likely one of the more unpleasant tasks in a county manager’s job description, I’m sure they do it a manner that demonstrates empathy and respect for the dropped player. What is not maybe as measured is our own verdicts on such players. Chatting to supporters after McKenna Cup games or following reports online or on social media, the verdicts are somewhat less empathetic.

The verdict among some supporters tends to be very black and white and often brutal.

“Not good enough”, “nowhere near it”, “no feet”, “headless”, “too slow” are just some of the verdicts handed down.

Yet if we pride ourselves on being different to other sports in terms of how it’s all about the ‘pride in the jersey’ then I think we, as supporters, need to show a bit of cop-on.

I think this type of behaviour can also result in a deeper and more detrimental impact within our game and within the clubs.

At club level, the importance in not coming to conclusions on players’ levels is even more important.

Potential is the key word. Being too quick to make stark judgements on players’ playing level and their potential is possibly ruinous.

At underage level, this is a huge issue, which ironically has the consequence of under-developing both the weaker and the stronger players.

The issue has been well identified in soccer and I would be surprised if it didn’t apply to GAA as well – that a player’s birthday has a huge impact on their potential of reaching the top of the game. Various studies have looked at this in various sports, but all with the same trend.

Depending on where the cut-off point is for age groups, the oldest players in any particular year are much more likely to come through.

From there, it is a sliding scale where the chances for those born at the very end of that year are dramatically reduced.

These players are often almost a year behind the oldest players in the same ‘age group’ across all key areas – physicality, maturity, skills.

Such differences are most stark in the youngest age groups – U10, U12, U14 – so if they are having the impact the statistics show, then it is at this age group that the damage is done.

The best players get more attention, more game time, more encouragement and consequently their confidence and love of the game grows. Their own expectation of being the best also grows.

Compare that to the other end of the spectrum where expectations and faith in their own ability to do great things in the sport is killed before it even begins to grow. Now yes, there will always be exceptions, but the statistics in numerous studies are stark.

Regarding GAA, our club structure should give us more reason to avoid this waste of talent than any other sport.

Any club’s young players are that club’s future in every sense. There will always be a cut-off point in underage competitions, so how can we minimise its impact and ensure all our players thrive the way the older players seem to?

If we think about a top player’s key attributes, they can be divided into four areas: Physical (strength, speed, height); Mental (confidence, ability to handle criticism, self-awareness, maturity, leadership etc); Skill (game skills, co-ordination); Cognitive (tactical astuteness, game management).

The big U12 who can solo run the field and plough boys out of the way will not develop in any of those four areas in his final year. He can coast through the year at his leisure looking like a star. While he is not going to be tested too frequently physically, his managers can set specific goals for development in the other areas and only focus his feedback on these rather than, say, the 60-yard solo goal he scored.

Likewise for the smaller players. Their ability to find space, their skill execution, their composure in the tackle surrounded by physically stronger players is excellent development potential if it can be framed as such.

Players reaching their potential is probably the greatest thing to see for all of us involved in our games, be it as coaches or parents.

Some day the final hurdle may be a McKenna Cup game to claim that place as an inter-county senior player.

As Gaels we should always respect every player’s potential to get there and encourage it whatever way we can. At no stage or level in our game should we be dismissive about players, either as coaches or supporters.

That more reflects our own limitations than those of the players.

I have no doubt that the clubs that nurture this ethos the best will be the champions of the future.

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