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CUTTING EDGE: The secret to foster youth sports participation

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This week, Mark O’Donnell advises coaches how to tailor feedback and in turn maximise the retention of young sportspeople.

For many of us, our childhood revolved around sport. Mine was no different. I’ll never forget buying my first pair of football boots in T. O’Donnell’s (no relation), and being so excited to get home to play my “All Ireland” in the front lawn with my new boots. The care and warmth expressed by Tommy was everlasting, resulting in regular visits over the years. To this day he’s a total gentleman who has perfected his trade, exuding a grá for helping people. Can we become exemplary like TO’D, and develop our coaching craft to facilitate lifetime participation in sport?

Children must associate FUN with an activity in order to participate. Something about the game must lure them in, if they are to become hooked for life. As adults we’re responsible to provide opportunities for our youth to experience joy when playing sport. I recommend including playground games to help players draw parallels from other fun environments e.g. schoolyard; back garden. It also helps to settle nerves when newcomers join our club. If sessions are fun, players will return.

Young players must be given the chance to explore and discover. This form of self-directed learning should be central to youth athlete development, leading to skill proficiency and eventual mastery. Children are unleashed to emulate their heroes – Jamie Malone in full flight, or Tony Kelly’s hurling wizardry. Coaches are advised to encourage players to express themselves, and embrace the mistakes needed to improve. This will aid intrinsic motivation (player), thus furthering the rewards of participation.

Everybody can relate to the impact of isolation in the current climate, as it contradicts human nature NOT to interact with each-other. The sense of belonging in team sport is now more important than ever. Coaches have a huge responsibility to impart social skills within their group e.g. accountability, empathy, resilience. Albeit learned through sport, these skills aren’t limited to the field of play. When young people are exposed to social and team skill development they’ll not only become better athletes, but grow into better people, and thrive in sport for life.

If we wish to foster sports participation among youths, our feedback should be threefold – accurate, constructive and relevant (ACR). It’s advisable to generate coaching cues that are accurate to a particular body part, or movement/skill segment. Aim to present the information in a manner that players will perceive constructive. Lastly, is it relevant to their development/performance? If the answer is no – park that feedback! Players flourish when supported with ACR language.

Clare GAA Games Manager, Mícheál Duffy, often utilises this acronym – KPI (Keep Players Involved). Providing a meaningful games programme is a cert to keep players coming through our club gates. Games as opposed to drills, enable greater opportunities to play, move, score, fail and learn. The real excitement of competition for a young athlete is playing at an age and standard appropriate level. Less focus on beating our neighbours, or going undefeated at a GoGames blitz. Children are not mini-adults and don’t need a scoreboard, in order to reach their true potential.

Why did I start playing GAA nearly 20 years ago? I wanted to play games I would grow to love, and connect as a team with my closest friends. Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí.

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