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Sean Og O hAilpin: GAA Coaching

Seán Óg: GAA coaching is about finding a balance between the old school and a modern approach by Éamonn Murphy
 
ANYONE with an interest in coaching and player development would appreciate the approach Seán Óg Ó hAilpín takes.
Finding a middle ground between driving players hard and putting an arm around the shoulder, and embracing the current fad for 'games-based coaching' alongside more structured drills, are challenges faced by coaches at all levels.
Ó hAilpín has seen it all across all ages, from his underage days in Na Piarsaigh and the North Morth, through Cork teams from U14 up in both codes. These days he's putting it back in with his club, entering his third year with Piarsaighs' senior hurlers and eager to kick on from last year's semi-final appearance.
Seán Óg races for possession with Newtown's Declan Murphy in an U21 final. Picture: Des Barry
Seán Óg races for possession with Newtown's Declan Murphy in an U21 final. Picture: Des Barry
In a recent podcast for Newstalk's Off the Ball, the legendary Rebel detailed his move into management with the northsiders.
“It's about a balance between old-school stuff and new school. The good things that developed me were old school. When I think back to my coaches underage, a lot of them didn't play inter-county but they were very passionate guys about hurling and gaelic football. Their love of the game filtered down and that's what I try and do with my coaching.
“Yes, you try and show them technical skills or when you're facing certain situations what options you do, but at the end of the day it's trying to instill that enjoyment and passion for the game. It goes beyond that 60 minutes when you're playing the game.
“I'm very indebted to the great underage coaches in the club. Very few are involved still. When you're a young teenager you're looking at your coaches and they're ancient but sure when you look back they were in their early 40s, which is my age now.” 
Seán Óg Ó hAilpín and John Gardiner with members of the Piarsaigh Féile team in 2012, including current seniors Padraig Guest and Eddie Gunning. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Seán Óg Ó hAilpín and John Gardiner with members of the Piarsaigh Féile team in 2012, including current seniors Padraig Guest and Eddie Gunning. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Ó hAilpín is 41 next month by which time he hopes Na Piarsaigh will have negotiated this Sunday's SHC opening round against Bandon. They were too slick for the West Cork outfit in last season's quarter-final, though this weekend will hardly be as straightforward.
If they do progress into the knockout stages, the club must wait until the summer to play again. That type of uncertainty doesn't make it easy for talented young players to commit to dedicating themselves to senior club hurling.
“Sadly, Cork becomes your club team more than Na Piarsaigh for the guts of 10 years. It's only when you go outside of that you see the neglect when you're dealing with club players. They've jobs and they've families and they're told to put their life on hold depending on how Cork do.
“Coaches are trying to keep club players interested.
“Between the ages of 18 and 21 are the critical years. If a young player isn't good enough to make the club senior team it's seen as a comedown to be involved in the second or third team with the club. If they're coming off a successful underage career that dents the ego.” 
While there will always be wristy hurlers lost to soccer, rugby and so on, Ó hAilpín concedes the biggest problem is how GAA is organised.
“Competition from other sports is a threat but I think some now don't want to put in two or three days a week or training and the game at the weekend. When I was that age I did nothing else but play and train, you'd thumb everywhere, and that was my enjoyment. You'd explain that to a teenager and they'd laugh at you. That's not fun for them. They don't want to give that time.
“You've guys doing part-time work and they'd put that in preference to trying to be involved with a team. It's a different culture.
“Everything is so up in the air, there's no certainty about fixtures where they know they'll have a game in July. I'd imagine they're saying they can't put their life on hold for something they don't know is going to happen.”
Seán Óg in action for his club in 2011. Picture. Jim Coughlan.
Seán Óg in action for his club in 2011. Picture. Jim Coughlan.
With the club-county divide wider than ever, professionalism at the elite level would seem the next step. For Ó hAilpín, as dedicated as he was to his craft, having a life outside of the GAA shouldn't be underestimated.
“The last time I pucked a ball for Cork was the semi-final against Galway in 2012 and the following morning I was in work. I wasn't on the train back thinking 'how am I going to put bread on the table?' I'd a balance.
“If you asked me as an 18-year-old I'd have loved to see myself as a professional hurler but after going through my career – and after talking to my two brothers who experienced professional sport in Australia – I'd take what I had.
“It's great to be doing something you love but my brother tells me he went from playing sport as a hobby to trying to sustain himself week in, week out. You've a three-year contract and in the last year of it, you're not sleeping properly because everything hinges on your performance.
“He wasn't a regular on the team so there was no room for bad performances, you were on Broadway every time you went out. You couldn't afford to get injured. If you're lucky your lifespan as an Aussie Rules player could be four years.
Seán Óg working in Ulster Bank. Picture: Des Barry
Seán Óg working in Ulster Bank. Picture: Des Barry
“If you were a professional GAA player you'd be doing well to get 10 years out of it. The demands would be very high.
“I always found work was a good way to get away from the pressures of sport. They work you hard in Ulster Bank, don't worry, but your workmates knew not to be talking about sport. If you didn't have that you'd be thinking too much.
“When I look back on my 16 years (with Cork) it just flew. I wish I'd enjoyed it more.”
Johnny Pilkington of Offaly stands behind Seán Óg in 2000. Picture: INPHO/Billy Stickland
Johnny Pilkington of Offaly stands behind Seán Óg in 2000. Picture: INPHO/Billy Stickland


 



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