JACK MADDEN: Grabbing GAA by the balls

MINOR championship, the perfect antidote for the Leaving Cert. A stress reliever, an outlet, and a shot at a level of glory you have likely never experienced in your short lifetime. Serious to an extent, but not the be all and the end all.

A minor club championship match should not have the capability to ‘cast a shadow over the organisation’ but in September that is exactly what GAA President Larry McCarthy felt it had done. And the sad reality is that it was hard to argue with him.

A referee struck and hospitalised, a match abandoned. Two teams of 17-year old boys likely stood in shock, each more horrified than the last, in a state of embarrassment that even an overprotective mother could not bestow upon her beloved teenage son.

An amateur organisation was made to look barbaric, and the GAA was left to pick up the pieces with the clumsiest of fingers amidst a media hurricane. Even Carol Vorderman would struggle to count the costs of this.

For Eamon Hughes, a career in coaching has offered what he feels is some sort of solution. From Cúl Camps, to Monaghan GAA development teams, to senior club management in Armagh, he has seen the game at every level.

On October 13th, GAA Referee Respect Day, came and went, at what was the tail end of the season for most clubs. Who is to say that next season, referees won’t be treated to similar levels of abuse?

What happened in Roscommon was an extreme example of historic cultural issues. It was not a new development, as the Doohamlet man is well aware.

“Abuse towards referees has to stop. It’s getting to the stage where referees will start to be like priests. Parishes struggle to get priests to say mass, and we’re going to be struggling to get officials to referee matches”.

Lockdown was a pivotal time for Hughes, a period of evaluation, like it was for so many. The Zoom sessions increased and decreased and increased again, the toilet-roll keepy-uppy phase came and went, before eventually schools reopened.

The Monaghan GAA Development Officer noted that the social skills of children had taken “a massive knock”, but he noted too the opportunity. A simple philosophy: “Children are like sponges, and coaches are their role models.”

It is for that reason that Hughes has launched Respect Sports, a company where he designs and produces kids’ Gaelic footballs that aim to tackle the GAA cultural issues from an earlier age.

The footballs encourage visual learning, a key aspect of youth coaching, with messages such as “Try your best”, “Believe”, “Dream”, and “Have Fun” printed on the size 4’s. There are also specific designs for children who have special needs.

“The aim is to start at grassroots levels and encourage this kind of positivity. If we can really get coaches to enforce and encourage this, then the association can really reap the rewards.”

How is the business venture linked to the officiating of matches and the issues that exist there?

For Hughes, it is rather simple. It is about creating an environment from an early age where coaching is all about encouragement, and where children are rewarded for taking the initiative through the visual learning process, as well as aural learning.

“All players get frustrated from pressure. That even happens at GoGames. When there’s a coach on the line that’s roaring and shouting, what kind of example is that setting?

“Kids just want to go out and play a game of football. Certain clubs have their own philosophies with kids, but for us it is development over winning. Development in terms of skills, but also on a personal level.”

Hughes believes Respect Sports has already brought about change, with orders coming in across Monaghan and Cavan, but also as far as Dublin and Kildare. Schools have been lapping up the positive messaging, with disadvantaged areas in particular returning to Hughes with feedback.

“There’s been a few clubs in Dublin that have got back to me and said they’ve noticed a difference in how the kids are engaging with each other, and that’s all I want to hear.

“I’ve approached the GAA, and one of the top referees in the country loved the idea. The footballs can be an ideal marketing tool, and something that can only benefit the GAA.”

Campaigns targeting senior players are likely too late. The reality is that an Instagram post or a GAA statement has little to no impact during the heat of battle.

Adults do not have the ability to think outside the box like a child. Their experience has been more systemic, they are more invested in a culture, a culture that is all they have ever known. But for all its remarkable benefits, it is a culture that remains flawed.

Children are more influenceable, more enthusiastic. Above all, they are the future. What we are doing now clearly isn’t working. Perhaps it is time for the GAA to acknowledge their failures, and try an alternative strategy. For Hughes, he believes it is time for the association to grab life by the balls.

In the words of Wayne Gretzky: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take”.

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