Many elite athletes find underage failure fuels path to senior success

GAA stars like Bernard Brogan and Gearóid Hegarty turned minor disappointment into major glory
Many elite athletes find underage failure fuels path to senior success

Gearóid Hegarty of Limerick in action against Cathal Malone last season, watched by Cork and Nemo's Colm Lyons. Picture: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

IN chapter six of his autobiography ‘The Hill’, Bernard Brogan writes in detail about acquiring a multitude of transferrable skills from other sports, particularly soccer and basketball, which stood so well to Brogan over the years in Croke Park.

Brogan played a range of sports growing up but, in detailing his struggles to make his mark as an underage footballer with Dublin, Brogan referred to the work of Dr Áine MacNamara, making particular reference to a paper she and two colleagues had published in 2012 called ‘Superchamps, Champs and Almosts: Important Differences and Commonalities on the Rocky Road’.

After interviewing 54 active or recently-retired UK and European athletes, the findings provided a fascinating insight into talent development and talent pathways.

McNamara wrote the paper with David Collins and Neil McCarthy, with the findings showing that the talent pathway should not be an easy route. Instead, it “should offer a variety of lessons to be learnt through both explicit and implicit means.”

These lessons come in the form of challenges (traumas) which are necessary for developing athletes. With the road to success so non-linear and paved with so many challenges and obstacles, developing athletes need to encounter challenges and failures along the way to learn how to overcome them.

To succeed, athletes need an ingrained knowledge that failure is part of success. 

Once those lessons and skills are developed to overcome setbacks, those young players and athletes are much better equipped to bounce back after defeat with the required hunger and drive that is vital to achieving success at the highest level.

Development needs obstacles, especially in that quest to develop as many crucial skills as possible. In that study, one of the biggest findings – and ironies – was that often the eventual ‘Almosts’ were ‘Superchamps’ at underage and the eventual ‘Superchamps’ were ‘Almosts’ at underage.

Brogan was in the latter category at underage before becoming one of Dublin’s greatest forwards.

“In hindsight, that experience served me well,” he wrote.

“Maybe if I had made that (underage) team I could have started to fall into the ‘Almosts’ trap of thinking I was ‘a natural’, something I’d hear later in my career, only I’d remind anyone who said it that it took me until I was 25 to look like a natural with Dublin.

“An early bump like that prepared me for the long and rocky road to Dublin and the top.”

Dublin's Bernard Brogan with Keith Higgins of Mayo at Croke Park. Picture: INPHO/Tommy Dickson
Dublin's Bernard Brogan with Keith Higgins of Mayo at Croke Park. Picture: INPHO/Tommy Dickson

That theme is certainly common for elite sportspeople. After becoming Hurler-of-the-Year last year, Gearóid Hegarty spoke about not getting a look-in as a Limerick minor for two years.

“Looking back on it now, those (minor experiences) were the best things that ever happened to me,” said Hegarty.

“They make you. I just wasn’t good enough as a minor. Over the years you get to learn failure is not fatal. It’s just feedback to get it right in the future.”


What is certain going forward though, is that the road to the top has become a lot rockier for young players, especially those trying to make it at U17, minor and U20 over the last year.

Recently, Galway minor hurling manager Brian Hanley spoke about the challenges faced by his players. With no provincial championship to take part in last year, and the All-Ireland series of the 2020 minor competition still postponed, the Galway minors haven’t played a game since they came together at the end of 2019.

In trying to quantify the impact of minors missing an entire year, Hanley spoke about Galway winning the All-Ireland U16 title in 2018, yet they had 10 different players on the team when the same group won the 2019 All-Ireland minor (U17).

“So, if that’s the amount of change in a regular year then I can’t really answer what the impact of missing out 2020 entirely will be,” said Hanley.

There is no indication when elite underage competitions will return but it will be difficult to complete the outstanding underage inter-county competitions from last year. 

Across minor hurling and football and U20 hurling, there are 12 games still to be played.

The challenge is all the harder again with an overlap in players and managements from the 2020 and 2021 campaigns. Roscommon, who are due to play Kerry in the All-Ireland minor football semi-final, have already changed their minor management team for 2021.

Timing is another critical issue for the U20 championships with the impending Leaving Certificate. The U20 football championship was the only marquee underage competition completed last year but there are no guarantees where that competition might fit into the calendar in 2021.

Last week, Kildare U20 football manager Brian Flanagan expressed his fears of the championship not going ahead, and the potential damage that decision could have on future careers.

“It has already impacted greatly on their lives, their personal development, their academic life,” said Flanagan. “They have been sitting in their kitchens for the last 12 months and I feel this group needs something now. Some of them won’t get to play county again after this year.”

The seeds have long been sown but it is becoming harder for the flowers to fully bloom in such rocky soil.

When Áine McNamara recently spoke at a Tyrone GAA coaching webinar, she finished her presentation with a quote from Alexander Den Heijer: “When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.”

The difficulty this time though, is that the environment has been so radically altered.

And coaches, manager and administrators have to adapt to that environment to ensure that an already rocky road doesn’t get any rockier for a generation of young players.

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