Colm O'Rourke: Muscles must be flexed to police new conditioning fad
Wrong type of gym training can be very damaging for players, warns Colm O'Rourke
At many times in the recent past I have felt a bit like Rip Van Winkle having woken up from a long slumber only to find that the game of football has changed radically.
Not only that, but the jargon around it has completely altered too. Now, instead of catch, kick, block and mark your man, it is drop, covering defender, through the hands and zonal marking. A new dictionary of GAA terms has arisen. The real buzz term these days is strength and conditioning. No team, no matter how high or low the standard, can get by without at least one of these coaches.
Every player has a gym programme, it is a unique document and no county player would leave home without it. Now if I sound a bit like a doubting Thomas on this it is more about the growth in strength and conditioning experts than a need for putting a bit of muscle on the bones of our young.
Back in the times of man being a hunter and gatherer his strength and conditioning was dependent on his ability to move fast and gather on the run. In more recent times the farmer pulled and dragged all day and things like core muscles did not need any more use. Whatever they were in his lexicon, they certainly were powerful groups of muscles and did not rip or tear easily.
Now man is at rest most of the time which is not the natural order. Therefore there is a need to improve the human frame in a more artificial way. However, there is a big difference between strength and conditioning for football and creating a body like Charles Atlas who had a bit of power but wouldn't be able to mind a tricky corner-forward.
The concern for me is on the subject of all these new coaches who are supposedly expert in this area but very many of whom put footballers through programmes which are often exactly the opposite of what another strength and conditioning coach is advising his players to do.
As this is a scientifically-based area there may be some variations but they should be just that, minor variations. Some go for heavy weights with small numbers of repetitions, others lighter weights at faster pace and so on. Surely there is a bank of scientific knowledge to support a right way to do these things.
Football is a game of skill primarily; it is enhanced by greater speed, strength, agility and durability. In other words, the gym training should be directly related to those governing principles. It is not about someone standing in front of the mirror and hoping they look good to impress themselves first, their team-mates and of course the girls too. A well-toned footballer looks the part but there is a difference between building muscle for show and the appropriate muscle to improve themselves as a player. In the same way the strength and conditioning for a rugby or soccer player may be similar in some respects to a footballer but entirely different in others.
Bottom line is that you should not be able to look up the yellow pages, do any type of course and call yourself a strength and conditioning coach for the GAA. There has to be a specific type of scientific qualification involved as well as some sort of monitoring of those who wish to specialise in this area.
Just as all professions have a period of training and probation then it should be like that for specialised sport coaches as well. It may be a difficult one for the GAA to monitor but if every senior football coach now must have certain minimum coaching qualifications, then it is a direct follow-on to place some controls on the thorny issue of strength and conditioning coaches.
Especially so as the wrong type of training in the gym could be much more damaging than on-field sessions. There is a suspicion that squatting with heavy weights is putting undue pressure on young hips and, if not directly causing the recent rash of injuries needing hip operations, is almost certainly causing some damage to the joint.
Added to this is an increasing concern about the sort of supplements some players are buying on the internet to help in muscle development. Just because it says something on the tin does not mean it is fit for purpose.
Now this is not to frighten parents off a bit of gym training for their skinny teenager who wants to play in Croke Park. As they are unlikely to be lifting blocks on a building site or pitching bales of hay and have more chance of getting into an ad for hand cream than trying to wash grease off their fingers, a properly controlled gym programme will be very useful. Yet old-fashioned methods still work too – you don't need a gym to do core work like press-ups and sit-ups. In fact, using your own body weight and proper stretching can be as useful as any other exercises on fancy machines. And this can start at 13
or 14. There is no danger to a growing body if weight training is sensible and directly related to the sport. The motto with young people should be festina lente, hasten slowly, with the proper balance of diligence and urgency.
Each decade brings a new fad to GAA training. I am old enough to remember and play against the great Kerry team when they started to sweep all before them in the late 1970s. Their fitness levels for the time were phenomenal and I somehow doubt if county sides are any fitter now as most of them were great athletes as well as footballers. Every club side at that time copied their methods with laps and sprints becoming the order of the day with the ball an after-thought.
Fitness levels went up but skill deteriorated in many places. Gradually a change back took place with greater emphasis on drills to increase fitness while at the same time improving the basic skills. This trend has resulted in far more skilful players than there was 20 or 30 years ago even if great players in one era would be great players always.
Anyway, the latest fashion is strength and conditioning. At its best, it is a useful and necessary part of preparation for any serious footballer; used unwisely, though, it is a serious health risk and must be controlled rather than becoming an end in itself. Another job for the GAA sheriff to tidy up. He needs to move quick.