WHEN Colm Cooper retired in 2017 Paul Galvin wrote a column about a visionary player whose creative genius was defined by a cut-throat attitude.
In the process of making his point, Galvin spoke about the harmful effect WhatsApp is having on teams, and how it is softening the hard mentality he saw in guys like Cooper.
“It’s all smiley-faces, thumbs-up and virtual high-fives from the couch,” wrote Galvin. “Honest, frank, face-to-face exchanges on the training ground or dressing room feel like a thing of the past. This is where team culture should be created and driven, not on an app.”
Galvin and Cooper began their careers when WhatsApp or Snapchat didn’t exist. Michael Murphy started his Donegal career a few years later but, for a long time, he shared Galvin’s opinion on how the new generation communicated.
For a couple of years, Murphy found himself agitated by what he was seeing around him. As the older crew gradually departed and more and more new players joined the Donegal panel, Murphy wondered about their desire.
He couldn’t detect the same burning passion from them that he had for Donegal. They seemed preoccupied with their phones. They seemed too chilled.
“Are they focused?” Murphy admitted asking himself in a brilliant interview with Keith Duggan in the Irish Times in January. “I’d be freaking out.” Murphy wasn’t happy, and that frustration was evident in his football. It took him a couple of seasons to realise where the problem lay.
“There was a need to get myself right,” Murphy said. “I got that then …..that I am soon going to alienate myself here. I am going to become just this sulky man if I don’t start treating people as individuals here.
“That this is a different generation of players. And you need to figure out how to build and chat and communicate.
“You know the phone in the dressing room – snapchat or whatever is going on. Do you get freaked out by it or do you roll with it? Do you rebel and keep giving out about it? Then you ask – why am I giving out about it anyway? Do I realise how things have to be?
"They know every bit as me about the way it should be. There is so much more out there to grasp and learn.”
That simple realisation cleared the clutter in Murphy’s mind. But Murphy’s honesty also posed another question - if a player, someone just turned 30, is struggling to grasp the mindset of the younger generation, how difficult must it be for managers and coaches far older than that new generation?
At the GAA’s Coaching Conference in Croke Park in January, Cork U20 football manager Keith Ricken (below) addressed that topic.
“I do think, in the 21st century, that the greatest risk to our society at this moment is not AI, artificial intelligence, it’s young people’s lack of identity and character,” said Ricken.
“They’re not a snowflake generation. I don’t believe that the next generation are not resilient. You become resilient with the environment you’re put into.”
Ricken spoke in detail about how the environment set by the coach and the manager largely creates the person in that environment. “The more we (the coaches) own and take on responsibility,” said Ricken “the less resilient they (the players) become.”
Ricken is a great story-teller. He spoke of how one of the most satisfying moments in his coaching career originated from a story he told his U20s last year.
Ricken was sick one time. After a colonoscopy, where the doctor delivered bad news, Ricken was asked if he had any questions. His kids had just eaten the toast he’d been given. Ricken was starving. “Is there any chance,” he asked the doctor “that I could get more tea and toast.”
On the journey home, Ricken’s wife wanted to know why his first reaction to the bad news was to ask for tea and toast?
“Because it was the most important thing at that particular time,” he said. “No matter what happened, I wasn’t going to die in the next 24 hours.”
When Ricken shared that story with the Cork U20s, the message was simple – no matter what happens, you can only do the next thing. Next ball. Next kick-out.
When a soft goal – which originated from a short kick-out - put Dublin ahead by nine points after just 11 minutes of last year’s All-Ireland U20 final, a Cork defender ran into goalkeeper Josh O’Keeffe. ‘Tea and toast,’ he said. ‘Next kick-out.’
Cork immediately replied with a goal. The nine-point deficit was wiped out in seven minutes.
“Those young lads believed in something greater than themselves,” said Ricken. “It’s about the team. It’s not about you.”
Everything must have a value. If a player has no value in what the coach is doing, there is no meaning in doing it. Players develop character in that challenging environment, but a coach can’t develop character unless he or she has developed their own character first.
At the end of Ricken’s presentation in January, he spoke about a fundamental point Murphy had also eventually grasped.
“You have to change your outlook on how you’re dealing with people,” said Ricken. “But you must know yourself first. And then you must know them (players), and where they’re coming from.”
In today’s society, especially in how the current crisis may be changing young people’s attitudes and behaviours, coaches everywhere will need to firmly grasp that reality whenever sport does return.