'Coaching isn't about a drill or a planner, it's about enhancing lives through sport'

In the first in a new series, expert coach Kevin Mulcahy looks at how to get players up and running after lockdown
'Coaching isn't about a drill or a planner, it's about enhancing lives through sport'

Some of the U6 participants at the ProCampsCork camp held at Glen Rovers GAA Club in 2019. Picture: Denis Minihane.

THIS pandemic has stolen a lot from us, including people.

At the next level down it took socialisation away from us, real face-to-face socialisation. Nowhere is this so obvious to someone like me than in the sporting world.

Children and adolescents in particular are the worst hit. For adults, our lives revolve around our work and close family. However, for kids their non-family world is centred on their friends.

They are in a constant state of discovery and every day literally is a school day. The teacher has been taken away from them, sport, the schoolyard, the walk home. All these tiny memories and emotional, social landmarks we float back to occasionally as adults have been severely interrupted for this generation.

'Motor behaviours' refers to how motor skills are learned, controlled and developed. Our motor behaviours have been severely disrupted.

Some of my adult health and fitness clients have lost up to 90 minutes a day walking because of working from home. Many people have lost the benefits of walking stairs. They are seeing less light, having less screen breaks. Work is fragmented throughout the day and they are having 12- to 14-hour workdays because they are catching up on emails.

It’s a slightly different problem for young people and can vary somewhat between boys and girls. However one of the most impacted groups will be the children between six and nine. All research points to this being the zone of highest creativity for humans, after 10 it starts decreasing, not massively for a while, but that’s the peak.

While children are arguably more resilient than adults (maybe because of this creative streak) from a movement, social and sporting background every kid stepping back onto a pitch in the coming months will have been acutely affected.

As coaches, it’s both a challenge and an opportunity. An opportunity to re-imagine what children’s sport is all about. It’s about growth, fun, meeting friends, learning and letting them challenging themselves. It’s not about holding the hurley the right way or learning what a low block is.

And much of what we talk about here could be transferred up the line. I am an S&C Coach, work as a Performance Coach to professionals and athletes, yet even I see we have gone too far down the ‘science’ route. A lot of it this isn’t science, it’s nonsense. But nonsense sells.

LET IT FLOW:

So the first thing to do is... don’t plan a thing. Well maybe plan to adjust, to coach on the fly, to roll with it. Give yourself and the people you coach a break.

It doesn’t have to be perfect. If you are welded to the idea that you have to get all the skills into a session, and that is a good mindset in my opinion generally, let games decide what skills get explored and what might need some extra attention as an intervention.

Forget the manual, there is no manual for these two years: 2020 and 2021 don’t count.

Former Newcastle United manager Rafael Benitez gives instructions at a training camp at Carton House, Kildare. Picture: Serena Taylor/Newcastle United via Getty Images
Former Newcastle United manager Rafael Benitez gives instructions at a training camp at Carton House, Kildare. Picture: Serena Taylor/Newcastle United via Getty Images

And here is the unique opportunity, to challenge ourselves as coaches and for once to let the children and teenagers lead.

“Motor learning refers to a fairly permanent change in the ability to execute a skill as a result of practice and experience,” says Harjiv Singh.

Skill development, to use coaching language, is central to improvement and enjoyment of games. However, expected progressions have been disrupted. 

The 14-year-olds of 2021 may not seem like the 14-year-olds of 2019, so allow for that. Patience is king for 2021. 

The great thing about kids, teenagers and even active adults is they will retrieve those skills, it just might be a little bit slower than we are used to.

Over the years I have heard more than one deep-thining coach educator wonder aloud “if we were starting right now from scratch, would we design sport the way it now exists?”

Take the four- to six-year-olds being put through ‘ball mastery’ sessions in Gaelic football. The eight-year-old’s parents being tapped up to see if their child can be convinced to join another ‘ambitious’ club.

Less than .01% of kids will ‘make it’. We need to put sport where it should be, as a physical, social and psychological outlet for adults. The cream will rise to the top, if we give them the time and space to breathe and enjoy it their way, not our adult imposed way.

We need to question those who are telling this ‘this is the way’. At least we can ask a respectful ‘why?’ The way that is answered will tell you a lot of what you need to know as a coach finding their way or as a parent.

What about if we turn up, throw the ball in and see what happens? What about if we ask the kids what they want? Not what the coaching manual says or what the latest YouTube video tells you.

How about observing what happens and just being an intervention coach. Intervene when needed. Shake up the games for more balance, try some 2v2s to make sure all levels and kids are getting a fair shake.

Could we use other games to break up the sessions like dodgeball, handball, tag? And mix in our sport then.

PLAYING A GAME:

When living in Australia I worked with multiple athletes in multiple sports but I worked at three levels of Aussie Rules local country league, serious amateur (think MSL or senior club GAA) and professional.

I took a particular interest and built relationships with the aboriginal footballers. They were different. They did things their own way and it wasn’t that obvious to me for a while, but something was off both positively (the way they played) and negatively (covert segregation and racism).

They frustrated the white European descendant coaches because they played off the cuff. It made me like them more. They also played a lot more with a smile, and when aboriginal people are smiling and playing football spectacular things can happen. Because they are generally spectacular athletes.

It was this simple: the white boys played a sport, the indigenous boys played a game.

Australia's Daniel Cross training before an International Rules game at Croke Park. Picture: Brian Lawless/SPORTSFILE
Australia's Daniel Cross training before an International Rules game at Croke Park. Picture: Brian Lawless/SPORTSFILE

It has guided me ever since. I had been heavily games-based before that but it changed the meaning of what that was in reality. It accelerated my interest in ecological dynamics and skill acquisition. It’s unfortunate that there is any distinction but that was the broad reality.

There are very strange assumptions made in sport. He is from Brazil, New Zealand, Kerry, East Cork so they must be better at... enter the obvious sport.

It’s nonsense of course. The fact is if we expose any person to a positive environment and give them the tools and guidance to learn and grow they can excel, for whatever their ceiling is.

The Cork U20 hurling captain this year was from Dromtarriffe, Conor O’Callaghan. That took someone somewhere thinking ‘ah no, this is nonsense, of course, we can play hurling’.

That’s our job as coaches. Winning counties and having players go pro has far too many variables and elements of luck, population, genetics and circumstance to be worrying about. It will happen for most who live in positive growth-based environments if they have the physical tools and want to do it.

That’s not to say I disregard winning, trying to coach a team to their maximum or to win titles at appropriate ages. It just changed how I approached that forever.

Because the skills the children have lost out on while being restricted in their movements are impossible to replicate, we need to give them as much variety and autonomy as possible. Some of the children will be somewhat different people. So we need to have a good look at the lay of the land before we start the video sessions on defensive to attacking transition for the U7s.

Let the children, and indeed the game, tell you where coaching is needed. Coaching isn’t a drill, it’s not a session planner. It’s about enhancing the lives of you and others in a shared activity and shared passion. When you are coaching it’s a two-way street, you are not there to give them the answers or tell them what to do. You are just there to guide them along and jump in where needed.

COACHING KIDS:

I will try and give some practical guidance.

At ages six to nine, it’s completely about socialisation, fun and getting together, nothing more. I wouldn’t have the sport as part of the plan at all. I would make it as fun and dynamic as possible with every imaginable schoolyard game you can think of.

Over weeks and months, you could re-introduce elements of the chosen sport be that rugby, hurling or whatever, but you should be able to do that by feel if you went the whole season without picking up a hurley or a hockey stick you are most likely going to maintain your group size and ultimately support them being better athletes when they are older.

For the 10-13 bracket, certainly, a little bit more of the sport could be involved. However, I would encourage a real slow hands-off here too.

As you leave that group things might get a bit stickier. As this group ages it’s a little bit more likely there would be a competitive edge emerge. This group I would still have loads of movement games, maybe a bit of a more dynamic-based warm-up and games of the sport broken into small games, 1v1, 2v2 and so on, and big, 9v9 in GAA and rugby, 7v7 in hockey and soccer. I would leave the technical stuff out for four to six weeks and see what areas might need some help.

One of the major drop-off groups is post-primary school or just after 13. If you are a coach at this level you may have new responsibilities: particularly to not give up easily on these young people. At an age of phenomenal change, to add a pandemic is a very testing for this age group in particular.

I wouldn’t be in a rush with any age to be out there playing games against other teams for the first month. 

It might be worth letting these groups reconnect with each other first before competing with others. Remember there is probably a heightened possibility of explosions of pent-up frustrations. Get all that well out of the way before arranging some friendlies against the club down the road.

ADULT SPORT:

If you are working with adult sport you almost certainly have been engaging with them in some way already. Most adult athletes are constantly exercising now, and if they are not they are either not really interested in the sport itself and it’s very social for them, so we may have to adjust our expectations with players like this. Generally, most see sport as part of their lives and important for their mental and physical health.

The lockdown has been a unique boost to the longevity of many a Gaelic and soccer career. The proper offseason, now two years in a row, added to the benefit of doing more base conditioning will mean many teams will be coming back fresh and hungry.

This should create more opportunities to concentrate on a more games-based training approach almost entirely with little top-ups in speed, strength and conditioning scattered throughout the week.

This gives coaches the opportunity to maybe work on game-plans or some of the strategies and tactical approaches. People pick things up in various ways so the addition of videos, zoom calls, breakout meetings, animation videos and so on can accelerate the understanding for much of the squad.

It is a rare athlete who can take verbal instruction and immediately implement it. Rena Buckley and Paul Bevan, an Aussie Rules player, were two of the very few I can think who could do that. It’s likely they thought about the game deeply over many, many years. 

Cork's Rena Buckley is tackled by Kilkenny's Leann Fennelly at Croke Park. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Cork's Rena Buckley is tackled by Kilkenny's Leann Fennelly at Croke Park. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Not everyone on your squad does that. That’s fine, we shouldn’t expect it.

However, we must be aware also of the mediums through which young people now interact. Having someone on your management team who is good with this kind of stuff is vital.

The one other big area for consideration is volume. The volume of your gameplay early doors is critical. Don’t do too much too fast.

Build up your sessions from about 50% of what a high-end full in-season session might be. Go with something like 50% to 60% to 70% to 80%, back down to 60%, 70%, 80%, 90%, back to 70%. You get the pattern. Build up, ease off, build up more with a different starting point.

Another important aspect would be intra-game rest. I would do everything off 1:1 initially. if you are playing small-sided practices in any of the field sports keep it 1:1, work to rest ratio, and low minutes, three being the absolute max. With bigger games of 4v4 up to 9v9 it’s probably best to keep it between four and six minutes with two-four minutes rest.

And above that, I wouldn’t play any game for the first few weeks above eight minutes and four minutes rest. You could do some easy technical work as active recovery in some of the longer rests.

Remember movement-wise everybody’s lives have adjusted, if we go too hard too fast we will injure a disproportionate amount of players. 

And that’s why these weeks of individual and hopefully small group S&C will be so important and will accelerate the readiness.

CONTACT:

What can we do now? Even if still weeks away from on the pitch action?

Stay in touch. Have a Zoom call, do a quiz, get them all to talk. Something that struck me in recent times doing Zoom Fitness with underage teams was how long some had gone without physically seeing each other.

Don’t wait until the first day at training. One reason is you might get an inkling on to who is struggling, who is changing and who may need extra support coming back. Call the parents, see how they are getting on. Call the adult players too, make sure they know you are there and that you have a plan.

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