GAA Football

Kicking Out: How early must players learn hard knocks in sport?

Henry Shefflin famously struggled to make his school team at St Kieran's, admitting he suffered from a "lack of confidence" in his teenage years because of it, but went on to become one of the greatest hurlers of all-time.

IN last week’s edition of the Limerick Leader, an open letter from a 14-year-old boy from the county told of the impact that being rejected by hurling, the sport he loved, had on him.

The young boy recounts being left on the sideline as younger team-mates got on ahead of him. When he did get a game, it felt like a last resort.

“I would come home upset and disappointed and saying, while banging my head off a wall, “why am I not getting a go at this sport?”. But I kept going back because I loved the sport,” he said.

He goes on to tell about not getting any game time in the championship that year and ultimately quitting the game after it.

“I was at home upset and angry over the coaches because they didn’t give me a game. As a 13-year-old boy, I shouldn’t have been feeling the way I was. I felt let down, lonely and isolated by my peers and my so called friends.”

And so he quit.

He isn’t the first and won’t be the last.

Look, coaching underage players is very difficult. At times, you can’t do right for doing wrong.

Every parent thinks their wee Johnny deserves to be playing all the time.

Speaking in general terms, there is also the tendency for youngsters themselves to be very soft now. The world is such a massive oyster sitting right on their doorstep that it’s very easy to just give up and go on to something new.

There is an argument that taking hard knocks in sport can be a soft landing. That they steel you for the inevitable reality that rejection will come your way in life.

But it’s just not right to be rejecting anyone at 13 years of age. Our education system has long been doing it even earlier, which is just cruel and unnecessary.

And softness certainly doesn’t seem to be the case in Limerick, where the young lad wanted desperately to play hurling, but found himself sidelined until it ate at him so much that it was better for him to be away from it.

Competing interests can lead to grave pressures placed on underage coaches. With the growing realisation that very little is won at senior level unless there’s been a grounding of underage success behind it, clubs are leaning hard into the boundaries to see what give there is.

One of the outcomes might be trophies. But there can also be the negative impact of the way in which coaches deal with young players, from their language to their demeanour to picking players based on winning and nothing else.

And that is the nature of competitive sport. There’s no getting away from that. Be that as an adult or a minor or an U14, there will come a day when the realisation dawns that football and hurling are ultimately a lot about winning.

But how early in a player’s life does that day need to come?

When I think of this, I always go back to Nemo Rangers. One of the most successful clubs in Ireland, they’re blessed by big numbers to pick from in Cork city.

But they’ve fostered a culture where rather than having an ‘A’ team full of their stronger players and then a ‘B’ team of the weaker ones, they’ll split their teams up as evenly as they can.

The idea is that it widens the base of the pyramid by lifting the standard of everyone playing. Whether they win or lose an U16 league game borders on irrelevant.

It’s all about having the deepest base of quality for their senior team. And that is ultimately where a club is judged.

Reading the young lad’s letter in the Limerick Leader struck a chord.

I was transported back to my own youth, and to an indoor soccer tournament at primary school.

We were allowed seven players for a five-a-side tournament. I started off as one of the two subs.

And I stayed hemmed in against the wall as a sub for almost the entire time. We played four or five short games, and all I got on the pitch was the last 20 seconds of the last game.

Gaelic football wasn’t much different. I made the school team in P7, basically because we had nobody else.

I’m still not big but at school, I was very small and not very gifted. As a second year in Dungiven school, we (Drum) played their ‘B’ team in an U14 championship game. We only had 16 players, a good few of them younger than me.

As a 13-year-old boy, imagine how heart-breaking that was to hear the manager read down the list of names and you’re not on it. It wasn’t even my team-mates, but more the embarrassment in front of your classmates from Dungiven.

People would sometimes ask now where I went to school and when I tell them I did A-Levels in St Pat’s Maghera, they naturally enquire as to how my MacRory team got on.

They didn’t do great, but it wasn’t my MacRory team. I was in nets for our club minors by that stage but any little shred of confidence was completely drained. I never went near the MacRory.

Playing soccer on the front pitch during PE was a safe house. I stood in nets full-time, and enjoyed it.

I never improved all that much, never became a good footballer. I was one just fortunate to have found a way to exist in the sport I loved playing.

For a lot of budding young footballers, that’s the way it will be. Not everyone is naturally talented.

Look at Henry Shefflin, who admits he struggled for confidence when he found himself as a sub or the first man taken off when he played schools hurling for St Kieran’s.

Some have the natural character to dig in and get on. Others maybe don’t, and need a bit more encouragement.

It’s up to the coaches of any young boy or girl to recognise that, like it or not, you’re more than just a coach. You’re someone who can shape entire lives.

There’s no better social circle to be in than that of GAA players, because the games tend to keep them fairly close to the straight-and-narrow.

The 13-year-old that drops out of playing because of a lack of game time can end up losing his friends at a young age and drifting into different circles, or worse, not having a circle to drift into.

Young boys and girls might be softer now but that’s the way it is. That’s your responsibility as a coach.

And first priority should be making sure that no child is left feeling like that young hurler in Limerick.

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