Sports science obsession widening competitive gap
Some months ago I wrote a small piece about an advertisement in national papers for a course called 'Adult Coach Membership', which the blurb stated would 'focus on theoretical and practical aspects of coaching and sports science intervention of Gaelic Games'.
It was to be run by NADA, the National Athlete Development Academy, a private company, and listed a range of modules covering the various components of modern sports science. I mentioned that there seemed to be no specific reference to the actual playing skills of football, which seemed strange for such a serious sports course.
The man who directs that course, Martin Kennedy, is physical coach for the Dublin senior football team and was anxious to impress that these courses DO include practical, hands-on coaching for the skills of football, which I was glad to hear, with the emphasis on integrating skill training with the physical, promoting the overall well-being of the participants and, above all, making the sport enjoyable for them.
There is a common concern among many GAA people at all levels that coaches, trainers, managers and the rest are concentrating nowadays on physical and mental preparation for club and county teams at the expense of time spent working on skills.
We hear stories of players being forced to run up and down mountains, jump into rivers, spend half their lives in gyms and many other escapades in the guise of bonding and achieving super fitness with the over-riding mantra today being 'Strength and Conditioning'.
All fine and dandy, of course, provided the key component of any football game – skill – is also given its correct level of attention.
Martin Kennedy says that NADA courses take a holistic approach, which means that all aspects of sport are dealt with, including the teaching and perfecting of the skills of the game. I have no reason to doubt that and we will watch with interest how that works out for the Dublin players this year.
How much will the individual players improve their actual skill performances of the basics of football for the next few months?
In the past decade there has been an absolute barrage of scientific research and application invested in all sports and Gaelic football is no exception. Players' medical condition, their ability for endurance, their psychological conditioning, their rehabilitation from injury and a myriad other matters have been pushed to the limits of even professional sport.
Just recently we heard about two young men, Damien Lee and Richie McCarthy, who have set up a company called Gaelcoach based on new software which they claim can monitor the progress of players of any age-group when they are training or playing games. Every aspect of a player's game, the good and the bad, can be recorded and played back for the use of coaches and presumably players. There seems to be no limit to what technology can do to analyse the sporting performances of GAA players.
The young men playing today are enthusiastic about these developments, which is encouraging for the GAA. They are also, of course, aware that not everything can be solved through a new piece of software, the latest 'Skins' wear or the newest colours of boots.
Some discover this the hard way when they suffer serious injuries, such as the dreaded cruciate, which seems to be more common now despite all these modern coaching aids. Cork's Colm O'Neill, having suffered his third such injury, is unfortunately the prime example.
All genuine coaching and other aids should be welcomed but, in keeping with the holistic approach, there must always be enough players able to kick points from 40 metres, catch high balls cleanly, tackle legally without pulling and dragging and, above all, have the ability to make the right decisions under pressure – something that all great sportspeople have the world over. In Gaelic football there are still a lot of famous players who do not have that last quality.
Of course all the progress I have talked about involves money – very serious money. There are coaches earning in excess of €50,000 a year with some GAA county boards, but they generally work with all ages.
So, modern sports science is a very expensive commodity and unfortunately what always happens in the GAA applies in this case – the weaker counties get weaker and the strong get stronger simply because of finance. What Dublin, Tyrone, Mayo or Kerry can invest in sports science will simply not apply in Leitrim, Longford, Carlow or Waterford.
But then most GAA leaders around the country already know that.