Richie Hogan of Kilkenny shoots to score his side's first goal with a sublime piece of skill during the Leinster GAA Hurling Senior Championship Final match between Kilkenny and Galway at Croke Park in Dublin.
Richie Hogan of Kilkenny shoots to score his side's first goal with a sublime piece of skill during the Leinster GAA Hurling Senior Championship Final match between Kilkenny and Galway at Croke Park in Dublin. 

Making Skill Acquisition a Gaelic Games fundamental

By John Harrington

Phil Kearney is a Lecturer in Skill Acquisition, Coaching, and Performance in the Department of Physical Education and Sports Sciences in the University of Limerick as well as being co-founder of Movement and Skill Acquisition Ireland.

He’s also a member of the newly formed Gaelic Games Sports Science Working Group where he’s the lead for the Biomechanics and Skill Acquisition sub-group.

Passionate about the discipline of Skill Acquisition and how it can be best applied to Gaelic Games, he spoke to about the work the Sports Science Working Group hope to carry out in this area. Phil, for the uninitiated, exactly what is Skill Acquisition?

Phil Kearney: I'll give the slightly longer definition. So, in any of the Gaelic Games that you look at, Gaelic football, hurling, camogie, handball, you're problem solving. In Gaelic football the central problem is how do I get the ball over the bar? Where and how do I move the ball to get into a position from which I can attempt to make a score?

And when we say a player is skilful, we mean that he or she solves that problem consistently and efficiently. The player adapts to the demands of the situation and solves the movement problem. I've used a video of Peter Duggan's point for Clare from a couple of years ago multiple times where he managed to find a way through a host of Galway defenders and adapt and still get the shot away. I'll probably update that video this year following Richie Hogan's goal against Galway. You tune into the possibilities that the situation offers and you adapt, adapt, adapt. Skill Acquisition is the scientific study of how we develop adaptable problem solvers in a movement context.

We look at questions like how do we design practice sessions? How should coaches interact with players? What should an athlete be thinking about when they're practicing? All with a view towards accelerating their development into adaptive problem solvers who can deliver performance under pressure. I presume you would take exception to someone who watched Peter Duggan's point or Richie Hogan's goal telling you that's the sort of natural skill you just can't teach? Presumably you would believe it's possible to learn how to be skilful, it's not something you're born with?

PK: Whenever anybody says anything like that my hackles rise. Because, for me, we've got to think about the opportunities and be more imaginative. How would you go about developing that skill in a player, that ability to adapt in a player? What would you do if you had to break it back and think through what kind of sessions would I design, what kind of experiences, has Peter Duggan, for instance, had which have enabled the development of that?

I think you'll find that there are very good coaches out there who are engaging in some very creative, very effective practices, which are helping to develop more Peter Duggans and more Richie Hogans. I very much would say that there's a lot of guidance in the skill acquisition literature which will help a coach to understand how to both develop high performance in that instance, but also at the other end of the spectrum to develop competent movers. People who have the basic movement skills to feel competent engaging in games which might sustain their participation in sport. Because there are lessons from skill acquisition across the whole spectrum from participation through to high performance.

Dr Phil Kearney is Lead of the Biomechanics and Skill Acquisition sub-group of the Gaelic Games Sports Science Working Group. 
Dr Phil Kearney is Lead of the Biomechanics and Skill Acquisition sub-group of the Gaelic Games Sports Science Working Group. I have seen how working on fundamental movement skills with very young players produces significant improvement in a short period of time. Presumably skill acquisition is very relevant to coaching underage players?

PK: Very true. We do have a big emphasis on what the movement fundamentals should be and how can we encourage coaches to develop these movement fundamentals most effectively with young people. But I would also stress that it is not just young people. It's important that it's right the way through an athlete's development. They should always be returning to and refining these movement fundamentals in the same way that a musician will never stop practicing scales. These movement fundamentals are really valuable for athletes at all levels to be practicing. But they're most important and they form a larger part of the experience for the younger children.

As you say, it's extraordinary the difference that it can make where you design games and activities that incorporate turning, catching, evading people, hopping, all these various different movements skills. And this is not just movement, as in movements that you perform, it's also fundamental game skills. So, the ability to track an opponent is a fundamental game skill. The idea about having patience. So, when you time your run, that's a fundamental game skill that appears in many different games, but can be taught to young children out of the formal game context through some basic chasing type activities that have huge benefits to their overall development. Someone like DJ Carey would have often spoken about the importance of spending time every day striking a ball against a wall. Is practice and repetition crucial?

PK: Repetition is a really huge part of it. And, again, there are a number of nuances to this idea of repetition. The first one is that your role as a coach, particularly working with young people, is to inspire a love for the sport. Because if you've got somebody who's got this real love and passion for the sport you don't need to worry about repetitions and the amount of time they invest. Because every opportunity they get they will be engaging in some form of practice, they will be engaging in the skills for the pure enjoyment of engaging in extra practice. So that's an more important part.

Particularly when we look at the high performance level then, you mentioned DJ Carey and we talked earlier about Peter Duggan and Richie Hogan, at that level, yes, of course, repetition has to be important. We want players who are engaging in lots of practice. But what's really important there is repetition, without repetition. That's a bit of a strange phrase, but what that means is we are learning to adapt to different situations. If skilful movers are those who can adapt to any situation then when you are engaged in your practice, when you're getting your repetitions in, you want to be always changing the nature of those repetitions. So you're always moving at different angles or moving at different speeds or responding to slightly different changes in context. Because if you want to be a really adaptable, skilful performer who can consistently deliver, the skill there is being able to tune in to your environment and to adapt. And so the repetition is really important, but they have to be repetitions with these subtle variations. Repetition without repetition.

Paul Fennell, a member of the Castletown Geoghegan GAA club in Westmeath, pucs a sliotar against a wall outside Croke Park Stadium in May, 2020.
Paul Fennell, a member of the Castletown Geoghegan GAA club in Westmeath, pucs a sliotar against a wall outside Croke Park Stadium in May, 2020. What plans does the Gaelic Games Sports Science Work Group have in the sphere of Skill Acquisition? What are you guys working on?

PK: At the moment we're working on trying to put together a position statement which will clarify exactly what skill acquisition is and what a skill acquisition specialist does. Because I think there are a number of misunderstandings out there. There is some really good practice, I will stress that definitely in terms of what we have observed. But there are also some misunderstandings. So, an important thing to start off with, is just raising the general awareness around Skill Acquisition. Some of those misunderstandings are things like skill acquisition relates to technique, but forgetting that the decision making aspects are also a really core part of skill acquisition.

It's not just fundamental movement skills like hopping and catching. It's also fundamental game skills like off the ball movements that are really important. And being able to create a little bit of space, that's a skill that can be practiced and these game skills need to be understood as distinctive skills. And also things like the importance of fundamentals which I think is pretty well established, but the importance of fundamentals as a core underpinning part of athletes all the way up through their development. Not just restricted to children's fundamental skills or in children's initial years in the sport. So these are a couple of the areas where we want to put forward a position statement to start some discussions and to raise the level of awareness about the potential the science of skill acquisition has for enhancing practice.

And that will tie in very much with the GAA's initiatives around Coach Development. So what are the ways in which we can tie into support coach development, education workshops and so forth over the coming years? And we're also having a look very much around accreditation. So, again, if clubs or coaches are looking to work with someone in the area of skill acquisition, what should they be looking for in terms of a role profile? What should they be looking for in terms of accreditation when making the decisions as to who to work with?

We're also hoping to get a piece of research off the ground in terms of current practice, what are people currently doing in terms of skill acquisition, what's their baseline level of knowledge. Because I think if we are going to design some educational initiatives we need to have a better understanding of what the base is. We'll see how all that lands and we've got a big meeting coming in June to establish what the next steps will be after that.

Limerick hurling coach, Paul Kinnerk.
Limerick hurling coach, Paul Kinnerk. Paul Kinnerk, the Limerick Senior Hurling team coach, is a member of your Skill Acquisition sub-group on the Gaelic Games Sports Science Work Group. He is a big advocate of games-based training where you replicate scenarios in training that you're likely to encounter in a match such as the creation and exploitation of space. That sounds like the skill acquisition of decision making you're talking about, and has certainly been an approach that has been successful for the Limerick hurlers.

PK: Certainly they are a standard bearer for that approach. In fairness, I think the GAA has really promoted game centred approaches for the last few years now. I would say that they are one of the more advanced sporting organisations in the world in terms of saying, look, there's an awful lot of real positives that we can take from this game centered approach if you understand it correctly and can implement it correctly.

I think Paul's work is bridging the science and the practice really nicely and is a case study there as to what can be achieved. Paul is doing implementing a game centred approach at a high performance level and we also have other members in the group like Ed Coughlan from Munster Technological University and Wesley O'Brien from UCC who have experience in designing similar activities, but for children and their development of the fundamentals.

So this idea of game centred, activity centred approaches, is a really nice example of how we can make some changes to how coaches are organizing and delivering their sessions that would have a really nice impact on enjoyment in sessions, in the learning from sessions, in the greater competence of players in the sport, in the retention of players in the sport, and in the development of high performance as well. Some people might hear the term skill acquisition and think incorporating these methods would just be the icing on the cake of what they do. But what you're saying is that skill acquisition should be a fundamental element of sports coaching that can be incorporated into almost everything you do? Is that fair enough to say?

PK: It is, absolutely. Coaches will be the people who will be delivering or translating the skill acquisition knowledge into their practice directly. So we're very much looking to work with and through coaches at the club level in particular, that's our primary focus. But, skill acquisition is not just delivered by coaches. When you have physios and those engaged in rehabilitation and they're instructing athletes and designing activities for athletes, there's an element of skill acquisition that comes in there as well.

When you've got athletic development coaches who are looking to physically prepare players to engage in games, again, there's an element of skill acquisition that can come in to inform their practice. And, likewise, with performance analysis and with psychology.

So I think one of the really exciting things about this broader Sports Science Working Group is the understanding of how interconnected all of the different sports science disciplines are. But certainly we would see skill acquisition as something that isn't equipment heavy but it is something that any coach can understand and implement to make a difference to the experience of the players.

GMIT Sports Development Manager, Molly Dunne, pictured here coaching at a Connacht GAA hurling and camogie workshop, is a member of the Biomechanics and Skill Acquisition sub-group of the Gaelic Games Sports Science Working Group.
GMIT Sports Development Manager, Molly Dunne, pictured here coaching at a Connacht GAA hurling and camogie workshop, is a member of the Biomechanics and Skill Acquisition sub-group of the Gaelic Games Sports Science Working Group. Are you excited about not just how the discipline of Skill Acquisition is evolving, but what this Sports Science Working Group can achieve in terms of demystifying it and enabling it to become a core part of the GAA coaching curriculum?

PK: Absolutely. I think it's a very exciting, it's really pleasing that GAA has recognized Skill Acquisition and Biomechanics as one of the core areas, it's a really great opportunity for us. But what I've enjoyed most has been the conversations I've had within the Working Group. We have coaches in our Skill Acquisition sub-group like Paul Kinnerk, Donie Buckley, and Molly Dunne who have been contributing from a coach's perspective in terms of what we're hoping to put together. But also before I set this up I reached out to coaches across numerous counties and numerous codes for conversations. And I'm really excited by what's happening and I'm really excited by the potential of could be developed as a consequences of some of the stimulus this working group might provide.