Cuthbert says GAA must grasp 'elitism' nettle
By John Harrington
The GAA’s Talent Academy and Player Development Review Committee have warned that the values and very culture of the GAA will suffer hugely if the recommendations of their report which was published yesterday are not implemented.
The committee, which was established by GAA President John Horan, has found that a creeping elitism in the GAA is damaging the ethos of amateurism and volunteerism that has made the Association such a pillar of Irish society.
After interviewing over 1,000 youth development stakeholders from 32 counties and analysing 7,000 pieces of data, the committee identified a number of key areas that need to be addressed.
“In terms of our evidence and our gathering it’s very obvious that the inter-county game is going like a train in the one direction, and the rest of the Association is wondering where we fit,” said Committee member and former Cork football team manager, Brian Cuthbert.
“The kernel of the whole problem is that winning is prioritised over everything else.
“What this committee is very, very clearly saying is that we need to educate or stakeholders, parents, teachers, club coaches, players, around a certain philosophy that is developmental, rather than driving a winning agenda.
“One of the biggest issues we would have discovered is that all of the (inter-county) academies, bar none really, drive an elite message, ‘You are now in the squad, we are going after an All-Ireland final under-14, we are going after winning something big here, you must act this way because you are now an inter county player'.
“And we don’t have the wherewithal in the organisation to actually back that up. If we are a professional sport in another world we might be able to say that, that we are picking a talent stream of players that maybe we could sell or commodify, or maybe use in some way, shape or form in the future.
“But this is the GAA, at 13 and 14 and 15 years of age, we feel very, very strongly that elite messaging is inappropriate
“We're firm believers that if we don't start really, really examining where we're at and draw a line in the sand then our values and the very culture and DNA of the Irish people and their clubs are going to suffer hugely.
“That's what this report is trying to drive home. The report is absolutely adamant that there's a place for everybody.
“Yes, there are going to be talented boys who need to be looked after, but, most importantly, only 1 per cent ever get to the very top
“With our vision, initiative, and commitment that we have provided in this report, it's very, very simple and can be summarised in this sentence – ‘As many as possible, for as long as possible, in the best environment possible’.”
When conducting their research, the committee asked every stakeholder they interviewed three simple questions:
What is working well in your county?
What is not working so well in your county?
And how can the GAA help your county to improve?
Their analysis found lots of positives, but also a number of commonly recurring negatives.
There’s widespread concern about the excessive demands placed on elite young players who find themselves under pressure to play for a variety of teams.
There’s an appetite for greater education from players, coaches, and parents alike.
All of this feeds into the retention of players which is a serious issue for the GAA with far too many being lost to the game in their late teens and early twenties.
“One of the biggest issues we face, and one of our biggest fears is retention of players,” said Committee Chairman and former Kilkenny coach, Michael Dempsey.
“Players are going through a lot of changes in life, whether it is moving to third level from post-primary to greater demands being placed on from inter-county teams to all of the psycho-social stuff as well in terms of their own personal development.
“If we don’t have a meaningful games programme, if we don’t have a player-centred approach to coaching which is more meaningful for the player and is based on the player in terms of the end in mind and where we want that player to end up, we feel we will lose more players than we are at the moment.
“We feel that if our recommendations are implemented we will retain more players because of the meaningful games programme, the changing to our coaching and being more player-centred.”
The committee have put together a Gaelic Games Development Framework with the player and the club at its centre.
It has recommended that, as part of a county plan, games calendars will be produced that will allow for a co-ordinated approach to development and greater synergy between clubs, schools, and academy squads.
It has also recommended that all inter-county competitions up to and including U17 would be developmental in their focus.
Three new full-time GAA appointments - a sports science manager, education manager and player pathway manager - will help ensure the proposed new framework will be implemented as seamlessly as possible.
“It's absolutely paramount that children, boys, youths and adults are afforded every opportunity to play our games,” says Cuthbert.
“The report is very, very clear in stating that at academy level there's a certain way of doing this and All-Irelands at U-14 certainly isn't what we believe in.
“We believe in giving as many people as possible the opportunity to (play at a high level). That means that at U-13, U-14, squads would be region-based. It also means that as you grow older the first time you'll ever come across a full All-Ireland would be at U-17.
“What it also means, is that even at that level that the competitions will mirror the adult competitions in terms of a tiered approach. The Celtic Challenge has done this and been extremely successful where people drop into their level.
“No disrespect, but at minor level there are matches happening in the first round of provincial championships which are absolute white-washes. What good are we doing for anybody with those games?”
Cuthbert is adamant that good governance will be crucial to ensuring the committee’s recommendations are carried out.
And, for that to happen, he believes it must come from the very top down.
“The report is also stating the necessity of governance from here (Croke Park),” says Cuthbert.
“This was a huge bug-bear of many stake-holders. They felt that at times a bit isolated.
“So it's incumbent on Croke Park as headquarters, and I use the analogy of an octopus and that the octopus’ tentacles reach out from here into every corner of the country, that Croke Park takes responsibility for ensuring all these opportunities are going to be there for the people who want to work for us.
“To be honest, there is also a necessity in terms of what we have discovered that there would be a review of funding to counties in relation to appropriate planning.
“So, there's no sense in counties being rewarded if they're not going to do what's set out in this report because this report is now GAA policy.”
Cuthbert also believes that if his committee's report isn’t fully implemented that the Association will have even bigger problems in the future than those it is currently facing.
“There was a passion from the committee that change would occur and we haven't put in all this work so change doesn’t occur," he said.
“We are very adamant, and I know the Uachtarán is very adamant that this report doesn’t (gather) cobwebs, and that the Association decides, it’s time for change.
“Our fear is very, very simple. We feel that the senior inter-county game is one thing but the net effects of that and what is happening in the drop-down with younger age groups, we have a mimicking effect, in that people are trying to mirror high performance environments that happen at senior inter-county level.
“And we feel if that goes on to a younger and younger age group, we will be in trouble and if that type of activity becomes more prevalent, it will run completely contrary to the ideals of the organisation.
“We just feel that is where the nettle needs to be grasped.”
- Michael Dempsey and Brian Cuthbert will give a presentation on the Talent Academy and Player Development Review Committee Report at 2020 GAA Games Development Conference on January 10. Tickets can be purchased HERE.