Monday 26 February 2018

Rory Gallagher: Managers must adopt a philosophy towards optimising players’ natural talent

Donegal assistant manager Rory Gallagher
Donegal assistant manager Rory Gallagher

Christy O'Connor

A couple of weeks ago, one inter-county team met for the first time since they had exited the championship in mid-summer.

Goals were redrawn, targets were reset and when the training schedule was discussed, it was coldly delivered for maximum effect. When they got down to serious business in November, the players would effectively be doing something "six days a week".

After the meeting, two players got talking on the way back to their cars. "We can thank Jim McGuinness for that anyway," one said to the other.

There is no doubt that the All-Ireland winners often dictate what is fashionable.

Other coaches see something that has evidently worked and wonder how they can adapt it.

Given that Donegal were considered the fittest team ever to play Gaelic football -- which has been propagated by the commando-style myths of their training sessions -- the logical move for the chasing pack now may be to train even harder.

Burning it up on the training ground though, runs the risk of burning players out. Recently, one extremely talented young player privately admitted to having misgivings about committing to the inter-county game next year because he "wanted to have some kind of life".

Players perform best when they are happy, and they are happiest when they have a balance in their lives and are not fatigued from the constant training grind. The smart teams and coaches will get that balance right.


In any case, training "six days a week" would not be considered going overboard for the top teams with serious ambitions; a couple of running-based sessions, two strength and conditioning gym sessions, core and flexibility workouts, with suitable recovery and proper nutrition built into that six-day schedule.

Yet, not every county is applying that scientific and measured approach to a heavy workload.

"I would believe in training smart before training hard," says Cian O'Neill, who coached Mayo this season, and who will coach Kerry next year.

"I can't speak for every county but I'm in the fortunate position in that I work with a lot of elite athletes in my own job -- PE and sports science (in University of Limerick).

"I would have conversations with my students and it is frightening to hear some of the stories of what is going on at inter-county level.

"With all the resources that are being pumped in, you would think that the level and quality of coaching going on around the country would be quite consistent.

"But there is still an awful lot of road training, drills-based training, with an absence of what I would call problem-based and scenario-based coaching where the players are almost empowered to make the right decision at the right time.

"It is a huge concern, especially now when you have some counties copying what other counties are doing, even though it may be totally inappropriate and unsuitable for the players they have."

There is always a natural tendency for coaches and managers to study the best teams. Donegal closely analysed Dublin and Crossmaglen Rangers.

Although Donegal play a completely different style to both of those teams, their game suits the group of players they have.

"There are so many wonderful things about how Dublin played last year and how Crossmaglen continue to play," says Donegal coach Rory Gallagher.

"But at the same time, you have to work with what you have and our system and style suits that. Teams will naturally look towards us now, but the best coaches will realise what is right for the group of players that they have."

After Donegal's success, coaches will certainly look more closely at strength and conditioning, and fitness programmes. Yet was Donegal's super-fitness overplayed?

They may have been inflicting most of their scoring damage in the third quarter, but they were still outscored in the last quarter against Tyrone, Kerry, Cork and Mayo. In the All-Ireland final, a number of their players were out on their feet with 10 minutes remaining.

"Firstly, it was completely over-exaggerated about how hard Donegal train," says Gallagher.

"I honestly believe that there is very little between the top seven or eight teams in the country in terms of fitness.

"I know that might sound very easy for me to say now after Donegal winning the All-Ireland, but some of the players' own fitness is a personal issue and something they have taken ownership of themselves.

"An awful lot is made of our fitness but fitness really is only a small part of it. If you look at us this year, we had a lot of individuals playing close to the best of our ability, and within a framework that suited them.

"We certainly haven't neglected the tactical and football coaching side of things. We would be looking for continuous improvement from each individual in all aspects of their game."

Where Donegal have really been the trendsetters is in tactics and coaching. Donegal's personnel from previous, underachieving, seasons have largely remained the same, but they have the most effective playing system in the country.

In terms of executing that system, Donegal are the best coached team in the country. The key threat facing Donegal will be if they come up against a group of similarly talented players who have developed -- and who can execute -- a specific game plan.

In the end, a lot of that will come down to basic skills. The best player in the country this year was Colm McFadden. His scoring efficiency set him apart -- McFadden's accuracy from dead balls alone during the championship was 96pc.

"The fact that Colm McFadden consistently kicks the ball over the bar from 50 yards is no accident," says Gallagher.

"He takes the balls home with him. He kicks on his local pitch. At county training, he is usually the first to arrive and the last to leave."

Prior to the All-Ireland final, McFadden was the spearhead of Donegal's attack. Given Donegal's style, his scoring economy was completely transplanted from the training ground.

When Donegal played training matches, McFadden was normally surrounded by at least three defenders, most of who were hanging out of him once he got the ball.

After being conditioned to that level of consistent hardship, championship matches must often have felt easier than training. Crucially though, McFadden had the skills to survive.

"The top coaches now are realising that, fundamentally, optimal performance is coming down to how players can execute their skill sets in a variety of different challenges," says O'Neill. "That ranges from pressure challenges, environment condition challenges, packed defences.

"It's only now that people are beginning to understand the actual importance of the fundamental skills of the game.

"So I think you are going to see a return to more of an emphasis on the skills and less on conditioning. There's a limit, physiologically, as to how fit you can become, especially with amateur athletes. But I think it's almost exponential how much you can improve your skill sets because it's not being coached as well as it should be."

Donegal proved this year that skills and coaching and tactics were just as important as strength and conditioning and fitness. And coaches and managers attempting to copy them should keep that in mind.

Irish Independent

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