No need to panic for Galway

There’s been a media storm of sorts since the Leinster final. Pundits saw Sunday’s game as a collapse for Galway. Ger Loughnane and Ollie Canning have taken pot-shots at each other. It would be understandable for a Galway hurler to be a bit demoralised after that defeat. I watched Sunday’s Kilkenny v Galway Leinster final with great interest. Galway had gone through a lot over the past year. What I was most interested in was the shape Galway’s new manager Michael Donoghue would put on the team. What style of hurling would they play? What way would they line out? In what was going to be the first really big game of his tenure, who was Donoghue going to place as the spine of his team?

Galway started the game well. The first half went well. There is no question about that. The move of Daithi Burke to full back to mark TJ Reid was a good one. John Hanbury was at centre back and although not a natural centre back, he was strong and held the middle well. Davy Glennon and David Burke were at midfield. Up front, once Cathal Mannion went in full forward and got decent ball he had Joey Holden in real trouble. The second half changed all that. Hanbury went into the full back line. Burke went out to left half-back to follow Reid. Glennon was taken off. Mannion got very little ball. Joseph Cooney struggled in the second half at centre forward and was also taken off.

I remember when I was small watching All-Ireland finals and semi-finals in the late 80’s and early 90’s, and that great Galway team were my favourite. Those Galway teams had a structure. Other players knew Malone/Mahon and Coleman would battle at midfield and could come out on top against any pairing. The famed half back line of Finnerty, Keady and McInerney was excellent. Joe Cooney was a genius and could be relied upon to win his fight at centre forward. With structure comes confidence and cohesion. Players up their game because they know the team is relying on them to produce.

The Galway team on Sunday did not have the luxury of a solid team structure. Players were swapped around here, there and everywhere. From my reckoning, only a few players started and finished the game in the positions they were selected in for Galway. Padraig Mannion, Conor Whelan, David Burke, Conor Cooney and goalkeeper Colm Callinan were, I think, the only players for Galway to stay in the same position for the duration of the game. Kilkenny, on the other hand left their goalkeeper, entire defence, midfield, Walter Walsh and JJ Farrell in the same spots for the entire game. When the going got tough, Kilkenny backed their team structure and personnel, and worked harder. When Galway’s ship looked like it was starting to sink, they moved around the deckchairs.

To my mind, Galway are not getting the full value from the individuals in their team. I think it’s unfair to brand the team as “gutless” as more than one pundit has. They need structure. They need a spine in their team. I’m not saying they need a fully settled side, as there is no evidence either way on whether a settled team is better or worse off. But in this case, for Galway, I think they need to be decisive rather than making so many changed. Most players will tell you that it is hard to build confidence if you are moved out of position after under-performing for 20 mins. Likewise, it is hard to have confidence in the rest of your team if everyone else is similarly moved if they are not immediately performing. So, what structure? Here is what I’d do.

I’d concentrate on getting the spine of the team set. Daithi Burke at full back, David Burke and Andy Smith at midfield, Joseph Cooney at centre forward and Cathal Mannion at full forward. Centre back has been a problem position for Galway for a long time. Personally, I think it’s amazing nobody has ever tried Joe Canning there (his array of skills, reading of the game, and Galway’s inability to get the best from him in the forwards), but that would be very short notice for this year. Joseph Cooney perhaps could be placed there. I would pick these guys in these positions, leave them there, and fill in guys around them. Hanbury and Coen or Killeen in the full back line, McInerney and Harte at wing back, Canning and Donnellan at wing forward and Whelan and Flynn at corner forward. The important thing, I believe, is to pick those central positions and back the players to perform there even in adversity.

Galway’s hurlers look leaderless at times, and while off-field factors such as personalities, relationships and so on are important, on field they struggle to build leaders because guys are always looking over their shoulder, whether that be a positional move or substitution. Going back the years, successful teams have always had a somewhat settled look, particularly the spine of the team. Joe Canning is a leader, but the team has looked to him too many times in the past, and now opponents know if they stop him, it’s unlikely anyone else is going to don the cape and spandex to rescue the team. New guys need to step up, and management need to help them to lead by showing faith in them to win their battles.

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Winning?

Every team in every competition in every sport wants to win. That’s what they’d say if you asked them. They go out to play their best, play hard, play well and get the result at the end of the game. Show me a player who walks out onto a field, court or gym and doesn’t do their best. Genuinely, show me, because I don’t know any.

Motivation is easy once you’re out there togged out and the whistle goes. It’s natural. You’re already on the battlefield, it’s sink or swim time. Motivation to prepare to your best ability to give you and your team the best chance of winning, well that’s a bit more difficult.

If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got. In sports preparation, that’s a phrase to live by. The preparation phase is when you really find out if a team or player wants to win. The team that prepares best to win is the team that’s most likely to win. If you’re better physically, technically, tactically and mentally prepared than your opponent, you are more likely to win. There’s no getting away from that fact.

Many teams, coaches and players out there don’t want to win. What an outrageous statement that is! Let me qualify it a bit. There are many teams, coaches and players who’d LIKE to win, but aren’t willing to PREPARE to win. That’s a bit better. They would like to win, but not if it means they have to change. If you ever hear a sportsperson utter a phrase like “on our day we’re as good as any of them”, you can put your last euro on them not winning the championship they’re in that year. These performers would like to win, but only on their own terms.

There can be a multitude of reasons for that. Pride. Greed. All the deadliest sins are behind an unwillingness to change. Usually, in my experience, it’s not deliberate, but is an unconscious desire on their part to want to win ONLY if they can be coach, captain, leader, star player, whatever. A pride that “this is the way we do things here”. Yet, what good is it to you if you go out year after year to lose.

A wise lecturer recently remarked to me that for many managers in their sport, “losing is acceptable if you make the same mistakes anyone else would have made”. For example, it’s acceptable to pick the injured star player and lose, but not acceptable to drop a star player because he doesn’t fit the tactics needed in the game. There is a great example in the film Moneyball, where coach Art Howe says “I need to pick the team in a way I can explain in job interviews next year” when General Manager Billy Beane wants to make radical changes.

One way managers and coaches try to insure their careers against criticism is to copy what more successful teams do. “If we do what (insert successful team/athlete here) did, then we’ll win”. First, by the time you copy what the winner did, the innovators will have evolved past that so you still won’t win. Second, if all you do is copy others, you ignore the rule of individual difference: what works for one won’t necessarily work for another. Bringing in a Sport Psychologist because Kerry have one or having the team do pilates because Liverpool do it, is unlikely to improve the team unless there is know-how behind it, understanding of what it entails, and belief in it’s efficacy.

To be successful you must take risks. Innovate. Try things. Open your mind to possibilities. Good coaches explore sport science for help to prepare.  Sport&Performance Psychologists, Performance Analysts, Physiotherapists, Nutritionists, Physical Trainers can all offer help to prepare a team. The key is to open your mind, meet with them or try using them with the team or athlete. At worst, they give no help. At best, they improve the team by whatever percent.

Is there an acceptable way to lose? To me, there is. If you have prepared to do one’s best, to have gone out with pride to play the game hard, fair, with skill and to the best of one’s ability, then it is OK to lose. When you can look yourself in the mirror and honestly say “there is nothing more I could have done”, then there is no shame in losing to a superior opponent. That’s what any coach or player wants. To be able to look themselves and one another in the eye and know they gave it everything. No bullshit.

 

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Happiness on a Cold January Sunday

After just over an hour’s drive, I roll down the window and shout to a fella that looks like a GAA man: “Are ya parkin’ there for the match?”. Yes he says in a thick accent. I follow his lead and park halfway across a footpath facing the right way for home. A 5 minute walk and I’m inside the ground, a tenner in but a free programme so I take two. More space for writing notes. I find myself a good seat, roughly on the halfway line under the stand, a low concrete wall with a length of timber nailed to it and painted in the county colours. It’s about 3 degrees, mid January and little at stake between two counties neither of which I’m from. But this feels like home.

I have my supplies ready. Two apples (one before each half), a bottle of water, about 4 biros (just in case), my wee notebook and several sheets of printouts all are stashed in a lovely jacket a rugby club I coached at once gave me. Triple lined and plenty of pockets. Lovely. The announcer calls out the teams, I make the necessary adjustments in both programmes and stand for a minute’s silence and what I assume is a gramophone recording of the national anthem. A bit of pushing and shoving at midfield, the ball is in and the game is on.

The first ten minutes are busiest for me. What positions are the players playing, who is marking who. What are each teams attack systems and defence systems. Gaelic football has changed a lot in the last twenty years and every team is playing with all kinds of innovations. Sweepers. Double sweepers. Third midfielders. Defensive wing-forwards. Target men. Primary target men. Secondary inside forwards. Attacking corner backs. It’s all here. Goalkeepers are still goalkeepers.

I love it. Watching the game but learning from it too. I’m here to prepare a Scout Report on one team, but you can only do it if you watch both. I’m prepared- a programme and a tiny notebook take in kickout strategies, positioning and tactics. One eye on the game, one eye on what I’m writing so I don’t go past the edge of the notebook and write on my hand (again).

The best part of a GAA match is the atmosphere. Rugby matches I’ve been to the last few years can’t compare, not any more. Too many people there to be there, too few to understand what’s happening at the professional games. Not enough people to have a good atmosphere at club games. The 17 year old girl with full makeup, bad hair extensions and a club GAA tracksuit top knows what’s what here though. Especially when the hint of a row starts in front of the stand. GAA fans know their stuff. “God you’re a good one ref” one shouts when a yellow is flashed a bit harshly. “That ref’ll be grand with a few more years of experience” shouts another further down.

Analysis is great, and I love this kind of stuff. It’s good, hard, open football. The moment I crack the code on how to beat the team’s kickout plan is a good personal moment in the game. But a dirty ball right in front of me where there are three good shoulders, a huge hit which misses, 3 men from each side willing to kill for that ball until the fullback emerges, dodges one and finally is fouled to a huge roar of approval from his side, that’s when the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. You can’t beat GAA for atmosphere.

I watch the last minute of the game standing at the end of the stand next to a gate. A childhood of missing the last two minutes of games so we’d beat the traffic means I don’t leave before the final whistle. Too many missed last minute goals you’d hear about on the radio on the way home. But still close enough to the gate that I’m one of the first to leave, and after a wee jog to the car I’m in and on my way. A few hours re-thinking the game writing up a detailed Scout Report this evening. And local radio analysis on the game for the drive home. Love it.

Only 7 days til the next one. Lovely.

What’s that ref meant to be doing anyway?!

Whatever the game we watch and whatever the result, what we can be certain of is that we will hear on television, in the newspaper or from the coaches themselves about the performance of the referee in that game. The position of referee must be, in some ways at least, the most stressful position on the field in rugby, soccer, gaelic football and rugby. The concentration levels, attention to detail, decision making and the communication skills needed by a referee are enormous. The referees  interpretations of the rules can alter how teams can play, and their decisions can change the outcome of a game. It is essential that they have these mental skills, and are free to be neutral and as pressure-free as possible in order to make the best decisions on the field.

Something which has concerned me for a number of years now is the role many former professionals and coaches believe the referee should play. When we hear of coaches asking for the referee to “let the game flow”, or that the referee “ruined the game as a spectacle”, I believe we are in very difficult and dangerous territory. This attitude has crept into many sports, and I believe it is detrimental to each sport. Just yesterday I watched the England v New Zealand rugby league test on BBC. Jon Wilkin and Jamie Peacock at half-time both criticised the match referee for awarding 9 penalties in the first half for offences by both sides at slowing down the play of the ball. Both sides had clearly set out to slow the tempo of the opposition’s attack by being slow at ruck time. The half-time scoreline of 2-2 (one penalty each) was testiment to the intent of both sides to prevent tries and preventing the opponent to build attacks where their defence wouldn’t have time to be organised. Wilkin and Peacock made the point that the game as a spectacle was badly damaged by the referees decisions to award penalties. This sentiment can be heard all the time in gaelic football and hurling particularly, where a game full of fouling and negative tactics is generally blamed on the referee in question.

One could say that the job of a referee is to enforce the rules of the game and to impose sanctions on individuals who breach these rules. I think that would be a fair definition of a referee in any of the sports I’ve named. The rules of the game are key. I would sincerely doubt if the rulebooks for any of the sports from rugby to soccer to GAA state anywhere that a responsibility of a referee is to ensure that the game is entertaining to those who watch it, that there are lots of scores or lots of nice passes. The purpose of the referee in a sport is to know the rules, enforce those rules by giving frees (or cards) when appropriate, and to be neutral in applying those rules. A key point is that the referee should be neutral and enforce the rules, rather than being even. Even is not neutral or fair- you see this regularly where a team has a man sent off and the referee stops giving frees against them, or conversely where something happens and the referee tries to “even things up”. If we could have referees enforce the rules properly, everyone would know where they stand. Players would not be frustrated at having a decision go against them. We would not have conversations every Saturday and Sunday about consistency. Giving the free to one guy and not the other for the same offence. These things drive people mad.

Here’s a unique concept I’d love more people to embrace. Even to just try it out for a while, see how it feels:

The game as a spectacle is the responsibility of the players and management of each team, not the responsibility of the referee.

The players are the ones on the field who commit fouls. They are the ones who push the referee, seeing where he will draw a line. They will pull jerseys, push opponents, slow the ball down, neglect to retreat the required distance from free-kick, start rows and tactically foul where it is difficult to score from. It is the responsibility of a referee to punish all of these things when they happen without any pressure on them not to. If these fouls were punished each and every time they happen, and the appropriate sanctions taken for those who persist, teams would see very quickly that they would not be able to win through negative tactics as they’d be conceding scores and playing with fewer players on their team. When we see what we consider to be a “good referee”, it is easy to tell who he is. Not because he created a spectacle, but because he got his decisions correct almost all of the time. Guys like soccer’s Pierluigi Collina or rugby’s Andre Watson got the calls right, and didn’t bottle making difficult decisions or punishing serial offenders. Alain Rolland, Nigel Owens, Dickie Murphy, John Bannon and Pat McAneaney were also guys who just played the rules and let the game sort itself out.

The pressure levels on a referee at any level are huge. I don’t think many go out to favour one team and in general referees are neutral. But they are hampered or confused in many situations by issues which should be external to their performance. Deciding not to give a free or penalty because of it’s impact on the scoreboard, because you penalised that team 10 times already, because there have been 20 frees in ten minutes, because that player said or did something previously in the game make for a bad game. Good referees are the ones who ignore those things and give the decisions anyway. The game in general, we as supporters, coaches and players, and the respective organisations can help referees to do great jobs by taking the pressure off them to do anything other than blow the whistle when the rules say you should.

Talent Development- from New Zealand to Kilkenny

Isa Nacewa recently wrote an article about the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team before the Rugby World Cup final against Australia. Mental edge sets All Blacks apart from the rest. In the article he talks about several of the mental characteristics which distinguish the All Blacks as the world’s most dominant team. The one area which I’m going to talk about is the age at which several All Blacks finished their career. In the article, Nacewa points out that Christian Cullen played his last game for New Zealand when he was 26. Joe Rokocoko was 27, Josh Kronfeld and Dougie Howlett were 29. To many, especially here in Ireland, that sounds a little amazing. In Ireland we hold onto quality players for as long as they are fit and able. On first reading, one would imagine that the reason New Zealand were able to dispense with these players is down to the sheer numbers of excellent players their rugby system produces. For example, Josh Kronfeld was edged out of the New Zealand team by the emergence of one Richie McCaw. I believe that it is a combination of producing quality players, but even more so, the decision to dispense with players in their late 20’s rather than mid 30’s is down to an understanding of talent development by those within the All Black selection structure.

The “Zone of Proximal Development” (ZPD) is a term which refers to the optimal learning environment for an individual. It’s a term which was developed by a Russian psychologist called Vygotsky and can be basically defined as an area of learning where a person is assisted by a teacher or peer with a higher skill set. It is usually a term used in relation to education, but it transfers very well to the development of talented sportspeople. In sports terms, it relates to a period of learning where a sportsperson develops from exposure to coaching from excellent coaches and performing alongside and against peers who are more skilled at that point in time. An understanding from those coaches and peers that the learner will make mistakes but will improve, further strengthens the benefits of placing a talented young performer in their ZPD.

What New Zealand do, as far as I’m concerned, is have a good eye for watching for players who have reached their peak. You can imagine one’s peak as a bell curve, where players are learning and developing until they reach their peak (the highest point on the bell curve). They may stay at that peak level for a period of time, maintaining their excellent standards. However, for all performers, they will eventually begin to wane and can be said to be, even slightly, past their peak. When this happens, New Zealand act. They find a developing player in that position, and usually act quickly by replacing the player who is past his peak with the younger player. At this point is the young player better than the experienced, multi-capped international? Usually no. But the key point is, he is on his way up. He will improve. He will make mistakes, learn from them, get excellent coaching and perform alongside outstanding players. The experienced guy who is just past his peak will not recover his powers and if retained, he will contribute to standards within the squad dropping. The only exceptions to the practice should really be those once or twice a generation superstar, like a McCaw or Dan Carter (or for Ireland Brian O’Driscoll or Paul O’Connell), whose potential peak is so high that they can continue to perform at an outstanding level, and their skills can continue to aid the development of others, well into their 30’s.

To summarise, New Zealand place a young player into his ZPD with a view towards creating another world class player. They know they have a guy who soon won’t be world class so they take action. A stitch in time saves nine, as the old saying goes. And here’s the key point. If they did not take this action, that young player would never reach as high an eventual peak. By not getting that top level coaching and exposure young to the kind of competitive environment that could not be created elsewhere, they would have lost vital years in their development. Their growth would be stunted. By taking early action and giving them early exposure, New Zealand are giving their young players the best possible chance to become multi-capped, world class international players.

It’s a model that’s followed by champion teams in all kinds of sports. Looking at Irish sport, I immediately think of Kilkenny. People for 15 years now have been looking at Brian Cody every year wondering why he dropped this player and that player when they were still young enough to have 3 or 4 seasons left in them. James ‘Cha’ Fitzpatrick was gone at 26. Willie O’Dwyer at 25. John Tennyson at 27. If you’re old enough you’ll remember the furore over the dropping of reigning All Star Charlie Carter. Kilkenny keep winning and people wonder over and over how unbelievable they are at producing top players. How they can dispense with so much talent, confident there are others coming through. Cody, to me, has an innate knowledge of ZPD. He, just like the All Blacks, can see when a guy just might not get any better. Or that a young guy has the potential to become even better. Rather than wait on the young guy to improve on his own, like so many failed coaches do, he gives them a chance, bringing them into the squad to train with top players and top coaches so that they will be outstanding when they do make that Kilkenny team. Again, like New Zealand, Cody recognises the once or twice a generation superstar player (like Henry Shefflin and JJ Delaney) and holds onto them longer, using their huge array of skills to keep standards high and aid the development of others.

You could look at other examples. Teams like Liverpool in the 70’s and 80’s, or Manchester United under Alex Ferguson seemed to have an endless stream of talent coming through. Kerry footballers in recent times have brought in guys in the same way. Quality coaching at underage level plays a huge part, as does tradition and the number of good standard young guys coming through. But an understanding of how players develop and how to increase their potential ensures the medium- and long-term success of any team. Even those who are currently not successful. It frustrates me sometimes to see teams hold onto players well past their prime and at the same time complain there is nothing coming through. Success will come if you recognise how to develop the talent. Or if you don’t know how, bring in someone who does know.