Mayo Coaching and Games Development - the team behind the team
By John Harrington
It’s on weeks like this that Mayo GAA Games Manager, Billy McNicholas, can really see the fruits of his considerable labour.
Tomorrow night the County U20 footballers play Roscommon in the Connacht Final, on Friday the county minor footballers also play Roscommon in a Connacht quarter-final, and, on Sunday, the Mayo senior footballers play Galway in the Connacht Senior Final.
Every player in action will have come through Mayo’s well-run Coaching and Games Development structures which have been headed up by McNicholas since 2006.
Inter-county matches such as these are the big shop-window of Gaelic Games, but success only follows if you have men like McNicholas and his dedicated team of Games Promotion Officers working hard behind the scenes in the warehouse to produce the players on display.
GAA.ie spoke to McNicholas this week to reflect on the role he and his coaching colleagues have played in what has been a really vibrant era for Mayo football.
GAA.ie: Billy, you've been Mayo GAA's Games Manager since 2006 and in that time Mayo football has been at the cutting edge at all levels. It's been a good era for Mayo football, hasn't it?
Billy McNicholas: It has, yeah. I suppose you could say that Mayo football in the last 10 or 12 years has really driven on particularly at senior level with huge consistency. Has our Coaching and Games been part of that? We certainly have been part of that, without a doubt. With our coach education programmes and development squads and everything else we've worked on we've played our part. Our coaching and coach education has helped raise standards everywhere from club football to inter-county football. We've been lucky to be a part of that and contribute to that, it's been very satisfying for ourselves as a Coaching and Games Development Group, absolutely.
GAA.ie: What sort of coaching team do you have working with you?
BM: At the moment we have four full-time Games Promotion Officers and two more who work 19 hours a week. So six staff in total with four on a full-time basis. Our Gaelic Football GPOs are Eugene Lavin, Eoin Sweeney, Martin Costello, Kieran Kilkenny and Michael Fitzmaurice, and then Adrian Hession is our hurling GPO. They're all very, very good people. Very easy to work with and they're a very experienced team. We've been together a long time now, which is great.
GAA.ie: My experience of Games Promotion Officers is that they go above and beyond the call of duty. It's a job with a lot of hours, isn't it?
BM: It's a labour of love, really, for us all. Before I was Games Manager I was a Games Promotion Officer as well and before that I was a schools coach. I used to volunteer for doing lots of stuff with my club too and I know myself when I came into a paid position I nearly felt a bit guilty to be getting paid for coaching and developing GAA, a thing I love.
We'd all do extra hours. We get paid for 39 hours but I'd be doing 60 hours. 60-70 hours a week is my norm. You have to do that because the volume of work is so vast and intense and there are so many programmes that we have to deliver and ensure they are run well. All my staff are the same. They're working long hours as well as part of the cause.
At the end of the day when we see our teams doing well, both at club and county level, that is our reward. We can go away and say, "We're a part of that, and it's great."
GAA.ie: Obviously Gaelic Football has always been popular in Mayo, but have you noticed an explosion of interest and participation numbers among the youth on the back of the county senior team's profile in recent years? Are there more children than ever playing Gaelic Football?
BM: Without a doubt. There has always been a huge tradition of football in Mayo which is a great starting point for ourselves when we came into these roles initially. When these Games Managers roles were set up in 2006 you had no real template of how to run it because it was a new position. John Tobin was my boss at the time in Connacht GAA, a super Provincial Games Manager, and now we have another excellent one in Cathal Cregg.
At the very beginning it was a case of figuring out together how to best structure this and run this. There was a little bit of trial and error at the beginning but once we found things that worked well we focused heavily on those.
The tradition was there which was a great help to myself. And an appetite for learning in the clubs was there as well among the coaches. We worked hard on our coach education and best practice for club coaches because we knew if we could get that right the rest would follow. They would be developing players within the club that would arrive in for our development squads which start at U-14 and then we'd continue that level.
We also worked hard with our primary and post-primary schools. They were the key areas we worked on heavily and it began to bear huge fruition for us. The Mayo senior team then from 2011 onwards began to really take off and there's a bond between the team and the Mayo public because they've seen how this team has always given it everything for their county. They're so honest in what they do, they're very humble fellas, and they have an enormous following now in the county and outside the county now as well.
All our young people want to now emulate those players, which is great. We use that. I oversee the Cúl Camps in Mayo and we always have a number of Mayo panel members involved in that who would go around from camp to camp. Children love meeting them and the players love meeting the children as well. It's great. It's all one big family working together.
But there certainly has been an increase in the numbers of children playing. Since 2011 it has really taken off. The senior team has inspired a new generation, without a doubt.
GAA.ie: You've said coaching the coaches is a big part of your job. Is it fair to say that coaching in the GAA has evolved hugely in the past 15 years?
BM: It really has. It really, really has. Even through the lockdown we had to reinvent coaching and games. Normally we would rely heavily on face to face meeting people and mentoring them but that went out the window and we had to come up with different ideas of how we'd do this. We ran online workshops and we went region to region.
Our county is geographcially split into four regions - north, south, east, and west. We're continuously doing surveys of player population in primary schools because that's where your future players are, and we do that regionally and have a development officer over each region and they run each one like a small county.
We run work-shops going from region to region going from U-7 all the way up doing these online best practice workshops which got enormous feedback. Huge numbers attending and people just really, really looking for information on best practice which was great from our point of view.
Now we're able again to get out to the clubs and start meeting people again and do practical face to face sessions as well. All of that is leading to best practice on the field, which is what we're after. When the players experience coaches who really know what they're doing and enjoy it, then the players will keep coming back and will, of course, improve all the time.
GAA.ie: Mayo is obviously a traditional football county, but significant work is being done also to develop hurling too thanks to the trojan efforts of Adrian Hession?
BM: Adrian works tirelessly to develop Mayo hurling. Okay, the dominant Gaelic sport in Mayo is football, but there is a tradition of hurling there as well and Adrian is certainly keeping that well fuelled, absolutely. It was brilliant this year to see Ballina Stephenites field a senior hurling team again and competing. They were a strong club back in the day and then disbanded, but they're back again. That's really, really good. We want to continue spreading that net wider and keeping the game of hurling going in Mayo, that's what it's all about.
Adrian is our stand-alone hurling GPO and looks after all the hurling clubs in the county and is brilliant at doing that. All of our GPO's are working on the Cúl Camps at the minute, we currently have 6,400 booked in to date and will probably have over 7,000 children by the time we're finished. It's incredible to see the enthusiasm and they're all being run really well.
GAA.ie: When you talk about numbers like that, it suggests the future for Mayo GAA is pretty rosy?
BM: It is, without a doubt. We have a really, really good county. It's a vast geographic county, but it's not hugely populated. In our primary school sector where our future players are, we have just short of 14,000 school-going children between the ages of 4 and 12 which is roughly 50-50, so we're operating with 7,000 boys. Compare that to Dublin who would have around 100,000 boys.
We're able to compete with Dublin on the playing field despite have far less players. We have to maximise our resources at all times and some of the clubs are really buying into that mindset. Westport are a good example. They've had a huge campaign in the last number of years going into schools and developing strong links with the schools and the club. They have huge numbers coming into the club now which is great.
Clubs are beginning to see the light and that's the drum we've been beating for a long time now - the importance of the club-school link. Clubs come to us and say they just don't have the players, and then we meet them and tell them they have 150 or 200 children in schools in their catchment area and ask them do they go into those schools? And if they don't, we tell them they have to go after that. Clubs are beginning to do that now by coaching in schools or bringing in gear and by developing that link they're getting those children into the club.
GAA.ie: On a week like this you see the product of all your hard work in coaching and games development when you have Mayo minor, U-20, and senior football teams all involved in big championship matches. It must be very satisfying to see players who have come through the system perform at the highest level?
BM: It's brilliant, it's absolutely brilliant. We meet them first in primary school, that's where we first start working with them. I have a great picture of Oisin Mullin after he played in a half-time Cumann na mBunscol game as a kid in Castlebar and he's pictured meeting his two heroes, Aidan O'Shea and Donal Vaughan. Now he's one of the main men in the Mayo team and Aidan is his team-mate, and it's not that long ago that picture was taken. That's how quickly things happen.
It's very satisfying seeing players you've dealt with in Primary School then develop further in post-primary schools and then graduate onto regional development squads and then last year in the case of Oisin Mullin be crowned Young Footballer of the Year. We had three Mayo players who have come through our system nominated for that award last year which is massive from a coaching and development point of view. It's just great to see.
The way we structure our academy and development squads is region-based. We believe hugely in spreading the net wide and we have to because we don't have a huge amount of players. So we have four regional squads at U-14, U-15, and U-16. And then it comes to the top of a pyramid effectively at U-17 level when you the players from the four regions are brought into one team. By the time they get there you've worked with so many players that hardly anyone could have gotten through the net.
Last Saturday we were in the Connacht Centre playing the first of three provincial inter-county blitz days. Mayo had 288 academy players playing on the day. We had four regional squads at U-15 and four at U-16. We were the only county who had that. We're punching well above our weight.
GAA.ie: For someone like you who has been working at the coal-face of Mayo GAA for so long, what would it mean if the county senior footballers could finally win the All-Ireland title?
BM: First and foremost it would mean a huge amount to me to see those players achieve that because they have been just brilliant. That's the first thing that would resonate for me - I'd love to see this current group of senior players winning it.
Number two, of course for myself personally it would be hugely satisfying. I could retire happy, close up the office, and head off into the sunset! Ah no, it's our dream, it really is our dream.
For the coaching and games staff it would be the icing on the cake, but we've seen our minors and U20s winning it and that's been very, very special too. I remember the 2013 All-Ireland minor win, I coached those lads all the way up and would have known a couple of them extremely well and I was so proud to see them winning it, it was fantastic.
From the minute I met a couple of them, the likes of Diarmuid O'Connor and Stephen Coen, straight away I know those two lads were going to be Mayo seniors. You could see it. I remember one day we had an Academy sessions with the U-14s in Castlebar and after the session we did a review of it with the players and I was talking to them and the two boys were burning holes through me they were that focused on what I was saying. I just said to myself, these fellas are really clued in. After a tough session, they took a full part in the review and gave great feedback at the age of 14.
We believe hugely in a player-centred approach when it comes to developing players. We encourage them to think for themselves by always asking the question, 'What do you think?' So that when it comes to the big days decision-making comes easily to them rather than them being reliant on their coaches or managers for providing them with the answers to a problem. That's the kind of culture we've really gone after.
We're all very hopeful that a senior All-Ireland will come, I'm very confident it will, I mean that. Absolutely. It's going to happen. We're building towards it all the time.