Dublin v Mayo: Managing players' characters a key element of Jim Gavin's coaching model

By Peter McNamara

What is it that makes Jim Gavin such a successful manager?

Obviously, he may not be as successful if he was in charge of a team with much less resources. Yet, in its own right, being in such a position of affluence creates pressure to ensure those resources are utilised efficiently.

There are many reasons as to why Dublin stand on the cusp of three-in-a-row history on Sunday against Mayo. One such reason is his insistence on developing his players’ characters which guards against them getting complacent, in itself, a taxing exercise.

Attending two club games at the weekend, one underage, one adult encounter, it was noticeable that the teams with the more selfless operators won both games.

Essentially, the two teams with more positive characters in their sides earned victories.

This excerpt taken from Sport Psychology for Coaches, written by Damon Burton and Thomas Raedeke, deals with athletes' character development and, later on, their capacity to cooperate in a group environment.

Jim Gavin during last year's celebrations. Pic: Sportsfile

Gavin has regularly referenced his ethos of nurturing character development. He wants good people in his group, not just good footballers. Of course, nobody is perfect and some of his own players are no angels on the field. However, the point is Gavin sees the bigger picture that he is managing people, not just athletes.

Coaches and managers, of all age groups, can have a positive impact on players' lives, particularly in helping to shape their characters.

‘Your coaching philosophy must specify the importance you place on character development,’ the excerpt reads. ‘Competition can play a valuable role in helping athletes develop positive character traits that will help them succeed in future endeavours. But competition does not automatically generate positive character traits, and, regrettably, competing in sport sometimes detracts from character development. Thus we believe it is essential that your coaching philosophy specify the role you will play in your athletes’ character development.

‘Research has confirmed that athletes are less likely to participate in delinquent behaviour than are non-athletes (Seefeldt & Ewing 1997). However, moral reasoning and good sporting behaviour seem to decline as athletes progress to higher competitive levels, in part because of the increased emphasis on winning (Beller & Stoll 1995). Thus winning can be a double-edged sword in teaching character development. Some athletes may want to win so much that they lie, cheat, break team rules, and develop undesirable character traits that can enhance their ability to win in the short term. However, when athletes resist the temptation to win through unscrupulous means, they can develop positive character traits that last a lifetime. Character is a learned behaviour, and a sense of fair play develops only if coaches plan to teach those lessons systematically, along with strategies for transferring the lessons and values to future life experiences.

Seán Cavanagh, right, of Tyrone is consoled by Dublin goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton after the All-Ireland semi-final last month. Pic: Sportsfile

‘Consider the character development possibilities in the following scenarios where a tennis player, Bob, could call his opponent’s shot, a would-be winner, in or out because no one else could tell for sure where it landed:

‘Bob and his roommate John are tied at six-all in the final-set tie-breaker of their friendly match. In addition to bragging rights, the two have a cold drink wagered on the outcome.

‘Bob and his arch-rival are tied at six-all in the final-set tie-breaker of the state tennis championship. A possible college scholarship is also at stake.

‘It’s easy to make the honest call in the first situation, playing against a friend with little riding on the outcome, but the response may have only minimal impact on Bob’s long-term character development. However, if Bob makes the right call in the state championship match, with so much riding on the outcome, it is a lesson that can positively shape his character for the rest of his life. The value that athletes place on competitive success makes sport a domain for teaching integrity and character development, which can have long-lasting effects on personal growth. But these positive outcomes occur only when coaches make character development a high priority.

Mayo selector Tony McEntee speaks to the players before the start of the All-Ireland semi-final replay against Kerry last month. Pic: Sportsfile

‘We live in an extremely interdependent and cooperative society. In our everyday lives, we may go days at a time without competing, but we cooperate in many ways each day—from collaborating with others at work and home to purchasing products made by others (or creating products for others to purchase). Thus, in our modern society, learning how to cooperate is just as important for our young athletes as learning how to compete. This may become part of your coaching philosophy. Competition and cooperation are often depicted as opposing processes, even though they are actually complementary. Sport sociologist Gunther Luschen (1970) has described the relationship between competition and cooperation in terms of what he calls association—the ways that individuals or teams must cooperate in order to compete effectively.

‘Most of us can readily identify one type of association in that athletes in team sports must cooperate with each other in order for the team to perform cohesively. Such within-team cooperation is essential to a team’s success. But between-team cooperation is necessary for competition to even occur. Teams have to agree on a time and place to compete. They also have to agree to a set of rules to govern their competition and promise to abide by them. Finally, competition assumes that all competitors or teams are going to give their best effort, or at least establish a mutually agreed upon level of commitment and effort. At its best, then, competition should involve a quest for excellence between evenly matched opponents who are giving maximal effort. Will you make it part of your philosophy to teach your athletes how to cooperate with each other—and with opposing teams—so that competition is the best it can be?’

For the record, it was equally noticeable, in the two matches attended, that the losing teams had far less effective communication from the sidelines and one too many ‘mé féiners’, players displaying traits not associated with successful groups.

If Dublin succeed again on Sunday, take note of the overriding selflessness of character Gavin's players illustrate during, and after, the match.

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