WHEN Kevin O’Donovan expressed his views on Development Squads last year, O’Donovan was as well placed as anyone to offer his opinion, having served as Cork coaching officer from 2014-17, along with being Cork development squads administrator for three years.
“The danger of elitism is probably the biggest threat facing the GAA,” said O’Donovan. “The holistic view has to be taken.”
The debate was triggered by new GAA President John Horan, who trained his sights on development squads in his first press conference as President.
“I think all the way from U13 to U20 has to be looked at,” said Horan. “We need to create a proper player pathway.”
Horan subsequently put together a committee to begin reviewing the GAA youth/player development pathway at inter-county level, and its relationship with clubs, post-primary schools and third level institutions.
The committee contains extensive inter-county playing and coaching experience and is chaired by Michael Dempsey, former Laois footballer and multi All-Ireland winning coach with Kilkenny.
The focus of the group is to ensure that best practice is being followed in developing talented young players from the age of U13 up to U20. Their ultimate goal is to try and create a more holistic player pathway for young players in every county.
The group held a number of preparatory meetings last year before meeting various stakeholders in every county.
Those meetings, which were facilitated by committee members, involved players, parents, club coaches, Development Squad coaches, post-primary school teachers, full-time GAA Promotion staff and county board officials. They were much focus-group driven whereby everyone at those meetings wrote down their feedback to specific questions.
Most of the data gathered though, centred on two core headline points: What is working well? What is not working well?
Dempsey’s committee met again last Saturday. When all the data is collated and a draft report on a more coherent strategy is drawn up, the committee will put their recommendations to the GAA’s Games Development Committee with regard to updating policy.
Despite Horan trying to streamline this issue during his presidency, trying to do it properly won’t be easy because of such a complete lack of centralised governance around it; because every county is just doing their own thing.
With either little, or poor, relationships often existing between key stakeholders, club coaches, Development Squad coaches, teachers and administrators are too often working separately.
Most of these player pathways are stymied by so many autonomous bodies, which nobody has control over, within the pathway itself. Proper player development needs a stable base of communication, synergy and complete function but the underage pathway is largely defined by dysfunction.
Players can’t be properly developed if they’re being pulled in every direction but, with nobody really in charge, coaches will keep pulling until somebody shouts stop.
And nobody is saying stop because most people don’t really know what’s going on, including senior board administrators in many counties.
The games promotion and development staff in the county invariably do but they lack the power or clout to do enough about the problem. Governance is the key issue in tackling the pressure on development squad players but it’s only the first step.
What has to come next is communication on proper structure, along with coach education, coach recruitment and educating parents.
Many of those topics were discussed on Sunday at a youth health forum in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
Organised by Cork GAA coaching officer Ronan Dwane, Cork GAA games manager Kevin O’Callaghan and the county board’s children’s officer Des Cullinane, the forum certainly created an awareness of the issues which may impact on the development of young players within the development squad system.
One of the primary objectives of the forum was to equip young players for their journey to becoming an inter-county player, focusing on mindset, lifestyle, and the challenges that 14, 15 and 16-year-olds may be exposed to.
The line-up certainly was impressive.
It featured presentations from Conor Quinlan, a psychotherapist and cognitive performance coach, clinical psychologist Jennifer Hayes, Steven Casey, the Cork minor hurling strength and conditioning coach in 2017 and 2018, Cork hurler Stephen McDonnell, All-Ireland winning ladies football manager Éamonn Ryan, and former Cork players Bríd Stack and Rena Buckley.
Stack and Buckley’s genuine love of the game really came across in their contributions.
When they were young, they both wanted to do well in school and sport, which they did, qualifying as a teacher and physiotherapist respectively.
As their careers grew and developed, training and playing effectively was their social lives because they enjoyed it so much.
Some 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.
For many years, there had always been some resistance to development squads in Cork. The county board were considered out of touch when resisting them for so long.
And yet many people who disagreed with the practice failed to acknowledge that those squads are one of the reasons Cork underage hurling is currently so strong.
The groundwork always starts with the clubs but that old model of dependency didn’t exactly work for Cork when they hadn’t development squads, and everyone else did.
Cork’s development squads are as strong now as any other county but developing players in the current climate is as much about educating them, and their parents and coaches, than just coaching them to be better hurlers and footballers.
And Sunday’s forum was certainly a very positive first step on that road.