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Paul Kinnerk - the teacher constantly learning

By John Harrington

The best teachers never stop learning, which is probably why Paul Kinnerk has established himself as one of the most successful GAA coaches in the country.

The Monaleen man has a reputation for being an innovator, someone constantly striving to operate beyond his comfort zone in order to better himself and the players he works with.

He first rose to national prominence as key personality in Clare’s many hurling successes earlier this decade.

He coached the Clare minors that won the 2010 Munster title, helped the same generation of players to three U-21 All-Ireland title in a row from 2012 to 2014, and was also part of Davy Fitzgerald’s management team for the 2013 senior All-Ireland success.

These days his expertise is being utilised by his native Limerick in a variety of roles.

He’s the county senior hurling team coach, head coach of Limerick’s underage football Academy, and advisor to Limerick’s underage hurling academy.

A PE and maths teacher in St. Caimin’s secondary school in Shannon, he is also currently undertaking a PHD in the University of Limerick in the area of pedagogy (the method and practice of teaching) in sport.

The extent of that undertaking tells you all you need to know about just how dedicated Kinnerk is to deepening his knowledge of coaching and how best to imparting it to those he works with.

He spent two years planning the research for his PHD, is currently 18 months into it, and has roughly another three years to go. Quite a commitment for someone with so many other irons in the fire. 

His chosen field of expertise is sparsely populated in terms of the number of previous papers and studies that have been published on it, so Kinnerk is something of a pioneer and by the time he has completed his PHD is likely to be someone referenced by other experts in the field for years to come.

There’s a lot of hard work ahead of him between now and then, but, as challenging as the task is, it’s one he’s relishing because he’s learning a lot along the way.

Paul Kinnerk with the 2010 Clare Munster Minor Hurling Championship winning team.
Paul Kinnerk with the 2010 Clare Munster Minor Hurling Championship winning team.

And, as he told the audience during his presentation at last weekend’s GAA Games Development Conference, a quest for self-improvement should be part of the make-up for every serious coach.

“We have to believe in ourselves as coaches, but it's no harm from time to time to challenge yourself to say, 'what I'm doing, could I do it better?'”, said Kinnerk.

“It's something that I've constantly done. When I started off coaching properly ten years ago, I entered coaching due to being injury-prone - the lads would call me 'Mr. Glass' due to my ability to pick up an injury at any time. Hamstrings, limbs, you name it, I've had that injury.

“When I dislocated my shoulder 10 or 11 years ago I entered in to coaching. I've loved it since and I stuck with it even when I went back playing.

“But the coach I was ten years ago and the coach I am today, there's been big changes throughout. Maybe some that have improved, maybe some that haven't.

“But I'm constantly looking to try to innovate and do something that I think makes me a better coach. That's something that everyone should try and do."

Kinnerk’s coaching track-record has been one of high achievement from the very start.

He started off with the Monaleen U-16 footballers and led them to a county championship success. Around then he also got involved with the Sixmilebridge U-21 hurlers with Sean stack and led them to a county title too.

That same year, 2009, he coached an unheralded St. Caimin’s team to the Harty Cup Final, and it was on the back of all of those achievements he was recruited by the Clare minor hurling management.

From the beginning, his approach to coaching was a progressive one that put an emphasis on a games based approach.

“A traditional coach would say that skills need to be learned before you play a game,” said Kinnerk.

“So we practice high repetitions of drills before we go into a game and then you test them in a game.

“Whereas a games-based coach has a more flexible outlook. The belief is that skills can be learned through playing games. The likes of your first touch, your hooks, your blocks, your kick-passing; that they can developed through well-designed games.

“The likes of your overload situations, they're very good for the development of skills. Your four versus twos, your five versus ones, you name it. What you're doing is allowing some level of decision-making to take place.

“The traditional approach is really a teacher and student approach, while in the games based approach the coach acts in more of a facilitating role and puts the onus back on the players.

Former Clare hurling coach, Paul Kinnerk, is now part of the Limerick management team.
Former Clare hurling coach, Paul Kinnerk, is now part of the Limerick management team.

“You introduce the game early to establish context. The whole session is built around an area you want to work on within that game. It could be something simple like swarm tactics. It could be a broad theme like that.

“It could even be the theme of working on our kick-passing. And saying in the game, 'Ok, why?' Or, 'How many balls did we kick away there?' When you bring them back into a huddle you have that discussion.

“'Lads, how many balls did we give away in that game?' At least then you're establishing context for why you're going to now practice or provide opportunities to work on our kick-passing.

“And then we're going to come back into the game at the end again and see has that changed. So you really are trying to make the session a learning environment.”

Kinnerk starts all of his maths classes in St. Caimin’s by getting his students to engage in a peer correction of homework.

This involves discussion that gives they shyer pupils the opportunity to discuss in groups of four issues that they would be reluctant to talk about in front of the whole class.

The theory is that the more you can get pupils to actively engage in a class, the more they will learn, and Kinnerk believes the same approach applies when it comes to coaching hurling and gaelic football.

The greatest evolution his method of coaching has undergone in the last number of years has been his increased determination to foster a player centred culture with every team he works with.

He’s reading and researching constantly as he works towards his PHD, and one of the studies that really resonated with him was the paper Dr. Ken Hodge of the University of Otago wrote on the All-Blacks rugby team.

Entitled ‘A Case Study of Excellence in Elite Sport: Motivational Climate in a World Champion Team’, it examined how the All Blacks created a culture summed up by their motto ‘Good People Make Better All-Blacks’.

Maori All Blacks Otere Black, Ihaia West, and Chris Eves try their hand at hurling before their test against Munster last year. Paul Kinnerk believes GAA coaches can learn a lot from the All-Black culture of player empowerment.
Maori All Blacks Otere Black, Ihaia West, and Chris Eves try their hand at hurling before their test against Munster last year. Paul Kinnerk believes GAA coaches can learn a lot from the All-Black culture of player empowerment.

The All Blacks coaching staff headed up by their then head coach Graham Henry found that by giving players greater responsibility you fostered greater leadership qualities and decision-making skills in them. Kinnerk believes GAA coaches should adopt a similar approach.

“We should be handing players responsibility,” he said. “It shouldn't be a case that the coach is expected to do everything. And when you hand a player responsibility, that you're enabling them to actually do that on a pitch.

“If you do everything for them on the training ground and promote that culture, then inside in the game or the heat of battle, it would be no surprise if they weren't able to fend for themselves and were looking over to the coach.

“If they are looking over, then at that point you know you're in trouble. Because we need to promote is players who are able to fend for themselves and make decisions on the field.

“It could be a fella that drifts out the field and leaves a load of space inside and then a decision has to be made by a player on the spot and if they get it wrong or they hesitate, then that could be the winning or losing of your season.

“I find that promoting that and getting to a point where the players are driving the sessions, driving trainings, and driving motivation on the pitch, that needs to be practiced. It needs to be practiced within the coaching environment.

“You can't just say half an hour before a match, 'I want ye to go out there now and drive it on yourselves'. It just doesn't work unless you have the mechanisms in place for it to take place.

“So, for example, the inclusion of game-like activities is straight away a non-prescriptive way of doing it.

“You're empowering the players to make a decision rather than saying we've got cones here and you're going to go to cone A and then you're going to cone B. When you get to cone B you're going to strike or kick the ball. When you get to cone C you're going to do something else.

“You're after telling them exactly what to do. Whereas games provide the players with opportunities and the autonomy to make decisions.

"You should try to develop a culture where players are expected to solve problems within sessions.”

So, how do you empower a player during a training session? One of Kinnerk’s methods is to make maximum use of water breaks.

He’ll pose a couple of questions to the group that he’ll have had carefully prepared even before the session started, and then give them two minutes to discuss whatever issue he has raised and how best to resolve it once they resume the session.

He’ll often give the group 30 seconds to divide themselves into however many teams he needs for whatever game he has devised, and then start counting down from 30.

If the players can’t pull themselves together in that amount of time, there’ll be some sort of punishment, such as press-ups.

When the count-down begins there might initially be panic, but discussions will then quickly take place and players who weren’t leaders before will suddenly speak up and say, ‘You go here, you go there’.

If all this sounds a bit challenging, then that’s because it is. It would be far easier to go the old-school route of rigidly planning a training-session focused on prescriptive drills that don't require the player to problem-solve or show initiative. 

Kinnerk, though, is driven to operate outside his comfort zone and has seen the benefits of doing so. He’s convinced other GAA coaches will do too if they are willing to challenge themselves and then persevere.

“If players see your enthusiasm and see that you're trying, they will try to make it work,” he said. “And if you've spent the time thinking and planning it and they can see that, it could be a case that an activity that you had planned to work perfectly in one session might take three sessions.

“Accept that this will take place, embrace it, because when we solve a problem it makes us better. And persist.”

You can look back at all of the lectures from the 2017 GAA Games Development Conference here - http://learning.gaa.ie/Conference2017

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