Sport is too focused on the 'way we always did it' instead of moving forward

Kevin Mulcahy, who works with players, teams and clubs to support many performance areas, breaks down a modern approach to sports development in his second column for The Echo
Sport is too focused on the 'way we always did it' instead of moving forward

Pre-match drills for the Imokilly hurlers in 2019 at Páirc Uí Rinn. Picture: Larry Cummins.

'THE way we always did it...'; 'We do things a certain way around here...' 

These phrases are familiar. They seem strong and solid, safe even. Until they are not.

We are now seeing 'the way we always did it' dismantle a country, medically, politically, psycho-socially. We are seeing the exposing of this mentality costing us big time in what is basically a state of emergency. The emergency is no longer Covid, per se, but the response to it.

Sport is a part of the present story. We want to be back on the fields and courts. We now know more than ever before how important sport is to so many people. It's the best time ever to change and ultimately support greater participation and retention numbers. 

Because what we are doing now only works for the few.

Sport though also has a history of 'this is the way we always did it'. Or more specifically the wonderful bias of 'this is the way I always did it, and I did ok'. 

But sport and coaching sport, in particular, is sitting in a different place now. Coaches are an important part of young people's lives now, even more so than before. 

We are the gatekeepers to their activity in a lot of cases. Yet we still seem determined to make it a military operation.

And we wonder why they leave?

And drop-out grows from survey to survey, year on year.

But there is no point in critiquing something if you are not going to offer up an alternative, and over the years I believe I have been refining those alternatives more and more. Recently, the study of skill acquisition, involvement in other sports like Aussie rules, hockey and basketball have really helped crystallize some of these methods.


We all carry biases, around with us every day.

The idea that isolated practice, specifically wall ball for instance or kicking a ball off the wall, is critical to development or even excellence is often put forward by very successful athletes. The problem is, how do you know? What else did you do? Was there no games going on? Field training? 

And what about all the people who didn't excel? Or indeed all the players who excelled that never did isolated practice or had limited exposure? 

We could call this survivorship bias.

Another social science look we could take at it is this: correlation v causation. Did it cause the development or did it just happen to go along with it? Was it a coincidence of practice so to say? 

Wall ball for hurlers has a nostalgic component to it.


The reality of drills for most coaches, whether they like to admit it or not is, they are structured. They make you look like you know what’s going on, they are comfortable with them, they like designing them and most likely 'they always did them'.

Another one regularly thrown out is they are 'fundamentals'. Really? Does anyone ask why? 

They aren’t really. They are fake fundamentals. Designed to make coaching sessions look neat and tidy and coaches feel good about themselves. If that's confronting, great, because that's where we need to be, constantly confronting our beliefs.

This damages our creativity as coaches, but worse the over-technical training for children, in particular, kills their creativity.

I can talk about it because I did it. Over 27 years I would say I used drills that I now believe were useless for at least 18 of those. 

And ironically, the first few years I didn’t use drills at all. I like to think I intuitively knew the game is the game. But then I started going to coaching courses and getting more and more 'educated' and 'certified'. 

And my coaching got worse.


The terrible twins of ‘drill’ and ‘tell’.

We did the isolated drills. ‘I told you not to take shots from there, from the corner flag’. Yet you take shots from the corner flag.

Yet coaches still don’t get: you play how you practice. If you don't constrain a game to develop, or in some cases stop a certain performance practice, then you cannot expect the athlete to get a feel for what is better and physically develop their spatial awareness and coordination around what we now would like them to do. For the benefit of them and the team ultimately.

Telling someone to do anything has incredibly limited scope.

Tell Me, Show Me, Involve Me...
Tell Me, Show Me, Involve Me...

This illustrates the science of 'perception' and 'action'.

Self-organization model.
Self-organization model.

This is underpinned by the Dynamic Systems Theory

There is a longer version of this article going up on my blog in the next week or so. But everyone is invited to read old blogs there like this series from last year on

And join our Facebook Group here where I deliver videos that go a bit deeper into the science and practicalities of designing games and coaching sessions:

We are not just making this up, some of the components of this work are almost 50 years in the making. I accept research is poorly presented to most of us, so this is my attempt at breaking through those walls.

The misunderstanding of what skill is:

Skill is not 'touch'. It is not tricks. It's not dummies or flicks. Sometimes it's those elements within a movement, and critically always attached to making decisions.

Skill is our ability to act in whatever situation is thrown at us on a pitch. Each piece of skill is completely unique and never happened before and will never happen again. Skill is just a solution to a problem.

These technical components are part of our solution armoury, but they are not the skill itself.

Isolated self-practice might just be a sign of motivation.

Motivated kids, those who love playing around with the hurley and ball, will do it. Others just shoot hoops. Or kick a ball off the wall.

Some of those motivated kids though come into danger of being de-motivated quickly if the idea of isolated practice is sold to them as a method to expertise. 

They spend every day of the week banging the ball off the wall, go down to training on Saturday and completely get destroyed in the competition of the game. 

In skill development terms we are going from the short coordination period, skipping the control period and expecting the 'skill' expertise phase. Not only that, in many scenarios, they will be given out to when their isolated practiced skills let them down in a competitive environment. Result... they give up.

We are setting up the child to wonder is practice all that useful at all. And we have set up many kids to fail. This is one major reason hurling loses so many kids before 10. It's too technical, too fast with limited practice approaches promoted.

And where does playing small games come in and help a player work off their weak side for instance?

We can look at team sports in the context of Small Game/Big Game. Every match is a series of small games played within the overall parameters of the full game. 

What do I mean?

If we think of it in plays or explosive actions, hurling is largely a 1v1 game, and rarely goes above 3v2. The same could be said for soccer. Gaelic football probably works itself up to 8v7 at times but is still an awful lot of 1v1s, 2v1s up to 4v3s.


A game model template.
A game model template.

One soccer federation that can give us all a template to bend for our own needs is the Belgian FA. With many iterations over the past 20 years, the Belgians have done two remarkable things for a relatively small country, they have increased participation and retention of soccer players across the board. That should be the number one priority.

What Belgium also managed to do is become one of the best teams in the world.

One of the central tenants of the Belgian approach and framework, which isn't a system, is that it caters to the individual, in a simple but very clever way.

The Belgians matched their approach to science and mental and physical development of children at various ages. The complexities of team sport are simply too much for many children almost up to the age of 11 or 12, so we should be acutely aware of this. 

Based on what we know of the developing child, shoving nine-year-olds into 11-a-side games is simply confusing and development limited. 

Too many volunteer adults view the game through the lens of an adult and are maybe also over-influenced by TV.


When kids start at five or six, they are selfish and only able to think about or even consider dribbling and shooting. They want the ball for themselves, and ironically if put in the right environment (and I don’t mean a professional academy) it's possible this is an ideal scenario for them to start developing skill. 

This will be a cross-over of a coordinative and control stage which is in the three stages of learning: coordination-control-skill. We can use this selfishness, by putting them at the right level of opposition, to develop a bit of fight for the ball and comfort in battling and trying to beat an opponent. 

So for this 1v1 is the most obvious choice. The most simple approach here is 1v1 with four poles, two goals and two other kids in goals. Rotate every minute or 90 seconds. 

The benefits to this are endless and will satisfy most coaches, parents and technical fundamentalists. This is a win-win for everyone. 

Six months is a huge developmental gap in children that age. And the difference between a late-developer born in December and a fast-developer born in January can be stark. 

I believe many kids are lost to sport, particularly technical sports like soccer and hurling, because of a lack of awareness in this area. 

Coaches are always asking how do we allow for varied development speeds or particularly weak or strong kids, this may provide some part of the solution.

Then it's up to you, part of coaching is pushing and pulling, trial and error, two steps forward one step back. How can you add to these practices to make them easier? Harder? To suit different abilities?

It's really about exploring the sport at six to nine and a growing appreciation for others and socialisation. These practices should also, and with emphasis up to age 10 and maintenance to 15 be surrounded by other movement explorations and games. 

Use street and school-yard games to develop fundamental movements through games like rob the nest, handball, dodgeball, frisbee and a multitude of other games.

Going back to the genesis of this article and the attachment to drills, those of us who grew up 20, 30 and 40 years ago played everything. We were on the street, we played other games, uneven soccer, younger and older players, learned empathy towards those not as strong as us, and figured out ways to topple those bigger than us. That's gone now.

The next level then as they move to seven or eight could be to add in 2v2s and even maybe some 2v1s if we want to advantage or disadvantage players so that a certain skill may emerge or be challenged.

It must be taken also I am interrupting the Belgian model, not spitting out verbatim and trying to bend it for Irish sports and the likely acceptance in unique Irish sporting culture.


The thing about these games is that are very simple. Small adjustments and adding constraints can make them harder or easier. We can advantage a team or individual and by-proxy that disadvantages the opposition, or of course, we can play neutral. Whatever works.

If working on a new skill, or developing let's say a child struggling with certain movements of the game, give them an advantage them to let them experience what it's like. Then at some level of competence, even things up. 

And that's a whole new set of constraints for that child or indeed an adult team developing a new strategy.

Practice 1. 1v1 with a partner: This is moving on from 1v1 on a smaller pitch to doubling up the size, but having to find a partner. Of course, you can do 2v2 on a full pitch with no halfway demarking, however, this is a variant that will encourage longer passing and more distant moving.

Practice 1.
Practice 1.

Practice 2. 1v1 through the lines: This is what it says on the tin, got to work it through the lines and work a goal. This will get players used to making first and second runs (attackers and defenders tracking), then will have that little additional thinking ahead.

Practice 2.
Practice 2.

Practice 3. 1v1 with a partner working on the weak side: This is a game to encourage playing off both sides with semi-deliberate practice. That means it's not a rule to use your left or right side, just an encouragement.

Practice 3.
Practice 3.

Practice 4. 2v1 Defensive overload with attack wingers: This is difficult for the attackers as they are overloaded, but they do have wing men to use to get free and work opportunities. This is a more advanced practice with a relatively high cognitive load.

Practice 4.
Practice 4.

How do we make it more technical? More physical?

These games allow learning about basic movements and their connections to the sport we play, finding space, controlling the ball, getting used to passing and most importantly, loads of shooting. Everyone loves scoring goals.

If we just use isolated drills, where they both look the same in execution, and then we put them together playing a game and can’t understand why one is dominating we need to start asking questions and peeling back the layers.

We don’t need isolated drills, we just have been led to believe we do. They do not have to be part of the process.


So that's it. 

A huge amount there and a lot to think about and play around with. Next month we may go deeper into developing games and a deeper look into advantaging, neutral and disadvantaging concepts as well as discussing the different types of games - deliberate practices, conditioning games, movement games, tactical games, and more. 

  • For further reading, the links to the blog and Facebook group are above. You can also find Kevin on Twitter at @movementcoachkm or you can email Kevin at 

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