UW Professors Introduce Gaelic Football into Their Classes

When University of Wyoming professors Tristan Wallhead and Mark Byra were in Limerick, Ireland, in 2013 for an international conference, they had a stopover in Dublin. Like any good tourists, they took in the local sights, which included a visit to the national Irish stadium to view a sport that, at first glance, can catch Americans off guard.

What they witnessed that day at Croke Park was Gaelic football, featuring a couple of favorite clubs -- Kildare and Dublin.

Gaelic football combines the suspense of basketball, the skills and scoring of soccer and the speed of rugby in a free-flowing, action-packed sport. It originated in Ireland centuries ago.

“We both thought it was very fast-paced and included numerous skills from different sports,” Wallhead says. “It is predominantly a punting game like Aussie Rules Football, but players dribble it using bounces and foot solos, and pass it using a volleyball hand pass.”

Gaelic football is one of Ireland's two national sports; the other is hurling. Kicking the soccer-style ball into a soccer-like net earns a team three points. Above the net are goal posts, and players are free to punt the ball between the uprights for one point.

Wallhead and Byra, both professors in the UW Division of Kinesiology and Health in the College of Health Sciences, were intrigued by the sport. But would it translate to a competitive sport for American youths who have grown up playing the U.S. version of football, soccer and basketball?

Nearly five years after viewing Gaelic football, Wallhead and Byra are about to find out. Wallhead has introduced the sport into a section of his UW preservice physical education (PE) courses this fall. The program is the first of its kind in the world.

“This is not even done yet in Ireland, although they are in the process of considering it,” says Terry Lynch, of Seattle, Wash. He is the director of Cascade Youth Gaelic Games, which is the organization in the United States Gaelic Athletic Association (USGAA) that promotes Gaelic football in U.S. school physical education programs. His son, Trevor, is a UW history student.

“Once the UW preservice teachers arrive at their student-teaching assignments and begin teaching this sport to their classes, Wyoming will immediately leap into either first or second place among states with Gaelic football programs in physical education,” Lynch says. “That's just in the first year. Not bad for right out of the starting gate.”

Initially, USGAA attempted to develop young Gaelic football players the same way it’s done in Ireland -- through youth leagues.

“This works OK in places like Boston and New York City where there are a lot of expatriate Irish in a condensed geographic region,” Lynch says. “But once you get out of the Eastern urban areas, which is to say most of the U.S. geography, it makes youth leagues impossible.”

In Seattle, Lynch says the solution was to introduce the sport in high school physical education programs. Currently, seven of the area’s high schools have Gaelic football as part of their PE curriculum, involving about 2,500 students every year who are playing the sport in their school classes.

A UW graduate and a Wyoming native helped Wallhead and Byra introduce Gaelic football into their respective UW courses. Tracy (McKenzie) Schellberg, from Rock Springs, was one of the UW professors’ undergraduate students. She teaches the sport in her own physical education classes in Seattle.

“Tracy came over to UW and provided a workshop to our preservice teachers on how to teach the sport in PE classes,” Wallhead says. “What Tracy helped us figure out was that Gaelic football is seen as a near-perfect PE sport for teachers. She helped us boil down the appeal into a handful of easy-to-understand selling points.”

She was joined by Terry and Trevor Lynch to help teach the UW students the finer points of Gaelic football. Trevor plays the sport back in Seattle. Wallhead says Schellberg’s selling points are:

-- The sport is easy to teach and learn, because almost all of the skills are already used by the students in other sports.

-- The sport evens the playing field in PE class. “Everyone is a rookie, so no need to manage harmonizing having some kids who have never played the sport and others who are playing at a select level,” Wallhead says.

-- The game rules favor ball sharing, making it easier to get everyone involved.

-- The game involves a mix of hand and foot coordination and aerobic challenges.

-- It costs almost nothing to implement, which always is an important factor, Wallhead says.

The UW students learning about Gaelic football are all PE teacher education seniors who are currently teaching a secondary-aged practicum at Laramie Middle School and Laramie High School. The UW students recently took Gaelic football to Laramie Middle School for the first test. The course was for three weeks for seventh-graders.

“We showed the students some clips of the real game prior to teaching them the skills, and they thought it was quite physical,” Wallhead says. “They are beginning to develop some Gaelic football game patterns. The sport is active and includes a variety of manipulative skills that do not preclude inclusion for all students. All students come in with the same knowledge and so, when they are placed on teams, the games are relatively even, which helps with student motivation.”

Wallhead says he will embed Gaelic football again next year in the UW students’ secondary practicum experiences.

“It is my hope that these preservice teachers will teach it as they go across the state for student teaching and also for their teaching jobs next year,” he adds.

Lynch says the Irish are naturally curious and excited to see Americans teaching other Americans their national sport. Three years ago, Irish President Michael Higgins visited Schellberg's physical education class to watch her and her fellow teachers instruct Gaelic football.

“Visits by heads of state to U.S. high schools are extremely rare, and I can think of no other instance where it was the PE department that was the draw,” Lynch says. “After about five years, we predict the state of Wyoming will comfortably have more students playing Gaelic football in school PE than anywhere in the world, even beating Ireland. The game’s development officers in the U.S. and in Dublin are very excited about this.”

To view a clip of Gaelic football, visit www.youtube.com/watch?v=TEAbWrdB9XU.

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