Clublife: Billy Sheehan on getting the best out of a training session
It's that time of year again when clubs are preparing for the long and sometimes bumpy road which hopefully will end up with a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
There is of course no guarantee of that, but it won't stop all concerned from investing a considerable amount of effort, expertise and indeed expense in their team's preparations.
All of the focus at this time of year will be on fat testing, DEXA scanning, nutrition, psychology and strength and conditioning. Indeed, sleeping and breathing coaches are not uncommon either in some elite clubs.
All of the aforementioned can be beneficial, but should never be prioritised to the detriment of the most important element of all: the skills associated with the game. The basics that are pivotal to success. The question is: how many clubs will assess their player's skill levels during the pre-season?
At underage there seems to be a tendency to adopt the same philosophy in relation to coaching, the result of which is that we are producing athletes rather than players with the silken skills of the likes of Mikey Sheehy, Declan Browne and Peter Canavan. Instead, young players are measured and evaluated on aspects of fitness and strength.
Taking a back seat are the likes of Donie Buckley, Eamon Ryan, Mickey Moran and John Morrisson. All are coaches with an inbuilt ability to teach and coach players to improve the level of their skills and the standard of their performance, rather than spin their philosophy by means of diagrams and documents. These are innovative coaches able to walk the walk, rather than just talk the talk.
Every training session should revolve around and be structured to incorporate the skills of the game. The training must be match-specific with fitness and skills improved in tandem. It is in fact possible to incorporate the use of footballs with all the fitness programmes and routines. Fitness is now an easy fix for some coaches as it is easily measured.
Planning the session in advance is key. This can be time-consuming but it reaps rewards. Having the details outlined on paper will allow the coach to make reference, if necessary, and this can be quite beneficial both during and after the session. An introduction at the begining of the session with a recap at the end can greatly benefit both the players and the coach.
The ball must be in use in all of the drills and games, with players having as many as 500 plays throughout a skills training session and not through continuous handpassing drills.
The modern game is currently evolving more and more towards kicking, so it's important to have enough footballs to enable each player to kick the ball every few seconds. At least two balls between every three players is the minimum requirement for output.
Have a time limit for each separate section of the session, as players will get bored doing the same drill for a prolonged period of time. A situation should never develop whereby players are waiting, watching and wondering. Players need to be kept alert and sharp.
In addition, using the same drills continuously will lessen the commitment and concentration of the players. Be innovative. Enjoyment is extremely important and the use of eggs, water balloons, tennis or rugby balls can bring a bit of fun and banter to proceedings at warm-up time and at the end of the session. It's better for players to be smiling rather than be serious every moment on the pitch.
Cones can act as a guide, both for the coach and the players. Have them in place before the start, but, as the session evolves with communication levels increased there should be less use for them.
Issuing instructions becomes irrelevant if a coach is unable to show the players what is required in a game situation. Players are told repeatedly not to foul, but a player must be coached on how to tackle properly.
Video analysis, statistics, and team meetings are now part and parcel of every team's level of back-up in terms of information and expertise, but they don't count for much if the details are not used, outlined and addressed on the field of play. Talk is cheap; actions speak louder than words.
Training five nights a week, three on the pitch and two in the gym, is now making it increasingly more difficult and less enjoyable. However, it is possible to incorporate body-strength conditioning on the pitch, and alleviate some of the nights, and indeed mornings, in the gym. Injury prevention is also key to preparation but the onus should be on players to address this particular aspect themselves before each session as you might only have players on the pitch for four hours per week.
Communication cannot just be a one-way street. It's a lot easier to tell someone what to do rather than listen to suggestions or feedback. Don't be afraid to involve the players and other members of management.
Drills will increase both fitness and skills but you also need to create and implement game situations and devote time to different areas of the game: defensive and offensive set-ups along with set plays.
At underage there may be a requirement to coach the coaches as some parents may not have a background in the code and may need some guidance. Unfortunately developing a player's catching and kicking off the gable-end wall seems to be a thing of the past, so all of the skills for underage players must be incorporated into the weekly training sessions.
Finally, always seek advice, and involve players in relation to suggestions and feedback. It can be beneficial also to look at other sports for some aspects that may apply and be beneficial to Gaelic games, even if it isn't always advisable or advantageous to copy some of the other successful Gaelic teams in terms their systems or strategies. Kerry's use of Kieran Donaghy and Jimmy McGuinness's blanket defence are two obvious examples that even found their way to under 12 games.
As a coach, find the right way rather than your own way. Certainly coaching is far easier than managing. If you don't love it, don't do it. Stay loose and enjoy it fully. It's a sport after all, a leisure activity and can be a welcome release from the chores and problems of everyday life.
Billy Sheehan is a coach and former Laois footballer