Killoe Young Emmets are leading by example
By John Harrington
The Gaelic Athletic Association is rightly proud of the sporting culture it has fostered in this country and beyond over the course of the last 134 years.
When you combine the ethos of volunteerism and community that underpins the GAA with the skill and passion of our native games, then you have something very special indeed.
The GAA is one of the pillars of Irish society, but with that status comes great responsibility.
And as much as the Association is a source of huge positivity in this country, it must be also self-aware and humble enough to recognise its flaws and then have the gumption to address them.
That’s why the Killoe Young Emmets GAA club in Longford should be so commended for their recent healthy club campaign that has focused on a very important quality that should be at the heart our games – a culture of respect and sportsmanship.
Unfortunately, it is sometimes lacking in Gaelic Games. And when it is diminished or absent you find a variety of ailments such as on-pitch violence, abuse of referees, local rivalries that grow too heated, and a damaging win at all costs mentality projected onto children by coaches and parents.
Following Croke Park’s Healthy club guidelines, Killoe Young Emmets recently conducted a confidential internal survey to see what project their Healthy Club team would focus on.
The feedback was mainly positive. It showed how the GAA already promotes mental, physical and social health, that the GAA is the heart of the community and everyone thanked the countless hours that the Killoe volunteers contributed.
However there was a clear consensus that more needed to be done to make the GAA club a happier and less pressurised place to play for children.
The issues raised are ones that are relevant to all clubs to a greater or less extent nationwide, such as children not being picked on teams, a win at all cost attitude, abuse directed towards players, referees, and coaches from the sideline.
It’s to Killoe’s credit that when these issues were highlighted they resolved to address them head on rather than sweep them under the carpet.
Claire Campbell is Killoe’s Health Clubs officer and one of the driving forces behind their #JustPlayFootball campaign that has energised their club from top to bottom and proved inspirational for other clubs who are also keen to implement their own RESPECT initiative.
“I just think that there's so much pressure on kids growing up now,” Campbell told GAA.ie
“I'm a nurse myself and I keep a good eye on mental health and anxiety and I can just see it escalating. Just the pressure on parents and the pressure on kids.
“When we went to football there was no parents there and there was no pressure and it was just so enjoyable. We had a great childhood memories and I would hate for kids growing up to lose that.
“Also, I think the GAA is getting such a bad name because of incidents that are happening on the pitch.
“People don't tolerate violence in any other setting, at work or in any other sport that is physical so the GAA should be no different. People have a life outside of football and an intentional injury should not disturb a player’s or official’s family or career.
“This project wasn't easy. We were afraid that we would get bad press for our club. I was saying, no, it's happening nationwide, not just in Killoe.
“It was a difficult one, because we were so afraid there would be any backlash on the club. Because our club is so good and the people are so kind. It’s such a good parish, if there's anything wrong then everyone helps each other out. We are so proud of it and all its members.
“But after we undertook the survey this was something we clearly needed to address.”
Killoe’s initiative began with Safeguarding training for their coaches which lays out clear rules of acceptable behaviour when coaching children.
The next part of their project was inspired by New Zealand Rugby’s ‘LetKidsbeKids” video campaign, and saw the club record three videos over three days.
If you haven’t already watched their #JustPlayFootball video at the top of this page, then make it your business to do so because the disarming and honest views of Killoe’s youngest members in particular should give all adults involved in Gaelic Games food for thought.
As Campbell herself discovered, we all have a lot to learn in this space.
“I seriously do think it's down to education,” she said.
“I would have been very naturally competitive playing football all my life. I would have coached an U-12 team myself and I would have been guilty of doing a lot of the wrong things.
“It wasn't until I did the project and looked into it and what other countries were doing, that I realised how bad I was. It doesn't matter what level of education you have, everyone is guilty of it. It’s part of our culture.
“My husband used to play rugby and he plays football now and would say that he'd go to a rugby game and he'd treat a referee completely differently. They're conditioned to work a different way and it's all about the rules and the sanctions. It's just not tolerated in rugby, whereas in the GAA it probably is.
“But I think there is a move to change things now.”
Participation is a key area that Killoe intend to focus on at underage level in the future.
It’s well established by now that different children peak at different times, but they may never reach their full potential if they’re not given game-time.
To ensure that all their underage players are given the opportunity to develop, Killoe hope to introduce a 10-minute rule next year whereby each child up to the age of 12 will play for a minimum of 10 minutes in every match.
The research carried out Killoe underlined the truism that enjoyment is the number one factor for kids when it comes to developing a passion for sport.
Of all the children interviewed in the survey, only one said the most important thing to them was winning. Food for thought there for over-zealous mentors and parents in clubs up and down the country.
“An awful lot of the kids that previously came to our club would have been parent driven,” said Campbell.
“If the parents are involved and the parents are mad into football, then the kids will be mad into football.
“But now some kids just don't want to play. And if it's not fun we just have to do more to make it more appealing to that age groups. The main drop out rate is 11-15 years old and we need to focus on retention.
“There are so many other things for kids to do nowadays. All we had growing up was football, but that's not the case anymore.”
A separate referees survey was also carried out by Killoe as part of their Healthy Clubs project which highlighted the challenges GAA officials still consistently face.
Too often match officials find themselves the targets of abuse from GAA members who simply don’t understand the rules.
To address this, Killoe plan to introduce silent side-lines at underage level to encourage a non-aggressive, encouraging sideline.
And with the help of local Garda David Donnelly, the club has discussed the Garda ‘Use your brains not your fists’ campaign with their teams. The feedback they received from some of the senior players was very positive.
The #JustPlayFootball campaign is designed to make Killoe Young Emmets a happier place for children to come to play, and that means getting all the adults in the club to embrace the message.
“It's not the kids we need to work on at all,” said Campbell. “They love coming to football. We had a skills academy and they loved that because it's not competitive. We need sideline co operation from parents, spectators, management and club officials. It is fair to say that most people don’t mean or even realise that they behave a certain way.
“During registration next year, we're going to invite in the parents, coaches, officials and players and we're going to discuss how we're going to implement it. We're going to have it as a policy in the club, that it's on paper and signed in the registration form by parents, coaches, officials and players.
“Its easy to talk about it but change takes time, you don't know how it's going to work, it was more of an awareness campaign to get the debate going. Having set rules and sanctions from Croke Park for every club would be the best and most effective way to implement this. The safeguarding policy is the start of very positive change for the GAA.
“If you look at psychology and behaviour, the only way that behaviour changes is through education and then there has to be positive or negative reinforcement.
“So positive reinforcement is that people would get acknowledged positively, for example, prizes for their behaviour, and negative reinforcement is that there is a sanction for their behaviour. That is the only way things change.”
So much of the culture of Gaelic Games is hugely positive, but that’s not to say that there are aspects of it that cannot be improved.
Hopefully the positive example being set by Killoe Young Emmets is one many more clubs will follow.