Erling Haaland's story offers clues for better player retention

By John Harrington

How do we encourage as many of our children as possible to continue playing Gaelic Games for as long as possible?

That’s a question that has exercised the minds of countless club coaches and administrators who quite often see their playing numbers diminish as their teams move up through the juvenile grades and then fall off a cliff entirely at senior level.

A 2013 ESRI report on participation levels in sport discovered that the likelihood of an adult dropping out of Gaelic football, hurling or camogie between the ages of 18 and 22 was “greater than one-half”.

It also revealed an almost a 75% drop off rate between the ages of 21 and 26 in Gaelic football and 60% in hurling/camogie.

In 2017 the LGFA commissioned a survey that revealed, by the age of 13, one in two girls will have dropped out of sport and are three times more like to drop out of sport than boys.

Clearly there’s a problem when it comes to player retention across the country, so how can clubs address it?

Some answers can be gleaned from an unlikely source – the career of Manchester City footballer, Erling Haaland.

The Norwegian’s talent was first nurtured by his local club, Bryne FC, who had remarkable success developing Haaland’s age-group from 5-6 year olds into senior footballers.

Of the 40 players they started with, 35 were still playing football as adults and six of them became professional footballers, including Haaland, when normally the drop-out rate in Norwegian football is 50 per cent and only 1 per cent of players make the grade as professionals.

Erling Haaland celebrates after scoring a goal for Norway. 
Erling Haaland celebrates after scoring a goal for Norway. 

So successful were Bryne at bringing most of their footballers through the entirety of the player pathway that it prompted a study led by Martin Kjeøen Erikstad who works at the Department of Public Health, Sport and Nutrition, Universitetet i Agder, Norway.

Erikstad recently visited Croke Park to discuss his study, As Many as Possible for As Long as Possible’, with GAA coaches. His presentation in full can be viewed at the top of this article.

What is striking about Erikstad’s presentation was that the lessons he believes we can learn from Bryne FC chime so well with the six key principles of the GAA’s Player Pathway.

· Club is Core - Club is central to nurturing a love and passion for our games and sustaining communities and lifelong participation.

· Player Centred - We develop the player and the person.

· Quality Coaching Experiences - Our coaches create an enjoyable coaching environment to meet needs and welfare of the player.

· Connection - Our pathway promotes connection through relationship building opportunities, communication and teamwork.

· Inclusive - Gaelic Games are for All, regardless of abilities, background, beliefs or identities.

· As Many as Possible for as Long as Possible - Our Pathway prioritises long-term development with a games programme that supports recruitment, development and retention of players.

The Gaelic games player pathway. 
The Gaelic games player pathway. 

The thread that runs throughout those six principles is that we must look at our players as people first and athletes second, and always endeavour to relate to the person while coaching the athlete.

That approach by coaches also brought huge dividends at Bryne FC when it came to player retention.

“Coaches are really influential and our success as coaches depends on how successful we are at influencing our athletes in a positive way,” explains Erikstad.

“We often tend to focus on the professional aspect. Like, how well do we know the sport, can we find appropriate practice drills. They’re really important aspects of coaching, but if you want to understand people’s experiences in sport we also need to look at the more relational aspect.”

Erikstad believes that GAA coaches should aspire to take what he calls the ‘Transformational Leadership’ approach which is made up of the Four I’s: Idealised Influence (being a positive role-model), Inspirational Motivation (believing in your athletes), Intellectual Stimulation (encouraging athlete input), and Individualised Consideration (person centred coaching).

“Coaches are role-models,” says Erikstad. “If we want athletes that are kind to each other, that show up on time and work hard in the group, we should probably do that ourselves as coaches. Inspirational motivation is about believing in your athletes, believing that they can succeed.

“As coaches we don’t always have to have the answers ourselves, we can challenge the athletes to take leadership responsibilities and make them think about their involvement.

“Individualised consideration means not only caring about our athletes as athletes, but also as people.”

Dublin GAA Games Manager, Ger O'Connor, delivering a Go Games coaching session at the 2022 National GAA Coaching Conference in the NUIG Connacht GAA Air Dome. 
Dublin GAA Games Manager, Ger O'Connor, delivering a Go Games coaching session at the 2022 National GAA Coaching Conference in the NUIG Connacht GAA Air Dome. 

What Erikstad learned from the success of Bryne FC in retaining players through the age-groups should provide lots of food for thought for Gaelic games coaches who believe in ‘streaming’ juvenile players from a young age.

‘Streaming’ means dividing a panel of players into groups based on perceived competency, and having an ‘A’ team a ‘B’ team, and potentially even a ‘C’ team in bigger clubs.

“When they were younger and played matches they didn’t put all the best players on one team, rather they wanted to make the teams equal,” says Erikstad. “And they continued with that also when they played youth football.

“One of example of this was when they had two teams in the same League when they were about 14 years old. For the final match of the season one of the Bryne teams was leading the table and if they won the last match then they would win the League.

“They were playing the other Bryne team in that last match and all the other teams in that division thought that the Bryne teams would make sure that the team leading the league would win that match and the League, but they didn’t.

“They followed their principles and tried to make the two teams as equally strong as possible and it ended up that the team leading the league lost points in that match and didn’t win the league.

“Following their principles of player development was more important than winning the League. They also distributed playing time equally and continued with that when they entered youth level.”

When the Bryne FC players reached their mid-teens they were separated into elite and recreational groups, but, interestingly, the coaches didn’t decide who would play in which group.

Instead it was left up to the players. Those who were keen to train four to five times per week could join the elite group and those who preferred to train one to two times per week played with the recreational group.

The two groups trained at the same time and warmed up together so that friends could still travel to and from training together and interact in the warm-up even if they were in different groups.

When Erikstad interviewed some of the players, they described a unique environment where they were friends but also pushed themselves to be better.

“I think the main take-home message is that it is possible to develop really good athletes while also promoting participation and personal development,” says Erikstad.

“We need to understand how these outcomes can be obtained. We need to look at activities but we also need to understand social dynamics and settings.

“I really think the Gaelic Games Player Pathway is in accordance with current stated knowledge and it’s about how we can implement this in our coaching.”

The article ‘As Many as Possible for as Long as Possible’ a Case Study of a Soccer Team That Fosters Multiple Outcomes can be read HERE