Martin Fogarty is a man on a mission
By John Harrington
Martin Fogarty has been a very busy man since he started work as the GAA’s new National Hurling Development Manager last September.
Type his name into Twitter, and you’ll get a good flavour of just how enthusiastically he’s thrown himself into the role.
A quick search turns up positive testimonies from people who’ve been involved in his coaching workshops or seminars in counties like Waterford, Wexford, Cavan, Galway, Roscommon, Mayo, Leitrim, Meath, Kildare, and Westmeath.
On Friday and Saturday you’ll find him in Croke Park where he’ll be a key-note speaker at the 2017 GAA Games Development Conference.
Ahead of the conference, he spoke to GAA.ie about his planned presentation - his work to date in his new role, and the importance of a games based approach to coaching hurling.
Q: You’ve been the GAA’s National Hurling Development Manager since last September. How have the first few months in the job been?
A: It's been thoroughly enjoyable. When you’re working with people that are into hurling, sure it's really a hobby, isn't it? What really enthuses me is when you go into the counties where hurling wouldn't be anywhere near the first game and you're seeing people that are beavering away and working away. I suppose the I call them the real people at the coal-face, they’re tremendous.
I was over in Roscommon on a night you wouldn't put the duck out. We had 45 or 50 coaches and we were working with the Celtic Challenge squad. We put on a work-shop inside and outside and there was huge enthusiasm. We had the same then up in Mayo, about 45 or 50 coaches turning up working with their Celtic Challenge squad, and then the same again up in Leitrim.
Now the night in Leitrim was amazing really because it was such a foggy night that we had to send someone over to the far side of the pitch because you couldn't even see the lads beyond the goals. It was funny, but it was brilliant really.
Between Sligo and Leitrim, we grouped the two counties together that night, we had 30 players on the field and about 50 coaches turning up. That was a night when I thought we wouldn't have anybody because it was so difficult to travel.
I was already aware that sort of enthusiasm was out there, but it was still tremendous. That people were just so passionate. Developing that is the key to it. It's about enthusing those people and giving them any support that we can give them, whether it's verbal, practical or anything else we can do for them.
Q: When you were first appointed your said the first thing you would do would be to listen to the people who were already working on the many hurling initiatives already in place. What have people been saying to you? What has been the vibe when you’ve travelled around the country?
A: The vibe I've been getting back at this stage even is that in some of the counties where football is stronger, that they would like certain nights just set aside for hurling. That doesn't mean Tuesday and Thursday every week. Some counties are even saying it would be beneficial to even have a Monday night freed up for hurling for most of the year.
To have a defined hurling night where they're going to be able to run competitions and they won't be cut across by football. And people are saying they want, which is key anyway, a meaningful programme of games at as many levels as possible.
What I'm hearing then is can we try to come up with a solution where numbers are small in clubs and they're not able to field a full team or get a good number for training, that there might be some way of clubs coming together for a little bit from time to time to get a meaningful training session.
And even if there aren't enough teams in a county within a particular grade, that we could possibly look at cross-border competition, something in that line.
If you have three teams in a county at any grade, then it's very hard to get a meaningful programme of games for them.
Take for example in Leinster, which has been going on for a long time, the likes of the Leinster League. It's something different for a start and you're getting to play teams from other counties. That's alright in Kilkenny where you're doing it for a bit of variety. If you're in a county where there's only three teams at that particular age-level, then if you can link up with two or three other counties where you have nine or 12 teams, well then that changes the whole scenario.
And then everyone is looking for practical work-shops where they can try to upskill themselves. People from counties that are maybe struggling a bit, they look at the stronger counties and they sometimes think there's some kind of magic going on in those counties and they're trying to buy into it and hear what's happening.
They're pleasantly surprised, and I'm always very happy when you see someone doing a session and you tell them that's exactly what we're doing in Kilkenny. Don't be disillusioned. Even to extend that message out is very important.
Then, clubs and mentors, they're looking for ideas. If you have only 10 in the field, which can happen in Kilkenny and is certainly happening in some other counties, then what do you do? People are looking for ideas about how you might have different sessions and a bit of variety. We're all like that really.
Any time I walk into the field I'm picking up ideas and feeding them into different people. You're learning the whole time. That kind of stuff.
Q: Isn't that what this weekend's Games Development Conference in Croke Park is all about? Going somewhere to share ideas and learn from others? As a coach, do you always have to be open to that?
A: I've always said, when there's a gathering of people who are interested in something, there's always a benefit. If you go back to even the foundation level coaching course that has been running for years, they've often been running in my club and I've often popped down to them even though I'd have seen 20 of them. And every time you go down to one you're picking up something, you're meeting a few lads, you're chatting, and that's the kernel of it all.
It's the same with a conference. People come to the conference, and if they come out of it with two new ideas, a couple of contacts from somewhere else, then it's worthwhile. Networking is probably the fancy word for it.
What people really want to know is, 'Am I doing the right thing?' And, 'What is the right thing?' The right thing I suppose is what the successful teams are doing. So if people come and they see a successful club team and they wonder how they did it, and they get talking to lads involved in that team or they see a demonstration of what they're doing, then they go home and say, 'Sure, janey, I'm doing the same thing or just need to tweak it a little bit'.
What I'm seeing going around a little bit now, especially with new coaches, is that the enthusiasm can be there. But something very, very simple you can point out to them, for example, if they're doing a drill or a skill exercise and there's too much of a queue to get an activity.
Let's say it's pucking a ball over the bar. And you have to wait for six lads in front of you before you get a puck of it. So you'd tell a lad what he's doing is good, but instead of having one group working, have two groups working, so they're active. It can be as simple as that.
In a match whoever is first to a ball gets the ball. So if you have an exercise and they're only going out to the ball at 50 per cent pace, then you can point out to them that if they were in a match situation they're not going to get the ball because somebody is going to pass them out so we have to work on going faster. It could be as simple as that.
Q: Isn't that what you will be talking a lot about this weekend? The importance of a game-based coaching structure?
A: I'll spend a few brief moments talking about my job, but then the kernel of my piece will be to show a few very game-based training sessions. For example, how you can still have a good session if you only have three lads in the field. That kind of stuff.
It's not an inter-county set-up where you have 30 or 34 players in the field every night. You're dealing with real issues in clubs where you might have 10, you might have 12, you might have 14 or 15, and you have to be able to get a good session into those fellas every night that they arrive down.
That's where you can have a mixture of an actual game - and a game can be five versus five depending on the number - and a part of a game that needs addressing. So if you feel that your players are not defending well enough, then you can extract something from that game and say we need to work on this little bit.
Or else you'll see that there are a few basic skills that players are lacking in and you need to say, 'Right, how can I help them?'.
You take a simple thing like players not being able to strike well on the two sides. Someone would say, 'Sure what would you do with them?' It's as simple as could be, you get lads out in twos and they start pucking right and left.
What I would find over the years is that a lot of people are surprised to hear that Kilkenny seniors would do a huge amount of striking in twos in at least four out of every five training sessions. And I'm sure it's the same down in Tipperary and Waterford and Galway. And if it's good enough for them...
I could go to a county squad and I might see players trying to do elaborate drills. And I see that their striking is poor. I'd say, 'Look it, we need to pull this back a bit'. There's no point trying to set up an elaborate drill where players are moving around a field 40 or 50 metres apart and trying to pop balls into each other's hands if they're not able to even strike a ball 40 metres from a stationary position for a start.
So you have to get back and do the basics and I say it the whole time. Kilkenny do that almost every night. There will always be an element of striking. You have to get back to the basics.
Q: Kids love playing a game above all else, but is that not true for adults too? So surely the more you can bring that element of 'a game' into a training session, the better?
A: When I speak to coaches at courses I would say to the coach, 'When you're planning a coaching session, imagine for a start that you're the player'.
So when you put your training session down on that sheet of paper, look at it as a player. And if you see on that sheet of paper that there's only five minutes of a game, you're going to be fair disappointed.
If you're down in a field for an hour or an hour and a half and the manager says to you, 'Right, lads, you can forget about the hurls, you won't need them tonight', then your head is going to immediately drop for a start.
We all need to do exercises and drills to develop the skills, but if you ask anyone what's the most attractive part of a training session and they'll always tell you it's the game.
Why are we training? Obviously, to try to win some competition. And the competition is going to be a game. It's not going to be a series of drills. A coach has to realise that the player wants a game and the first thing I would always write down on the sheet of paper would be the game and what format the game would take and how long it would take. Is it going to be just a straight-forward game, say ten versus ten, or are you going to divide it up into a bit of five versus five if you have 20 players and then a bit of ten versus ten. Maybe a bit of backs and forwards. That's all game-based.
Coaches can lose track of themselves and they can frustrate players. You learn the game by playing the game. Now, needless to say, you have to be able to catch the ball. In a game you might get five opportunities, whereas in ten minutes of a warm-up you might get 50 opportunities. That's where you have to get the balance between skill-development and the actual game itself. But you should never lose sight that the game is the most important part of it because that's where the enjoyment is.
Q: You used the word 'balance'. What sort of balance will you be trying to get as National Hurling Director? Will your remit be quite broad, or will you try to focus on certain areas?
A: For a start, it's like a panel of players, it will always be open and it will always evolve. If I go down to a training session I'll tweak a session very, very quickly because you might find something is working very well so you'll develop it and if something is not working well you'll discard it.
You'd often have things in your head that you're planning but then you'll find you don't need to do certain things or you need to get rid of something.
In terms of this job, going forward, the job will take me wherever I see the most need. The broad terms that I have set out with at the moment are working pretty well which basically means that initially I'm working with and through the Games Development people in the various counties and the provinces.
I'm not going to be able to get around individual clubs, so we're pulling together work-shops where we're getting as broad a range of coaches as possible. We're getting club coaches, development squad coaches, Celtic Challenge team coaches, that kind of stuff.
And at the same time we're using Celtic Challenge and development panel squads in practical sessions. So I'm going to get to both players and mentors in those sessions.
Apart from that, if there are various inter-county panels or management teams that want to avail of me, then I am open to that as well. That's already happening to some degree. It's not shoving it down anyone's neck, but if there is a management team somewhere, be it minor, U-21 or senior, and they want me to come up and talk to them or do a practical with them, then anything like that I would see as a happening as well.
And then, I'd have a focus on the Celtic Challenge because it's new and it went so well last year. There was a hugely positive feedback from that competition. So, again, anywhere at all that I can get in there and progress that I'll be doing it.
From being in Croke Park for a good bit now and seeing what's happening already around the country, it's tremendous really. I'm not trying to talk myself out of a job or anything, but the amount of work that is going on, the amount of initiatives and the amount of people on the ground, it's mind-boggling, really.
The number of youngsters who went on the Cúl Camps last year was somewhere in the order of 127,000, I think. Now, if you had asked me a year ago how many youngsters attend the Cúl Camps in a given year, I might have guessed a figure of 30,000.
My dream, and it's not really a dream, would be that every youngster in the country would be given a chance to play the game at some stage in their life. If you have a youngster that goes into a Cúl Camp two or three years out of their lives, then that's their opportunity to play the game and if they want to proceed with it then grand, and if they don't, then grand.
It's like a youngster going to school and being shown how to play a tin-whistle. They're given the basics and after that it's up to themselves. It's about giving them the taste of it and I would see hurling in the same way.
You want to open it to as wide an audience as possible, give youngsters a taste of it, and then it's up to themselves after that if they want to pursue it.
All the initiatives that are there are helping to do it. Going forward, we want to get more schools, in particular primary schools, playing the games to some degree. That would also be a big objective going forward.
Q: You'll be a busy man!
A: Sure, look it, I like being busy.
Tickets for the 2017 GAA Games Development Conference can be purchased online through the dedicated ticket system. To purchase tickets visit https://eventgen.ie/gaa-games-development-conference-2017
The cost of attending the GAA Games Development Conference is €60. This price includes: GAA Coaching Bag and Folder; Copies of all GAA Conference Presentations Post Event; Lunch and Refreshments throughout the day.