Focusing on the basic skills is the best approach to developing young hurlers and footballers
Report by Éamonn Murphy
THE main thrust of games development and coaching in Cork this year will be a ‘back to basics’ approach, particularly from U12 down.
The message is that having young players who are proficient in the skills of hurling and football should be the main aim of all club coaches. The official line for 2017 is that nurturing players who can perform the primary skills off both sides in both codes is the best way to have stronger teams for club and county into the future.
County Games Manager Kevin O’Callaghan is at the helm of the network of full- and part-time coaching officers on Leeside, which covers work in the schools, underage blitzes, the development squads, the Rebel Óg leagues and championship, and, most importantly, the everyday efforts at club level.
Over recent years – and at the recent annual Games Development Conference in Croke Park it was the central theme – the emphasis has been placed on games-based coaching. With this approach there are less drills and more modified games, which, it is argued, helps players mature into strong decision-makers. Kilshannig native O’Callaghan has no problem with this theory, especially as players enter their mid-teens and onto adult, but the drive in Cork for now is on getting the basics right.
“Throughout my time in this role I’ve seen more and more work go in across the majority of clubs, there’s a fierce appetite for knowledge, there’s always a great take up when we bring down guest speakers, but sometimes less is more.
“From U12 down to the nursery ages, U5 and U6, the most important things any coach can do is develop a love for gaelic games and work on getting the basics right. That means helping players to handpass, solo and kick off both sides in football and to strike well off both sides in hurling, as well as teaching them how to hook and block, and to catch the sliotar or the football.
“If you have a lad coming out of U12 with all those basics then you’ve done a fantastic job. Sometimes, and it’s the nature of it, we want to run before we can walk.
“Some of the best drills you can do are just to have two players pucking a sliotar or kicking a football to each other, expressing themselves, and you can still give them tips as they do it. It’s very natural. It’s the same with giving three lads a ball and a couple of cones. They can make up a goal, take turns going in, and have one-versus-one outfield. It’s absolutely simple. You can work on skills with ‘free play’, without being obsessed with drills.
“There’s no need to be getting caught up in support play or swarm tackling or anything else if you’ve players on your panel who aren’t comfortable on their weak side. You want players to eventually think of it as their left or right side, not strong or weak side.”
For the youngest hurlers and footballers in Cork there has been a Monster Blitz programme running in recent years. Initially that was for U8 to U10 players, where they play three non-competitive games per two-hour session, ideally with no subs. That was modified last year, with an U7 level introduced in early summer, at which stage the U10s switched to leagues.
“This year we’ll have leagues for U9s and U10s where teams will play opponents with similar numbers, and it can be with A and B teams or two teams of mixed abilities. While it’s called a league the idea is still the same, maximising game-time for every player and with the emphasis on fun and skills development, not winning.
“The U7s won’t have quite the same Monster Blitz format, because a lot of the smaller clubs just find it easier to play U8 with a combination of U7s and U8s. There will be blitzes for the bigger clubs at U7 though. They have the numbers for that and the feedback from them was positive.” O’Callaghan explains that contrary to opinion in some quarters, they are very receptive to change. There are seven full-time coaches under his watch, Shane Supple, Paudie O’Brien, Colm Crowley, Seán Crowley, James McCarthy, Pat Spratt and Noel Crowley.
Furthermore Martin O’Brien, Gavin Webb, Martin Farrissey and Noel O’Brien are working with the board through the CE Scheme, with another 90 volunteers running Cork’s development squads, 20 tutors administering foundation and award 1 coaching courses, and 260 schools covering by club-school links, which are funded in large by clubs. It pales in comparison to Dublin, where every club has a Games Development Administrator (GDA), but O’Callaghan says the same funding isn’t there, and it shouldn’t detract for the work that is done in Cork.
“Look we’d all love to have the resources Dublin have, but all those GDAs are half-funded by clubs up there, and clubs don’t have that money down here. We are trying to be more focused in how we deal with clubs this year.
“Each one of our six GDAs is being assigned four clubs within their area to work directly with. All those clubs would be signed up to our ‘benchmarking’, where clubs are graded bronze, silver and gold if they meet certain criteria.
“The benchmarking runs to 2020, so if we can reach 24 clubs every year for the next four that’s 96 clubs getting specific help from GDAs. For clubs not in the benchmarking we will still run workshops and offer support.
“We just wanted a way to measure how well our GDAs are doing. Now we have targets, to bring clubs up from bronze to gold level say. It gives everyone a bit more focus.” Some tweaks are on the horizon for the Rebel Óg competitions, with the most significant being the option for clubs to play in leagues outside their assigned regions. There will be eight teams in every league as far as possible in 2017, guaranteeing dual clubs a minimum seven league games each.
“There are issues with some Rebel Óg leagues, and the East Region is still hard to run because of the size of it. Last year there were leagues with four teams in them, which isn’t really a league at all. No one is saying the current situation is perfect or that this will solve everything, but Rebel Óg are very aware of the problems.”
Cork’s failure to make a mark on the Munster or All-Ireland minor hurling championship since 2008 is an ongoing concern for all Leesiders, as is Kerry’s iron grip on the minor football grade lately, along with the emergence of Tipp as a force. Many Corkonians question the development squad structures on the back of this. And until silverware is delivered they’ll continue to.
“Hopefully we’ll see the development squads pay off this year, and I know it’s a results business in some ways, but there is fantastic work going in. That’s not what people want to hear I know.
“At the same time we are changing the U14 development squads this year. We’re going to keep four regional squads going all year, whereas before they were streamed into two Cork panels.
“It was a bit much having lads feel they’d made it as Cork players at 13- or 14-year-olds of age, and we think this way it’ll be seen as more of the stepping stone is. Last year at U13 there were expanded regional development squads, basically for any players who were interested, and that was very beneficial for clubs, because it was exposing all those players to new coaching.”