Health

Wednesday 27 August 2014

What was the secret of their success? Yoga

The Dubs had a secret weapon to help them win the All-Ireland final. Brendan Coffey discovers how yoga made them unbeatable

Devotee: Yoga helped Eoghan O'Gara avoid injury
Support: Michael Darragh MacAuley says yoga helps his mind and his body

As Eoghan O'Gara prepared to come on as a substitute in this year's All-Ireland football final for Dublin against Mayo, he turned his attention inwards. Outside was chaos, 82,000 screaming fans and 30 footballers waging war in the white heat of Croke Park.

O'Gara was suspended in a state of chrysalis, a spectator about to go into battle with the gladiators. And while his manager was about to give him his wings, the man who would change the course of the final was focused on something as simple as breathing. Because Dublin had a secret weapon en route to their All-Ireland triumph – the ancient art of yoga.

"Breathing helps the body to remain calm and it helps the mind to stay clear and focused," says Anne-Marie Kennedy, the woman who introduced the Dubs to the benefits of yoga before the start of the 2013 Championship.

"We practise deep diaphragmatic breathing, which supports the parasympathetic nervous system. When the sympathetic nervous system is activated, stress occurs in the form of a fight or flight response. Slowing down the breath in this way aids relaxation. As a result, your resilience in the face of challenge or adversity increases and your mind becomes more focused and still."

Kennedy, who runs Sports Yoga Ireland, first met with O'Gara and Co last April as they neared the end of their successful Division One Allianz Football League campaign.

Martin Kennedy, CEO of the National Athlete Development Academy (NADA) and the man responsible for Dublin's physical training regime, asked her to take the squad for two trial sessions.

"We believe in developing athletes holistically and we were looking for a solution that aided players' recovery, both physically and mentally, while also adding to their overall physical development as well-rounded athletes," he says.

"Yoga fitted that bill perfectly, and Anne-Marie's work was an integral part of our development programme."

The players, most of whom had never tried yoga before, were quickly won over, so Kennedy became a weekly fixture during the championship campaign. The squad was split into two groups of 15 for the purposes of the classes at NADA's training facility in Clonsilla. The sessions provided the players with much-needed rest and recovery at the height of the championship.

"I found Anne-Marie's yoga classes very beneficial for my mobility," says O'Gara (far right), who was recovering from double-hip surgery at the start of the year.

"It aided me hugely in terms of injury prevention and mobility improvement. I also found the breathing techniques very helpful for concentration and focus before and during training and match days."

The full yogic breath – a deep inhalation followed by a long, slow exhalation – is the starting point of every yoga class.

With time and practice, the breath becomes a huge asset in terms of the physical execution of each exercise and, as in O'Gara's case, the mental strength required to perform on the biggest stage of all.

"Yogic breathing improves focus and concentration, which are essential for athletic performance. It also builds stamina, increases vital capacity and stretches respiratory muscles," says Kennedy.

"Athletes require greater breath capacity than most people. As shallow, passive breathing contributes to a lot of athlete fatigue, when an athlete can connect with the breath and learn to control it they access energy reserves within the body that help them go that extra mile if they need to."

As well as her yoga expertise, Kennedy has a first-class honours degree in psychology and is in the middle an MSc in Sport and Exercise Psychology at the University of Ulster. Yoga is concerned with the mind as much as the body, so her psychological background has enabled her to develop a practice that goes beyond just the physical demands of sport.

"Attributes such as belief, focus, handling pressure and becoming aware of and controlling thoughts and feelings have been identified as vital components of being mentally tough," she says. "I believe yoga can be instrumental in the development of these characteristics in athletes through regular practice.

"Athletes need to put just as much time into mental training as they do into physical training. We must remember that the mind is a muscle that also needs to be exercised. The more an athlete can practice mental skills, the better they become at them and the easier they will be to access when needed."

Yoga for her began in 2008 after a serious back problem led to surgery and a six-month absence from work. She took her first yoga class with Paula Mitten of Durga Yoga in Maynooth, Co Kildare, in a bid to aid her recovery. From that moment on, she was hooked. Three years later, Kennedy completed her teacher training at the Yoga Therapy and Training Centre in Dublin.

A year before, she had graduated with first-class honours in psychology from Dublin Business School. Her thesis – Yoga as a Positive Intervention for the Reduction of Perceived Stress and Anxiety – found that anxiety levels among a group of 90 participants dropped by 50pc following a six-week course of yoga.

It was her golf-mad husband, Craig, who inspired her vision for sports yoga, and so her next stop was Scottsdale, Arizona, where she completed Katherine Roberts' Yoga for Golfers teacher training course.

With the support of the Golfing Union of Ireland, she began teaching at the National Golf Academy in September 2011 and before long was working with Irish national golf panels.

"I feel strong yet supple and it has undoubtedly helped me as a person and, therefore, my golf," says former British ladies amateur golf champion Danielle McVeigh, who has been practising with Kennedy for the past two years. Yoga has been the perfect companion during her hectic travelling schedule since turning pro in 2011.

"I do daily yoga when I travel to tournaments, helping to calm my mind and relax my body," she adds.

The birth of Anne-Marie's daughter, Isabelle, in October last year hasn't curtailed her thriving business – it was this year that the 36-year-old added the Dublin football squad to her ever-expanding list of clients.

"You feel a lot fresher. Your body feels better in your next session on the pitch if you've done yoga in between," says Dublin midfielder Michael Darragh MacAuley (left).

"A lot of GAA players are doing it but, as a sport, we are a bit behind. American sports have been using it for decades."

Among the most famous advocates of yoga is Manchester United soccer star Ryan Giggs, whose continued presence in the Premier League as he approaches his 40th birthday (he turns 40 on November 23) is nothing short of miraculous.

"The yoga has definitely helped me," he said in 2012. "It helps me train every day because it gives me the flexibility and the strength not only to play the game, but to train as well.

Kennedy supports the Welsh star's stance. "The repetitive nature of some sports can throw the body out of sync, leaving it susceptible to injury," she says.

"Yoga works to correct these imbalances. Muscles can become tight and inflexible through persistent over-use and misuse.

"Hamstring, Achilles and groin injuries are mainly a result of lack of flexibility," adds Anne-Marie, who blames the absence of a proper balanced stretching regime for the mobility problems that can plague many inter-county footballers.

"It's no secret that muscle bulk inhibits flexibility – that's why yoga is a perfect complement to gym work," she says.

Kennedy's voice is unique in the macho world of GAA football, if only for the fact she is a female working in an almost exclusively male environment.

But there are others. Under previous manager Pat Gilroy, Dublin employed the services of performance coach Caroline Currid on their way to the 2011 All-Ireland. And In Kildare, Julie Davis has been the strength and conditioning coach for the last six seasons.

It's clear that as sport evolves, new ideas and new voices are sought out every year. Kennedy's yoga regime with Dublin could well become a template for teams in the future, not only Gaelic football sides.

And it's not only the physical benefits of yoga that will appeal to teams and athletes. Never before has men's mental health been the subject of so much discussion as it has in recent weeks with the tragic death of Galway hurler Niall Donohue.

"Yoga has a very soothing and calming effect on a person," says Anne-Marie. "It offers time out to reflect and get in touch with your true self, free from all the distractions, pressures and expectations of life.

"Yoga is a positive coping strategy that helps all athletes deal with nerves and pressure. These are skills that aren't isolated to sport. They're skills that are learned on their yoga mats, taken into their lives and then taken into their sport."

Irish Independent

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