January 2024, Ireland: Researchers at the Insight SFI Research Centre for Data Analytics and the School of Health and Human Performance at Dublin City University have released the findings of a study, entitled ‘Participant Experience of a Modified Sports Program - A Curriculum Investigation in Gaelic Games’. In this study, a total of 180 participants from eight Gaelic games clubs across four different counties were interviewed to explore perceptions of Go Games among players, parents and coaches.

In 2007, the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) introduced ‘Go Games’ for children aged 7 to 11. Go Games are guided by key principles such as ensuring equal playing time for all players and an emphasis on skill development and enjoyment. No provision is made to record or publish scores, or to present winners’ trophies or medals.

In his recent annual report, GAA Director General Tom Ryan expressed concern about a ‘creeping competitiveness’ within Go Games, with the emergence of leagues and unofficial tournaments played on a knockout basis, which is steering away from the original ethos of the program. In response, the GAA sent a notification to clubs reminding them that there had been no change to the existing Go Games policy as well as the sanctions for rule breaches.

This policy reminder sparked a widespread debate on the appropriateness and merits of competitive games for children aged 12 or under. This comprehensive research, led by Dr Kevin Gavin of the School of Health and Human Performance, DCU, explores the experiences and challenges associated with Go Games. The work sheds light on the nuanced dynamics of youth sports participation. Coaches, the study finds, play a significant role in finding the balance between competition, enjoyment and participation despite some challenges, including 'negative parental involvement'.

Key Findings:

  • The research reveals notable coherence between the intended aims of Go Games and the experiences of coaches and parents. Core principles such as equal participation, enjoyment, skill development and de-emphasis on scores and winning are consistently supported.
  • Go Games places a significant emphasis on fostering enjoyment, a crucial factor in sustaining children’s’ interest in sports. In this study, players unequivocally enjoyed participating in the Go Games, attributing their enjoyment to various factors such as social interaction, and playing with their friends, developing their skills and seeing themselves improve, and competition and playing against other teams.
  • Coaches often have to navigate multifaceted challenges in implementing Go Games principles, including managing players of diverse abilities, competing sources of motivation and enjoyment, ensuring equal participation and maintaining a competitive balance.

The study identifies communication gaps, particularly in conveying the purpose of the Go Games to parents. Negative parental involvement, such as shouting instructions, underscores the need for enhanced communication strategies.

‘The study calls for continued support, education and tools for coaches to make development-focused decisions within the Go Games program,’ says Dr Gavin of the Insight SFI Research Centre for Data Analytics, a strategic data partner of the GAA. ‘Additionally, while parental involvement is crucial to a child’s sports experience, it is essential to support parents so that they positively contribute to the sports environment. The study provides valuable insights for anyone involved in youth sports participation.'

Professor ine MacNamara, of DCU’s School of Health and Human Performance, said: ‘We hear a lot in the media that competition isn’t appropriate for young children in sport; but, of course, competition is central to the sport experience, so we were interested in exploring the perceptions of children, coaches and parents about their experience of Go Games. We found that everyone valued competition especially the social interaction, skill development and opportunity to develop competence. Importantly, coaches in this study sophistically used competition to support children’s’ experience by ensuring equal playing time, though they recognised this was complex given the range of ability and motivation of the group. Importantly, we found that all the kids enjoy competition as long as it’s delivered fairly – especially when the adults involved used it as a developmentally appropriate tool. This is the balance that youth sports coaches are working to achieve, and it requires the full support of all stakeholders.’

Commenting on the research, GAA President Larry McCarthy said: ‘We welcome the publication of this research into Go Games. Our manifesto challenges us to create a GAA Where We All Belong and to be an Association that promotes lifelong participation. That starts with the introduction to Gaelic Games that young people experience through Go Games which is designed to be, above all else, fun.

Sport is competitive, and our games are no different. Our philosophy is that we can encourage participation and nurture and develop skills without leaving any child behind. The motto of Go Games is every child gets a Go and this research is a timely reminder of the benefits of this ideal.’

The research paper is published in Youth. For access to the full paper, please visit https://www.mdpi.com/2673-995X/4/1/2.