Games Promotion Officer Conor Herbert preaches to the converted
By John Harrington
On an average week, roughly 400 primary school children in North Kildare benefit from the coaching of Conor Herbert.
A Games Promotion Officer for four clubs in the area - Rathcoffey, Cappagh, Straffan, and St. Kevin's – he has been a busy man of late.
“I've been going Rathcoffey National School, Straffan National School, rotating between Timahoe and Staplestown for St. Kevins, and then I've been with Tiermohan and Newtown school for Cappagh,” he told GAA.ie. “It was a busy first term between September and October.
“Three of the schools would be small enough and I'd be fortunate enough to be able to hit everybody in the school on the one day.
“The likes of Staplestown, Newtown, and Tiermohan would only have four or five classrooms in the school so I could coach everyone from junior infants right up to sixth class on the one day when I visit Rathcoffey or Straffan National Schools they're quite bigger and you might do a six-week block with third, fourth, fifth, and sixth class and another six weeks with junior up to second class.
“In terms of numbers, you're talking about roughly 400 kids a week that you'd be coaching and they'd all be getting at least 45 minutes to an hour of GAA.”
Wherever he goes, Herbert is preaching to the converted.
The opportunity to play Gaelic Games in a safe environment with their friends is a great release valve for young children who have had many of their other recreational outlets curtailed by Covid-19, so enthusiasm is a given.
“The reaction is absolutely top drawer and it always has been, really,” says Herbert. “I'm blessed with my clubs and schools, the kids absolutely adore it.
"You're pulling up to a school on a Wednesday morning and there would be 30 or 40 kids already standing at the gate waiting for me to pull up.
“If I'm emptying the boot they're willing to carry in cones, balls, whatever it is. They'd be carrying myself in if they got the chance! They're absolutely loving it and the schools themselves have been great to work with.
“There's never any issue from the word go when I contacted them in late August, they were delighted to have me on board and to see all the health and safety measures that we've put in place to make it a safe environment.”
Strict health and safety measures are applied by Herbert and his fellow Games Promotion Officers in schools.
And while that requires a little extra planning and some creative thinking to ensure all games are non-contact, he has found that process has been a beneficial one for him.
“100 per cent,” says Herbert. “For me, before Covid-19 kicked in, I was very much an organised chaos man. But now my sessions take a little bit more planning because the kids have to stay in their pods and the sessions are a good bit more structured and you're not allowed to do any contact activities.
GAA Coaching & Games Development staff aren’t just helping primary school children to become better players, they’re also helping teachers in the planning and delivery of physical activity opportunities.
“At the end of every six weeks I would go into the teachers after and give some resources that they could then use with their pupils," says Herbert.
"There's the Returning to Schools coaching programme that's on the GAA Learning Portal and the webinar that (GAA National Games Development Officer) Pat Culhane would have done.
“Also, in Leinster we've created a coaching resource based on Turas principles which we've been working on in Leinster for the past couple of years. During the Laois/Kildare/Offaly lockdown some of the coaching staff came together and we put together a resource for primary schools teachers.
“It's very specific. You have a four-week coaching block for juniors and seniors, a four week-coaching block for first and second-class, and so on.
“At the end of every six weeks I would always make sure to give the teachers some resources because from what I can see the teachers are mad to do a bit of coaching but some of them don't know where to start.
“The teachers have been delighted with the resources I've given them because they can continue coaching the kids themselves and then I'll be back in the schools again by the time they've completed that programme.”
That ethos of sharing knowledge is something that Herbert also does in his role with the coaching clinics recently rolled out by Leinster GAA.
To further support voluntary coaches in the province, they now provide coaching clinics where qualified Coach Developers like Herbert help coaches in any way they possible can.
“How it works is a coach comes to us and might have some issue he needs help with," explains Herbert.
"For example, he might have a couple of young players who are continuously messing in training sessions.
“So we'll have a socially distanced meeting via video conferencing and we'll trash out whatever problems they have and give them solutions.
“We'll keep in contact with them then over a period of six to eight weeks to see if the problem is getting better.
“I think it will be very helpful for any coach in Leinster whatever their issues are, be they big or small. They just need to send us any queries they have and a Coach Developer will get in contact with them. We're all about helping volunteer coaches and teachers who give freely of their time to promote and develop Gaelic Games.