Former Cork boss Brian Cuthbert driving radical proposals on underage player development in GAA

Former Cork boss Brian Cuthbert driving radical proposals on underage player development in GAA

Cork’s Darragh Cashman taking on Evan Nolan of Galway in the minor football All-Ireland. Picture: INPHO/Tommy Dickson

AT THE recent Cork county convention, Christy Cooney spoke on behalf of a Youghal motion, which proposed discontinuing the U17 and U20 inter-county age-grades, and restoring them with U18 and U21 competitions.

Cooney argued that the idea behind altering the minor grade from U18 to U17 was based on significantly reducing the number of Leaving Cert students playing minor for their county. And that was no longer the case. “They are all doing it (the Leaving Cert) at 19,” said Cooney.

He is right but Cooney and Youghal’s main concern was that U17 competition would become a developmental competition, as had been recommended by the fixture task force.

“It could be played at any time or place during the year,” said Cooney “and would certainly be a low-profile competition.”

The Youghal motion was beaten 56 votes to 37. Cork GAA CEO Kevin O’Donovan spoke against the motion. His argument was that if minor was returned to U18, those players would then be eligible to play adult games. With Cork winning the All-Ireland minor football title this year, trying to structure the club championship would have been a nightmare if most of those players were playing club games.

Cork’s minor championship win in 2019 was a massive boost for the county but, as Cooney noted, the whole culture and ethos of that competition is about to change.

The recent report of the Fixture Calendar Review Task force, strongly supported ‘The Talent Academy Review group’s recommendation that the U17 or Minor Championships should become “tiered Celtic Challenge developmental” competitions.

That would see games played in a clearly defined window, in a round-robin format that guarantees each team a minimum number of games and which has a number of Tiers ensuring teams are playing against others of a similar ability.

In terms of the fixture calendar, the report also noted that the move to tiered developmental competitions at Minor level should be accompanied by “a de-coupling of the Minor All-Ireland Semi-Finals and Finals from their Senior equivalents”.

The Task Force also believed that “developmental” competitions from U17 down should be run nationally by a separate Competitions Control Committee (CCC) membership of which should include the heads of Coaching and Games Development in each province.

Cork's Ciaran O'Brien battles Killian O'Connor of Clare in last summer's minor hurling championship. Picture: INPHO/Laszlo Geczo
Cork's Ciaran O'Brien battles Killian O'Connor of Clare in last summer's minor hurling championship. Picture: INPHO/Laszlo Geczo

When the Talent Academy and Player Development report was launched last week, Brian Cuthbert said that the GAA faces dire consequences if it doesn’t change its attitude towards its young members.

After assessing feedback from approximately 1,000 people, with 7,000 pieces of data analysed, the findings showed how the senior inter-county culture of winning almost at all costs had damaged the enjoyment and development of young players.

The amount of preparation for some young teams is clearly excessive. “Who is driving the preparation?” asked Cuthbert “The coach.”

The group have proposed a number of key recommendations – repositioning the club at the centre of all developmental processes and policies through a new player pathway framework; aligning education opportunities to the pathway; more structured governance; an altered games programme.

Such a massive culture change will take time but the group believe that, unless the culture does change, more players will drop out. They also believe that an overemphasis on winning ahead of long-term development will reduce the number of players making it through to play with their club or county.

The data gathered is powerful, especially when it’s so local, but when Cuthbert wrote a thesis on the subject, he gathered research from around the world on talent identification and building optimal environments for academies. And most of the scientific arguments favour late selection as much as possible.

Brian Cuthbert speaking at the Launch of GAA Talent Academy and Player Development report. Picture: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile
Brian Cuthbert speaking at the Launch of GAA Talent Academy and Player Development report. Picture: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

Most coaches are looking at current performance but they’re actually trying to predict the future potential. In that environment, young squads end up picking the strongest, fastest and most mature players.

All of that stuff is loaded with bias because you have maturation, relative age effect and other things going on in terms of selection. Coaches might pick the best players for now but they’re not picking the best players for the future.

That process is happening in sport across the whole world, so much so that in 2015, the Olympic Council wrote a paper stating that sport has a problem in devising a framework for selecting talent, and in developing role clarity for stakeholders involved in talent identification. Especially when such a tiny percentage make it to the elite level.

The problem with trying to settle on an ideal framework for the GAA though, is the complete lack of centralised governance with every county doing their own thing. As a result, most player pathways are stymied by so many autonomous bodies, which nobody has control over, within the pathway itself.

Players can’t be properly developed if they’re being pulled in every direction but, with nobody really in charge, coaches will keep dragging out of players until somebody shouts stop.

Someone is shouting stop now but that approach is also designed to holistically help the players. Many young players can take it too seriously in trying to make it at inter-county level, which impacts on their education and overall wellbeing. And any development squad coach which prioritises elite skill advancement ahead of creating more rounded and balanced young people is promoting the antithesis of development.

Young players by their nature want serious competition. They want to test themselves in an elite environment. But they also often need help too in seeing the bigger picture.

And while this report, and the direction it proposes, will have its critics, it is at least trying to see that big picture.

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