Nothing changed this week. That’s the first thing worth saying about the sudden GAA Go Games brouhaha.
To anyone with only a passing interest in the subject, it might have seemed at times since Tuesday that the GAA was rolling out some big new departure, some freshly-minted revolution in the way they do things.
That’s not the case. Couldn’t be further from the case, in fact.
Go Games have been the official policy of the GAA since 2010. For 13 years, the association has been teaching its clubs and its coaches all the tenets of best practice that have been aired repeatedly this week.
For all kids up to under-12, that means small-sided games, it means equal playing time for all, it means not publishing scores, no semi-finals, no finals, no trophies. The only thing that happened this week was an email went around reminding people of the policy.
So no, this isn’t a bolt from the blue. It is not your final, damning proof that society has gone soft.
Neither is it the latest front in the culture wars, a fresh attempt by the GAA to foist some kind of woke agenda on the nation. Go Games have been a crucial – and successful – part of the make-up of youth sport here since long before you ever heard of woke.
The second thing worth saying is that competitiveness is not a problem. Anyone who is involved in coaching kids in any sport will tell you that in a heartbeat.
Teaching kids the right way to hold a hurley is tricky. The mechanics of how to solo a football takes a while to compute in their brains. ”Near-hand tackle” is not a phrase they have any context for in the normal course of their lives so you have to invent fun and interesting ways for them to understand it.
But the one thing you never, ever have to teach a kid is how to be competitive.
Since they first realised that running was just a type of speeded-up walking, their little lizard brains have been able to process the idea of doing it faster than somebody else. And, for that matter, doing it slower. They want to win. They don’t want to lose. Human nature does the heavy lifting on that front.
At our under-8 camogie training the other night, one of the stations we set up worked on the Brick Flick. Girls in pairs, one hand halfway down the hurley, other hand up in a claw ready to catch, flicking the sliotar back and forth. Who can catch it? Who can catch two in a row? Which pair will be first to five? Now swap partners and start again.
It’s their first real foray into striking the ball out of their hand so the going was slow. You’re teaching little, tiny actions. Drop the ball onto the hurley instead of throwing it up. Keep the thumb on top, pointing down the stick. Try to catch with the fingers, not the palm of the hand. But at no stage did you have to tell any of them that the pair next door was on three catches while they were on two. They always know the score.
Sport is competitive. Not only would it be silly to deny that, it wouldn’t be desirable. But the whole point of not making scorelines and finals and trophies the focus is that once you define winning in those terms, it supersedes everything.
As soon as winning becomes a priority, life naturally gets better for the most talented kids. They get to play more often, in the positions they want to. They run on an escalator while the others do their best to keep pace climbing stairs.
But when they’re all still only learning the basics, it can’t be about the most talented kids. For a start, this isn’t Squid Game. There’s plenty of time for survival of the fittest after the age of 12.
Life in general is going to teach teenagers their fill of lessons about hierarchies and success and failure without us needing to drill it into them at the sports club they come to for fun a couple of nights a week.
More to the point, it doesn’t work. Study after study has shown that early focus on winning is self-defeating in the long run. Go through all the sports, read up on all the systems that have borne fruit – somewhere along the way you’ll find a point at which the penny dropped and things changed.
Belgian soccer is one of the most famous examples of the past 20 years. After a poor performance at home in Euro 2000, they filmed 1,500 youth matches across different age groups and their analysis found that eight- and nine-year-olds were on average touching the ball twice in a half.
One problem was the teams and pitches were too big – it was all 11 v 11. The other was that there was too much emphasis on winning so the best players got on the ball and the others made do with scraps.
So they tore it all up and changed everything about the way they coached kids. Go through their coaching manuals and everything that’s in Go Games has a version in there as well.
They don’t allow games of more than 5 v 5 until under-8. Then it’s four years of 8 v 8 between under-10 and under-14. Critically, no league tables until under-14. By changing the emphasis from winning to retention and development, they brought through more players than ever before. And along the way, Belgium’s golden generation bubbled up.
Getting rid of cups and trophies and all that stuff for young kids isn’t airy-fairy nonsense. It’s a key building block in the developmental stage of the world’s most vicious, most ruthless professional sports. The biggest sporting organisation in Ireland would be stone mad to do any different.
There’s no end of things to complain about in the GAA. Go Games are not one of them.