Underage proposals are well intentioned but pointed in the wrong direction

Back in the day when lads of my own age were involved in GAA at Juvenile level – and for decades before that probably – it wasn’t uncommon for a mentor from one of the competing teams to step in as referee.

As when anybody takes up the whistle they are of course admired and appreciated. As we are told ad nauseum, no ref, no game. I’ve my own theory on that whole subject area, but we’ll leave that for another day.

Perhaps there’s a certain inevitability about it, but, sometimes, it wasn’t uncommon for parochial patriotism to creep into the officiating. Or, indeed, for things to go in the opposite direction.

In attempting to display their impartiality, they end up giving their own more of a riding than Padraig Beggy gave Wings Of Eagles to win the Epsom Derby. I know of one club where a juvenile final in which the complainants were “Robbed by one of (our) own” is still spoken of five decades later.

It’s my understanding that the referee scenario doesn’t happen nowadays but that hasn’t stopped acrimony rearing its troublesome head at underage GAA matches periodically. Though usually at a remove from what transpires on the playing pitch.

Usually arising out of parents trying to live out their dreams through their kids. Often not a good state of affairs. Because it is that which blurs the lines between enjoyment and obsession. When that happens, the dangerous ‘win at all costs’ virus can infect all and sundry.

Which is why, you suspect, some well meaning group has come up with proposals to scale back competitiveness in GAA prior to U-12 level. In a large percentage of ways, I would agree with what were undoubtedly well intentioned policy changes. In my humble opinion, however, they are pointed in the wrong direction.

Doing away with medals at juvenile level isn’t the answer. The chance to win a medal is a huge part of what makes sport of any kind exciting for kids. From a GAA perspective, getting the chance to play in the county ground – i. e. Pairc Tailteann in our case – is also a huge carrot.

One which would be taken out of the equation under the floated ideas. As bad as it would be for clubs, it would be catastrophic for the Cumann Na mBunscoill movement. Break that link in the chain and the whole production system grinds to a debilitating halt.

That is not to take the ostrich approach to the fact that some form of change is needed. But there have to be better ways than those mooted. Such as putting more thought into and having more oversight of those in charge of teams.

Maybe try a stipulation whereby those willing or wishing to look after teams need to receive some coaching themselves prior to taking on a position. Silent Sidelines are another thing which should be widespread at juvenile matches.

If you’ve never heard of the initiative, the idea behind it is that spectators only cheer, applaud or comment when there’s a score. Otherwise just observe in silence. With anybody found to be in breach of same ejected from the ground by a representative of whichever club the transgressor is attached to.

It should not be a job for the referee. The spectacle of them issuing yellow and red cards to team mentors and backroom staff is hideous at this stage. There is however something simple they could do which would improve matters for players, mentors and, most importantly, themselves.

Sean Stack red carded Tipp manager Liam Cahill but it was rescinded on appeal

Communicate. Better and more often. With juvenile players is the ideal place to start. If its all they know, they are in an environment where things are explained to them, it will make them better players, better young people and take the hassle out of matches.

Even if it means borrowing from rugby’s penchant for the pompous and just nominating one player – most likely the Captain – through whom decisions are communicated by and queries brought to the match official. For their part, again akin to the oval ball code, refs could be guiding players as they go.

For example, the great Nigel Owens could often be heard imploring scrum halves to “use it now” if he felt they were holding onto the ball too long or you might have heard him bellow “Roll away green” if a player didn’t make themselves scarce quick enough having effected a tackle.

In a GAA context, that could translate to “that’s three steps, either play the ball or pass”. Similar could apply in hurling regarding how many times a player has caught sliotar twice “that’s two catches, now either let the sliotar drop to the ground or play it direct off the hurl”.

Anyway, that was all a bit of a digression though it does pinpoint a number of ways by which acrimony could be assuaged, but, to get back on point here, reducing competitiveness for younger players is not the way to best serve them. If only for the fact that any such moves would leave them wholly ill-prepared for ‘real world’ football when they do arrive at it.

Again, there is no attempt here to disguise the fact that there is an issue which needs tending to. Rather, just a contention that there has to be a better solution to the cynicism encroaching into underage sport. By all means, ditch the win-at-all-costs mentality. That doesn’t come from kids anyway. That’s ingrained from the adults over the teams.

To help curb this obsessionist approach, there are simple dictums the GAA could issue which would ensure all youngsters get fair play and still be allowed enjoy the feeling of being part of a winning team.

Off the top of my head – up to and U-12: Limit playing panels to 21 players on match days – starting 15 and six subs. Players to be inter-changed at determined intervals. Thus ensuring each player gets deserved game time.

If one wanted to reduce emphasis on actual results, introduce a bonus point scheme which focuses on, say, the execution of the skills of the game.

Whether that focuses on, for example, a goalkeeper making noteworthy saves, players making clean catches or, indeed, the blocking down of a kick or puc or two points being awarded for the conversion of 45/65 or – although unlikely – line balls in either.

There are changes needed to return the focus at juvenile level to enjoyment and player development, but there has to be a better alternative than the manifesto currently being peddled by the panic prone.

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