Jimmy McGuinness, the granny shot and social thresholds - Making sense of the GAA's "crisis"

In an effort to understand the current "crisis" that the GAA is currently in, we use the term social thresholds to explain

If you were offered €10,000 to throw a basketball through a hoop from ten yards away, how would you throw it? Think about it for a second because for an amateur, there might be a right and a wrong answer.

Throwing it like an NBA player – overhead style, we'll say - might result in a better aesthetic, but with so much on the line, you should be focused on maximizing your chances of getting it into the hoop. Despite the fact that NBA players shy away from it, throwing underarm is probably the best way to do what you're trying to achieve.

Rick Barry chose to throw it underarm, or what is commonly referred to as a ‘Granny shot’ and rarely missed. In fact, he was incredibly accurate with that tactic. He improved his chances so greatly that in the 1979 NBA season, he missed just nine times from 169 attempts.

Nobody in the NBA adopted his strategy. The reason for this is something that Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter has dubbed 'thresholds'.

As Malcolm Gladwell describes it, “Social processes are driven by our thresholds—which [Granovetter] defined as the number of people who need to be doing some activity before we agree to join them.”

While  'the granny shot' never caught on in the NBA, it seems that the GAA has proven to be a bit more open to a new, more defensive approach, and everyone's doing it. After the success of Jim McGuinness’ side, there are people at clubs and within counties that are defending when it is not inherently in their nature, within their philosophy of the game, or etched into the DNA of the players they are coaching.

Gladwell explains further, “riots were started by people with a threshold of zero—instigators willing to throw a rock through a window at the slightest provocation. Then comes the person who will throw a rock if someone else goes first. He has a threshold of one. Next in is the person with the threshold of two. His qualms are overcome when he sees the instigator and the instigator’s accomplice. Next to him is someone with a threshold of three, who would never break windows and loot stores unless there were three people right in front of him who were already doing that—and so on up to the hundredth person, a righteous upstanding citizen who nonetheless could set his beliefs aside and grab a camera from the broken window of the electronics store if everyone around him was grabbing cameras from the electronics store.”

The GAA is currently in its tiki-taka phase – another example of when “the granny shot caught on”.

Pep Guardiola had a look at his star-studded Barcelona side, understood the club's DNA and created a style that was tailored to their abilities. Next thing you know, there were amateur sides on a Sunday morning with as much technique as a dog with a few drinks in him playing “tiki-taka” and hailing it as the future.

Pep had been misinterpreted, and just when everyone else was adapting tiki-taka as their modus operandi, Pep was decrying it as a pointless pursuit. He had a plan and he was executing it to perfection. The rest? Well they just had very high thresholds and were doing it because everyone else was.

"I loathe all that passing for the sake of it, all that tiki-taka. It's so much rubbish and has no purpose. You have to pass the ball with a clear intention, with the aim of making it into the opposition's goal. It's not about passing for the sake of it," Pep said when he was hit with yet another question about how he was ruining the game and creating boring stalemates.

"Be yourselves. You need to dig into your own DNA. I hate tiki-taka. Tiki-taka means passing the ball for the sake of it, with no clear intention. And it's pointless,” Pep said on another occasion.

Similarly, McGuinness also repeatedly referred to the DNA of his team, and keeps saying it now as he dismisses defending for the sake of defending as utterly pointless too.

He dug into Donegal's past and came up with a plan that suited his side’s personality and personnel perfectly. There was no defending for the sake of defending because doing that, in and of itself, lessens your chance of success and creates confusion as to what exactly you are doing on the field.

“That gameplan was unique to us. Absolutely unique to us. Every decision we took in terms of how we set up was to make ourselves competitive,” McGuinness said in his most recent column for The Irish Times.

It's unfair on the players too. Creative forwards are being subdued, man markers are a thing of the past and nippy corner forwards are not making it beyond the trial period or minor grade because they don’t offer enough going backwards.

Instead of following the defensive crowd, coaches need to have a low enough threshold that they set the agenda for their team; instead of a homogenous group of managers copying what everyone else is doing, you have a myriad of styles, aesthetics, and tactics. This will create an environment of exciting football and proper tactical battles and not just staring contests with both teams holding their eyes open until they're dry and itchy for fear of blinking first.

It might mean taking a hiding or two off Dublin, but be sure that in the background your underage teams are playing a style that suits your county's DNA. If you happen to play Mayo or Kerry or Dublin eight years in a row, one or two victories will suffice, and while it's not ideal, it is the only thing that is going to change the way Gaelic football is played.

Innovative coaches and systems with an abstract way of thinking about the game are not simply created, they are nurtured. The problem is systematic. The slight but skilful corner forward doesn’t make it beyond minor and the gung-ho manager isn't moving beyond his club's second team because he is too much of a loose cannon.

The solution involves standardized coaching, where the best minds in the game are brought in to ensure different approaches aren’t being ignored or getting lost in the noise. All team sports, from basketball to soccer, have these standards. This also gives the anti-establishment coaches like Jim McGuinness the chance to prove their worth in an objective setting.

The GAA is currently in a formative period in terms of tactics, data analysis, fitness and media coverage. Instead of discussing, with nostalgia, the heroes of yesteryear, we need to start creating mythical coaches with their own philosophies looking to leave their stamp on this generation, and give them the time to do so.

It needs innovative thinkers with low thresholds, who are willing to approach the game differently and adapt their philosophy, not simply take on the latest trend.

So, if you have the chance to land a bucket in your own style, do it. But don’t change your style just because everyone else is.

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