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*Aidan McCarthy in action for Clare. Photograph: Gerard O’Neill

Mark O’Donnell this week explores technical versus survival mode and the various implications associated with each method.

Frequently coaches encounter players who have developed technique, with deficiencies or limitations. This tends to create a coaching dilemma – re-build the movement/skill from scratch and accept initial technical failure? Or allow the player to continue “successfully” performing in survival mode? Of course, every scenario is case dependent, and we should always coach the person first, player second. American novelist, Mark Twain suggested “it’s never wrong, to do the right thing,” and coaching may be no different.

If you play, coach or watch sport, you’re likely to observe the sport specific skills of the game. Occasionally these skills can be performed in an unusual manner, and the GAA is home to several examples. Hurling enthusiasts may have seen players using their non-dominant hand to grip a hurley e.g., John Conlon (citóg) plays right-handed, whereas Aidan McCarthy plays left-handed, albeit a righty! Walter Walsh (Kilkenny) and Gary Kirby (for the 90’s fanatics) cross/switch hands when striking. 2013 saviour, Domhnall O’Donovan, turns the toe of his hurley inwards when rising a ball.

Occurrences involving the size 5 are equally plentiful, such as Darran O’Sullivan (Kerry) when soloing opposite hand to opposite foot, or defenders who tackle with their outside hand when engaging an opponent from the side. These examples are technically incorrect, yet each player is proficient, and plays/played at the highest level?

The key realisation is that there are exceptions to every one of life’s rule. In sporting terms, for every technical outlier (player) that reaches their true potential, there will be hundreds, if not thousands, who fail to do so. Technical deficiencies force players to operate in survival mode, by limiting the capacity of their skillset. Playing to survive is short-lived, and unfortunately ends in disaster on the playing field, as opposing teams usually identify these weaknesses. Consequently, increased frustration, self-consciousness and stagnation (failure to improve) often lead to drop-out from Gaelic games, which is very preventable!

Coaches are tasked with nurturing players to maximise their playing ability, which is a road less-travelled in survival mode. If we can support players to acknowledge their current practice and highlight the benefits of developing a more proficient technique – better days lay ahead. However, change is not easy. Whether it’s a new training regime, starting a job or moving house – it can be overwhelming and take its toll on the body and mind. If we apply a growth mindset when coaching a new movement or skill pattern, empathy is our best friend.

Only when an athlete truly wants to help themselves, can coaches intervene and provide the necessary support. Acceptance of technical errors during the initial phase of learning is paramount for the development of a new movement or skill. These newly learned patterns will likely feel alien or awkward at first, and might have to get worse to get better. Perhaps facilitating a learning pathway to include; Plan – Do – Review – Repeat may aid development. Coaches must be willing to assist & challenge players in an appropriate manner, in order to foster resilience. Generating feedback linked to the correct elements of performance will further aid players, and raise competence & confidence that technical proficiency is on the horizon.

This article is dedicated in memory of James P. Leyne (1936 – 2021) – native of Kerry, expatriated in Boston and local to Doolin.

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