Thinking outside the box
Colm Keys talks to conditioning guru Mike McGurn about how it all comes down to common sense
A whistle, a voice and the capacity to divide by two. Mike McGurn is explaining the simplicity of what he does and the tools that come with it.
He's one of Ireland's foremost 'conditioners', a word he admits has only crept into the lexicon of sport in this country over the last 10 years.
For conditioner, says McGurn, read trainer. "I start a stop watch, I stop it and in between I shout. If you can start a stopwatch and divide by two you can be a conditioner. Anybody can. It's common sense." Common sense. McGurn tells a story to illustrate he what he means.
When the GAA introduced experimental playing rules for the subsidiary provincial competitions and the leagues, the fisted pass was least welcomed by players, who scorned at such a shift in how they they dispatched a ball by hand.
Instead of feeding and fuelling the complaint, McGurn returned from an Armagh training session to his west Belfast home and began to think.
The next night in Armagh he produced decorative pebbles his wife had in their sitting room, handed one to each player and commenced a series of fist-passing drills for the next half hour.
The concept of what he was trying to achieve was simple. If each player could return the pebble at the end of the drills then surely they could only have executed their pass in the correct way?
He didn't need an alphabet after his name to come up with that. He didn't need his grounding in sports science at Temple University in Philadelphia either. He just needed to "think outside the box."
"I asked myself 'how do you make sure the fist is closed'. Give them a pound coin, I thought. Then I saw the pebbles..."
He never threw a rugby ball competitively, the pinnacle of his GAA career was a few appearances with Enniskillen Gaels at Feile na nGael. So he sees things with a detachment.
"Not having played at a high level, I don't have any pre-conceived ideas about how we should train. I'm at a massive advantage from other people who trained with a team for 20 years and it's ingrained in them. I'm an open book. I listen to everyone. I've got some great drills for shot putters from an Indonesian wrestler in the gym. You learn from everybody and you always learn."
Tomorrow, McGurn will be in Croke Park for Armagh's Division 2 league final with Down. For him, Armagh was the perfect fit. There were offers last summer when he cut his ties with Welsh club Ospreys, but he declined them all.
When Paddy O'Rourke came calling the appeal was too much. Some 40 miles down the road a team in transition in a county with good structures, it felt like a home from home.
Of course, he'll forever be Mike McGurn, the former Irish international rugby fitness coach during the formative years of the 'golden era.' It sometimes amuses him, given how he grew up believing the sport to be the preserve of posh sorts on the other sort of the divide from where he was from.
He readily admits that he found his way into the game "by default," working his way through a series of rugby league clubs in the late 1990s, Workington, Hull, Leeds and St Helen's before pitching his anchor with Eddie O'Sullivan in 2002.
For months there was harmony. Then he dropped a bombshell after the 2003 RWC in Australia. Ireland weren't fit enough and the structures were wrong. From then on he could feel the ground creaking beneath him.
"To be honest, I was always on thin ice from 2003 when I criticised the IRFU. I knew as long as Eddie remained as coach, I was fine, but the IRFU didn't make it easy for me in that time.
"It was pretty obvious that they didn't want me there. But I had the backing of the players and I had the backing of Eddie and that's all I cared about. I wouldn't thank the IRFU for the way they treated me. It was very obvious that they were trying to make it difficult.
"You weren't allowed to criticise the IRFU. It wasn't the done thing. They'll hold it against me for the rest of their lives and that's fair enough."
Barriers, he felt, were put up. An exclusivity clause debarred him from working with anyone else while he was contracted to the IRFU, but others on similar contracts, he says, had the liberty to do so. It was toxic by the end.
"One of these little things they put in place just to hammer me. I just laughed at it. The committee? I couldn't give a damn, never will. Being a Catholic from the north possibly rubbed noses the wrong way. It's a great honour to work for your country. I made great friends, friends for life, I was involved in 84 games with Ireland. I got to sing Amhran na bhFiann 84 times!"
But the draw has always been to gaelic football and no one, he says has influenced him more than Sean Boylan, who brought him on board for Ireland's 2008 international rules preparations. He's met coaches from all walks of life and sports, but none have touched him like the former Meath manager.
"He's my hero. As a young fella I used to sit on the settee with my dad (Bernard) and watch the great Meath team. My Dad had a lot of time for Sean, so when Sean gave me the call, it was the highlight of my career.
"It probably meant as much -- if not more -- than when we played England in Croke Park. A couple of things -- because Sean lives for the GAA, he does whatever it takes to win, but he does it in the proper way and he's got a great manner."
His work with the now retired Bernard Dunne was well documented, Dunne turning to McGurn after being blown away by Kiko Martinez in 2007 and winning a world title.
He can't believe he's getting to Croke Park with a gaelic football team. It's not his own native Fermanagh (he briefly helped them out in 2008 prior to their Ulster final with Armagh), but it's a huge thrill all the same.
With Armagh he has assumed overall responsibility for fitness and conditioning, working with the U-21s, hurlers and underage. At Callanbridge, where the seniors train, he has had a gym erected by the side of the pitch. The players meet there, work in accordance with his programmes and reconvene for training. Everything is incorporated into two nights a week, McGurn sticking rigidly by his principle of not overtaxing those he has responsibility for.
"I'm getting a bigger buzz being on a sideline in Cross' or up in Letterkenny. I'm buzzing at these games more than I ever was at a rugby game. I've hairs standing on the back of my head and when we beat Donegal, I was choked. These boys worked so hard in January and they got their just rewards."