Games over drills; GAA is a lot more chaotic than is it structured

Jason Sherlock gave a brilliant insight into coaching young players on Mike Quirke's new podcast series
Games over drills; GAA is a lot more chaotic than is it structured

Former Dublin manager Jim Gavin and Jason Sherlock at Croke Park. Picture: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

JASON Sherlock is a true icon of Dublin GAA, yet he was a multi-sport athlete, who excelled at basketball and soccer as well, and for all his talent didn't take a straight path to the top. 

He firmly believes kids should be encouraged to play as many sports as they can in their youth, both to broaden their horizons and give them the best chance to staying involved into adulthood. It's a timely message ahead of the post-lockdown return to training on April 26 when some will be in demand from all angles.

Chatting to Mike Quirke on the former Kerry football and basketball star's outstanding podcast series, which is fundraising for Temple Street Children's Hospital, Sherlock offered his outstanding insight into coaching and player development.

"You don't have to be the best 11-year-old, you want to be the best 19- or 20-year-old," he explained. I didn't formally train for Dublin GAA until I was a minor and I played for the senior team the next year."

And Cork knew all about it, Sherlock burying the killer goal in the 1995 All-Ireland semi-final at Croke Park.

Jason Sherlock escorted off the pitch after helping Dublin beat Cork in 1995 Picture: James Meehan/INPHO
Jason Sherlock escorted off the pitch after helping Dublin beat Cork in 1995 Picture: James Meehan/INPHO

Tennis was the first sport he formally took up, followed by soccer, while basketball was introduced in St Vincent's. The GAA was later still, though he did tog out for Ballyhea in his teens during his summers in Rebel county. Indeed in another timeline, he ended up as a Cork minor.

"I didn't have the physical traits to play at a high level but I had an intrinsic motivation, I was very determined. I also had an aptitude to understand the game and try to learn how to be as good as I could be.

"I'd an interesting underage GAA path. Along the way, I stopped off in a little north Cork parish called Ballyhea, because my uncle was working in the meat factory. In this country, you're in a parish and you're with a club and you're fast-tracked for maybe eight. I didn't have that formal connection.

"All those little touch-points and experiences had a big influence on my philosophy."

Informal play was more influential on Sherlock than overly-structured training.

"I wasn't in that formal training with a club two or three times I week and I was a bit of a nomad, going from sport to sport. In that sense, it was of massive value to me. I applied the learnings I had from other sports into whatever game I was playing."

In the bigger scheme of things, Sherlock's advice to coaches across all levels is to develop the "people over the players" and to just be there for your athletes to gain trust.

Having worked with Dublin's development squads before graduating to the seniors with Jim Gavin, he appreciates that many mentors love the thought of discovering the 'next big thing'.

How many of those boys and girls have we seen cruise through their teens and then they rock up to an U21 team or a senior team and they're never heard of again. 

"Putting in a rocky road for your high-performing players is an interesting space to think about. Can you put in those interventions to challenge those players?

"The success of a development squad wasn't about producing senior inter-county footballers it was about showing high-level young players what influence they could have when they went back to their clubs. 

"At the moment the minor championship is all about 'can we get two or three for the senior inter-county squad?'"

Like all progressive trainers, he's in favour of game-based sessions.

"Game-specific, as opposed to drills, always made more sense to me. Bill Belichick's big objective with his coaching team was putting his players in real situations on the training pitch that prepares them for the real thing. You cannot prepare for a game situation by doing a drill. I take it that a drill can be important for working on technical skills but it's very hard to replicate the decision-making element.

"Gaelic football is a lot more chaotic than it is structured and ordered. You try to prepare players to make decisions in that chaos."

Jason Sherlock on club duty for Oliver Plunkett's in 2013 in Dingle. Picture: Dan Linehan
Jason Sherlock on club duty for Oliver Plunkett's in 2013 in Dingle. Picture: Dan Linehan

While it's difficult to process, and doesn't always convince club members, parents or players, Sherlock feels results should be secondary with underage teams.

The scoreboard is a terrible judge of a coach.

"There are no secrets to coaching. It's all about how coaches apply their learnings. At any level. If you've a care and a connection with an athlete you'll serve that athlete as best as you can. If that means you need to upskill you will.

"We're given two eyes, two ears, and one mouth. We should coach with that perspective. It's amazing what you'll hear and what you'll see. We all have certain confirmation bias: 'sure he always kicks it wide from that side...' Try and have an open mind."

And empower the players.

"A good coach doesn't have all the answers, a good coach will ask the questions that provide the answers. Three words we used in development squads were 'figure it out'."

To catch up with Mike Quirke's podcats, which include interviews with Derek McGrath, Joe O'Connor, Barry Solan and more. Follow his Twitter: @Mike_Quirke and donate here.

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