Hurling Academy culture and values being developed in the west
By Cian O'Connell
Throughout the past few decades Galway hurling has faced different challenges.
Talented teams were stitched together in the underage grades, but for much of the past couple of decades a pattern has been established.
Capable players are being developed and a coaching culture, spearheaded by Connacht GAA Hurling Director Damien Coleman, exists in the west.
Underage glory, particularly at minor level, has been gleaned, but the ultimate brief is to get players ready for the senior grade.
Since 1992 Galway have played in 21 All Ireland minor hurling finals in 19 different years. On 11 occasions the maroon and white outfit has triumphed, eight defeats suffered, and two draws registered.
Trying to ensure hurlers are able to meet the demands of the senior inter-county game is the objective, but promoting the game also carries a deep importance for Coleman.
In recent years, though, the landscape has changed with the emergence of the Bank of Ireland Celtic Challenge tournament.
With significant experience at every level of hurling and Camogie, Coleman is adamant about the benefits of that competition and how manufacturing a proper player pathway can benefit counties throughout the country.
Coleman recently spoke with GAA.ie about the importance of upskilling coaches and ensuring a proper player pathway is available ensuring young hurlers are monitored and assisted on their sporting journeys.
Q. You held a coaching seminar in Galway recently for coaches regarding coaching culture and values. What is the background and thought behind it?
A: It is something we have been doing bi annually for the last number of years. It is a Galway specific Hurling Academy group. We have put in a lot of effort in the last 10 or 12 years with our Academy Development Programme.
We feel like we are catering for a lot of young fellas at the ages of 14, 15, 16, and 17 leading into minor. The philosophy behind it is that we are trying to create a better group of hurlers coming. We see development from minor through to Under 20 and the end product is when they arrive in a Galway senior jersey in a hurling context.
We are judging real development not like before where if you wore a Galway Under 14 shirt you might be in it for the next four years because you made it at 14.
What we do there is we upskill CPD wise all our Academy coaches twice a year. We want to try to get everybody on to the one sheet in an effort to further develop our Academy culture and values system. We have five or six values that we want our Academy coaches to strictly adhere to themselves and to demand the same from the players that come into their care.
Q: Who attends the seminars and why are the viewed with such importance?
A: It is the coaches we appoint over the Galway Academy squads. We might have a management of six at Under 14, 15, 16 and we have three Celtic Challenge Cup squads.
Everything is feeding into Brian Hanley's minor squad this year which was Jeffrey Lynskey's for the last number of years. We are trying to hand over well polished and well rounded players who have come through the process and understand the system since 14. They aren't just arriving into the county minor manager. We have got to the stage where coachability has to be one of our values.
If a young fella is coachable and needs help with stuff we will stick with him. If he is a hugely talented player and not coachable we have to remove him from the programme - if you can't take advice and you are not putting in the work, not absolutely trying to educate and improve yourself. We have different areas. The whole area of hydration and dieting, nutrition upskilling.
We have a smartbase app that players have to go to feed into daily. It is a player welfare app. That is provincial and national policy that it would happen with our age group teams in the Academy.
If a young fellas isn't ticking all the boxes with all he needs to do to be part of this programme we have to have a serious look at whether someone else would benefit from being in it. Now we will work with everyone, but there is a timeline on how many chances you will get.
Q: At the moment there appears to be more joined up thinking. There is a clear pathway now for players which mightn't have always been the case?
A: Absolutely, we have a player pathway. A youth player is on the learn to compete phase. They have been handed over from the clubs, who are a major stakeholder in this as are the Cumann na mBunscoil and Post Primary so the club and juvenile fixtures board in Galway they are a major stakeholder.
They put on all of the games giving the youngsters opportunities to play games at youth level. We pick the better players for Schools of Excellence and the development squads are called that because they are the elite players at an age. You have other projects for maximising participation.
We aren't all about elite, but just in this programme it is the better players. Last year for example at Under 14 in Galway we took in 243 players at the age. We took them through an eight week programme, then we made a decision on an A 24 and a B 24 which is 48.
Nearly 200 players are released back to the clubs and the top 48 are kept. They go to the Tony Forristal and Sonny Walsh tournaments in Waterford as well as other National Talent Academy days. You have five National Talent Academy days which we take part in from May into August with the culmination being the finals day on August 31.
When those guys make those squads last year they have to go back into another 243 players this year come through the same eight weeks to come into the 48 again. It often changes when a guy that last year physically wasn't there, but a year later with mauturation and a growth spurt will have come on physically and psychologically.
The panels can change by 10 or 15 players each year so it is open all the time, they are not fixed. A young fella knows if he doesn't make it at 14 and really goes back to work on the inventory of the game and the pointers we give them when they are released. He knows if he works on that and hurls well with his club - the club is a big thing in our programme.
You play with your club first and we can take you after that. If you aren't a leader in your club we don't look at you either. He has to keep coming through the process, right through to Under 17.
He would be in it for a year if he is picked, but then he has to go back into the pile. So it is broad base into narrow base into broad base into narrow base. That is how we do all our business with that programme.
Q: In the past five years or so you have such a broad range of clubs involved in Galway panels. That wasn't always the way so young players seem to be getting more chances from less heralded places too?
A: Yeah, you are on the button with that conversation and point. Last year if you look at the All Ireland minor winning squad the Academy processes were working.
I'm the Talent Academy manager in Galway. I would say very definitely it is working on two fronts. You have a huge voluntary effort from club coaches.
Again the involvement of selected people from clubs, who come in to give their time every Saturday morning. We are also strictly Saturday mornings because we believe and are totally strict on the clubs getting their time on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Sunday.
Academy development is strictly Saturday in Galway with centres all over the place. Last year's county minor squad and other squads over time will have proven that if a young fella from a Sylane, Salthill, Ballinasloe, Mountbellew-Moylough which were areas not previously hotbeds of hurling in Galway, comes through that programme from those clubs it just proves to us that the Academy programme is really working.
Every young fellas has had an opportunity to play at the top level regardless of playing B, C, or D level in the county.
Q: Now you have Brian Hanley as the Galway minor manager and one of the steps along the way is that young hurlers want to play at that level. It is important that the likes of him and Jeffrey Lynskey before him are involved in this with the minor being an important step on the path?
A: Most definitely, it has always been that lads would have huge aspirations about making a county minor panel. Lots of young fellas who don't make it are seriously competent hurlers.
In other counties they would make it, but there is such a demand and high quality in Galway it is just unfortunate everyone can't be part of it.
Just to keep that even what we have done with the Celtic Challenge is to create squads to say listen you are nearly there. This is development, the end goal is a Galway senior jersey.
Just because you don't make the 30 in the county minor squad you can showcase your skills in the other three squads in Galway at Under 17.
In a year's time again with your learning and development you might be able to stake a claim for a Galway Under 20 spot. We have four Under 17 squads, the top squad will be the county minors under Brian Hanley.
Then we will have the Galway Maroons and the Galway McDonaghs will be competing in Division 1A of the National Celtic Challenge Cup and the Galway Tribesmen will be competing in Division Three or Four.
What we are doing there through that process is that even though lads are saying what are ye doing putting out four Under 17 squads.
Some people are saying that is ridiculous in our county, but we are about developing them. They aren't developed so there is a clear message that at 17 the young fellas isn't at the end of his development.
He is only really in the middle of his development. We are giving them a chance to wear a Galway jersey. With that system in place we are now telling 120 young fellas at Under 17 now you can wear a Galway jersey.
In the old system you'd only be inviting 30. For me 120 compared to 30 makes a lot of sense for me in a development capacity.
Q: The Celtic Challenge has given players a chance?
A: Lads will be honest, nearly thinking I won't do honours maths in the Leaving Cert, but I could do a really good pass paper or whatever.
They see it as a chance to go at the squad with proper tutelage under qualified coaches with our coach education programme.
It is a platform for them to announce themselves. Last year six or eight lads who were put back into Celtic Challenge Cup ended up in Croke Park on All Ireland Final day with four or five of them taking part to win an All Ireland.
When you give lads a chance to get seven or eight games in the Celtic Challenge they think they want the bigger prize and they are ready.
They mightn't have been ready in March, but they are ready in July. We just figured it is the best way for Galway and it is part of our development philosophy and part of our culture and values system that we are giving more youngsters a chance.
We are maximising our participation numbers and optimising our playing standards. That is basically it.