Silver-grey clouds blanketed the morning sky in Herzog Park in Rathgar last Saturday.
It’s 9.20am and 14 coaches in matching navy Ranelagh Gaels GAA tracksuits have laid out bright yellow cones. O’Neills GAA footballs dot the astroturf.
Everything is in place for the club’s new project, Ranelagh Rockets, a training session for children with additional needs.
Gradually, children show up with their parents.
“We are trying to make sure that kids with special needs feel part of the community,” says Stuart Banks, a programme organiser and coach.
The session, which caters for six 6 to 10 year olds, starts with stretching exercises. Then, it’s into running exercises and ball skills.
There’s roughly one coach for every child, Banks says.
Training sessions like this weren’t available in the area, he says.
Banks has twin sons with autism. “There wasn’t a place for them to go on a Saturday morning locally.”
Children with additional needs can struggle to join regular sports teams, Banks says. Like his own twins.
They wouldn’t have the skills, says Banks. “I don’t mean the ball skills. It’s the listening skills. Engagement skills. Following instructions, it just would have been too much.”
A Survey Says
Last year, organisers surveyed club members on how to improve the club.
People wanted more inclusion, says Cliona O’Leary, chair of the Ranelagh Gaels Inclusion & Diversity Committee.
The Ranelagh Rockets came out of this. “We spoke about different ways we could improve as a club but we knew this should be our priority,” O’Leary says.
All the places were filled before the first training session.
Banks had reached out to Involve Autism, a local parents group. They gave ideas for where to advertise which was invaluable, he says.
The next issue was finding a football pitch.
Ranelagh Gaels worked with Dublin City Council who found them Herzog Park, Banks says. “This has made all the difference.”
To recruit coaches, they reached out to local Transition Year students, says Banks.
The 14 coaches on Saturday morning were pulled from parents, club members, and Transition Year students.
Tailoring the Game
Elsewhere, other clubs have made similar moves.
Mick Kissane was one of the first coaches to start GAA training sessions for children with additional needs at Naomh Mearnóg club in Portmarnock.
“We started approximately 16 years ago and we have been at it ever since,” he said, last Friday on the phone.
The first session was a steep learning curve for Kissane. “To say it was absolute chaos was an understatement.”
He wrangled the group of around 25 to play a match but few had any concept of how the game worked, he says.
He had to figure out a way to adapt the sport to the children’s needs and enjoyment.
“I developed a little game which I called GAAsketball.”
The game involves passing the ball to your teammates. Any type of pass is allowed.
“Then you fist the ball and knock some skittles down,” he says. “And the kids absolutely loved it.”
As the training sessions progress, you notice the confidence growing in the kids, Kissane says.
One parent told Kissane that her son’s mental health and speech had greatly improved since his sessions started, he says.
“There is the satisfaction that you are making a difference,” he says.
I would say we have over 400 clubs who have done some kind of taster in inclusion, said GAA Diversity and Inclusion Officer Geraldine McTavish on the phone last Thursday.
There are more 2,200 clubs in the GAA, according to the GAA website.
Inclusion was always practiced in some way in the GAA but now there is more structure to it, she says.
The GAA, Special Olympics and Cara, a sports inclusion charity, worked together to create a sports inclusion programme, McTavish says.
Clubs looking to set up an inclusive training session should contact her, she says.
At Ranelagh Gaels, there are plans to start another training programme for children aged 10 to 14 with additional needs, says O’Leary. “We have been overwhelmed with the level of interest in it which is great.”