I have so many thoughts running through my head at the moment. We just had the last of a series of 5 Munster Rankings with the event in UCC which brings the series to an end for another season. The Irish Junior Nationals brought the curtain down on the Irish Ranking series of 5 as well and we now have the All Ireland Schools and the Interprovincial Championships to conclude. So it is not quite the end of the season but the light at the end of the tunnel is fast approaching.
I reached another milestone at the UCC event when a man came up to me and asked if I remembered him, I have trouble enough remembering what I had for lunch last week so I apologised and asked him whether I should. He said no not really but I did coach him in for a couple of years in the early 1990’s when he was at school. I was delighted to hear he really enjoyed playing table tennis and even went into school early in order to have a couple of games with his friends before lessons started. He now lives in Cork and I presumed he was there with one of his kids playing in the event. I was about to ask him which one it was when he was called to the table and I realised he was playing in the Veterans event. Oh well he did say to me he was going to make me feel old!
With over 30 years of coaching behind me it was bound to happen but it is still a bit of a shock and I had mixed emotions as I processed this milestone. It did get me thinking as to why I do what I do and whether what I do has any significance at all. Meeting him and seeing him playing away in the event, however “rusty” he was, it did occur to me that introducing someone to what can only be described as a lifelong interest in the sport made me feel good. He told me with some pride that he had played for Munster as an U21 along with Brian Fitzgerald back in the day. As far as I understand it Brian was the first Cork born player to win the Munster Open and was a regular on the Irish Senior team. This was obviously a proud achievement and had stayed long in his memory.
With the last Munster Ranking being played most of the talk around the hall was in regards to what we call the Interpros. There are 2 Interpros events in Ireland and these are the matches between the four provinces Munster, Leinster, Ulster and Connaught. The Senior Interpros are made up of a Senior team, U21 team and a Veterans team. There is a separate Junior event with U13, U15 & U18 teams at both boys and girls. For many this is the highlight of the season and there is fierce competition for places. Selection for the junior team is through ranking places at Irish and Munster events. The selection process especially for the juniors has been and continues to be tinkered with and adjusted mainly in order to try and make it fair and transparent as any opportunity that coaches can find to get their players on the teams seems to be taken. Maybe this is a necessary process in order for Munster to put forward their best teams but personally I think the stress and tension it creates between the clubs are divisive and counterproductive to the development of Munster.
That first Munster Cap is without doubt a thrill, it provides a goal for the player an easily recognised achievement and I have heard many players recount their delight at being selected for Munster. In the same way when a player gets to play for their school or club for the first time. The provincial team is another step towards the goal of the Irish National Team and as you progress the task ahead gets harder and harder. I would like to think that the thrill of playing for your province remains as strong as you progress through the age groups and I think this could be sustained if the preparation for the team was matched by its significance but unfortunately in my opinion due to many varied circumstances this has rarely been achieved.
In my role as Head Coach for the Munster Special Olympic squad the preparation phase and lead up to the event is excellent. The preparation phase is deemed as important, if not more important than the event itself but as this only happens in a 4 year cycle it is much easier to achieve. As described earlier a lot of players have 10 major tournament commitments during the season and if you add in the Irish National Training Camps, schools events, challengers, local events and with our players also traveling to other events abroad, the season is so full that every weekend can be booked solid and that leaves little time for any real preparation as coaches and administrators are pushed to the limits.
I can’t remember how many Interpros I have been to and my daughter’s tells me this will be her 8th Munster cap and I’m not sure how many my son has been too. I know this will be my other daughter’s 2nd event, last year she was the reserve and she is looking forward to actually playing in the competition this season. James has also made the Senior team this year after playing at U21 last year. So these are all goals and go to motivate the players but as for me? The goal is not quite as shinny as it once was but I would so love to take it out and give it a good polishing. I will be the non-playing captain for the U21s again this season. Last year we had a good team but had a number of pull outs from players. We have had a couple again this season and it makes the selection process so difficult and we will be struggling to put out our “best” team. My job will be to help those there on the day play at their best and I take the role very seriously and am honoured to be given such an opportunity again.
An instance at the UCC Open got me thinking once again about our role as a coach. The U11 event is the first run on the ladder towards the competitive arena. It is a matter often discussed as we are dealing with very young players and trying to get the balance between competition and the learning experience brings a number of problems. One of the solutions employed is that in the U11 competition none of the players are coached. I am in two minds about this as I think this is probably the best age for a player to receive instruction on how to play and it also enables coaches to prepare and teach players how to deal with the mental pressures. The coaching restriction however is probably necessary as we have experienced coaches and parents becoming too emotionally involved in the process and as some of the kids don’t have coaches looking after them it has been felt a fairer system to just let the kids get on with it as part of a learning process the winning and losing not being emphasised but the enjoyment of the sport itself.
The instance I witnessed at the UCC Open made me rethink this process and I think we need to have a discussion about what is the best way to introduce these youngsters to the sport. The instance was a match between two U11 boys in the latter stages of the U11 competition. One of the players can only be described as having an emotional break-down, he was losing by a couple of points and the players coach called a time out in order to console the player.
Now I can understand that it is very difficult to watch a player breaking down in tears and not to intercede but as far as I understand it we are not at liberty to call time outs to intercede. In that case if I saw one of my players showing a level of emotional upset that I felt I needed to call a time out I feel it would be appropriate for me to withdraw the player from the match. The child may be technically proficient but if they are not emotionally able to cope with this sort of competition they should not be entered until such time as they have been helped to develop the tools needed to deal with these kinds of issues and is that not our responsibility as coaches?
To me this is the “throw them into the water and hope they swim” attitude which I believe is irresponsible. But mine is just one opinion and I am not a professional psychologist however as a professional coach the welfare of my players is paramount. I will be proposing that the local organisation puts some time aside to discuss this issue. I believe calling a time out due to the emotional stress of one player puts their opponent in a very difficult position. I even had one of my U11s tell me that they didn’t play their best against one of their opponents as they didn’t want to upset them even more after they had seen them crying about losing a previous match. I told them I thought they should try and play their best all the time but I am still in two minds as to whether their attitude could be right and mine wrong, may be caring about the person they are playing is a quality we should encourage in our children? One thing is for certain coaching children is never easy as they teach us so much.