Sport Gaelic Football

Tuesday 12 December 2017

Survival of the fittest on painful path to silverware

Players have never been more scientific in their physical training but finding the proper balance is essential, as Marie Crowe discovers

Last Wednesday afternoon, Dublin City University's elite gym was brimming with top athletes, from inter-county footballers, to international track and field stars, sailors and tennis players, the variety of sports people working out side by side was astonishing.

International high jumper Deirdre Ryan stretched while Dublin footballers Bernard Brogan, Michael Darragh Macauley and Paul Flynn lifted weights just a few feet away. All the athletes worked in harmony, getting their sessions done, and all epitomised professionalism and dedication.

They worked under the watchful eye of strength and conditioning coach and former Olympian Martina McCarthy. She explained how there was little or no difference between how the GAA players prepare for their sport compared with other athletes.

"It's a 24-hour job for GAA players," explained McCarthy. "Even though they're not professional athletes, they act like they are, from recovery to nutrition, psychology, fitness, strength and conditioning. There is more experience and education in the GAA in terms of what it takes to be an elite athlete and now with the way things are gone, if you don't live that lifestyle you won't get picked on the team.

"If you have to train five times a week, or at 6.30am like Dublin did last season, and you don't hydrate, eat properly and go to bed early then you are not going to perform at training. As standards go up and competition increases, every player is learning to look after themselves. Then whoever can do it best will be on the team and whoever can collectively do the best will win."

The competitive edge that has always been prevalent in GAA is still there but now players and managers are finding more scientific ways to get it. The days of running laps are well and truly coming to an end as strength and conditioning coaches, nutritionist and psychologists take over.

"First and foremost, a footballer needs to be a good footballer and then the strength and conditioning complements that. If we sit down with a manager at the start of the year and they know the type of game their team wants to play, then that will dictate the how the strength and conditioning programme will look and not the other way around. The coach should dictate the way he wants the athlete to look and it's up to us to go away and put that together.

"As a strength and conditioning coach, you try and prepare the footballer to train the way the manager wants them to.

"If a team wants to play a fast game and you know that they want to be a really fast team then you do a lot of power work and speed work in the gym. If they want to play a big strength and defensive game then you would have the guys a little bigger, you would put a little more muscle on them."

To achieve the desired result, the coaches don't look at the muscles individually, they look at how a movement pattern works. If a player is sprinting or running or jumping to catch a ball that's a combination of everything working together.

They use squats, cleans and dead lifts to develop players as opposed to sitting the players down and using leg extensions or curls. The coaches would rather see a player standing, carrying their own body weight and then lifting. This yields a greater return for what the player is trying to do on the field. Ultimately, they are trying to get more specific for the movements of GAA.

Just a few months ago, Monaghan GAA advertised a full-time position for a strength and conditioning coach. More counties look set to follow suit and DCU's Professor Niall Moyna thinks county boards should be moving along these lines.

"I think every county board should employ a sports science officer, a person who understands coaching and the science behind it. They would then put a structure in place for underage teams, development squads and senior squads," said Moyna.

"Then when a new manager comes in, he doesn't presume that they've done nothing and start from scratch again. When a new manager is appointed, he rarely has a debriefing with the old manager. The players aren't discussed, it's almost assumed that they have been doing nothing for the last ten years and they have to start over again."

There is no doubt that being an inter-county manager these days brings pressure and ultimately there is no reward for adopting the long-term approach when it comes to developing players. Most managers are thinking about the first championship game of the year not how players are progressing for the future. It's a massive jump from minor to senior and a lot of young footballers and hurlers aren't physically ready but they don't have a choice.

"If a young 18-year-old who is like a rake comes into a senior panel, he needs someone to take him aside for the next 12-18 months and work on an individual programme for him but that doesn't happen. He is thrown in to do the same work as the other established players and then expected to be ready for championship."

Another problem with this scenario is that these young players are on numerous teams from club to college, under 21 and senior and they are expected to train with every one of them. More often than not they are doing two or three weights and fitness programmes that are running concurrently and when this happens they antagonise each other and no-one benefits from it.

According to Moyna, one of the biggest problems with teams is that players spend too much time training and not enough time playing games, especially between the ages of 18 to 23. He believes that the GAA need to regularise the calendar because the current system is unsustainable. For the likes of the Brogan brothers, Darran O'Sullivan, Colm Cooper and a number of inter-county players who are still involved in the club championship, it's a 12-month season and because of that and the level and intensity of training being done the career longevity of inter-county players is decreasing rapidly.

"Here in DCU we do a functional analysis of each player at the start of the year. They are screened by our medical team, we do a cardiac screening and a fitness test and based on that we devise a programme and the whole idea is that we get from A to B to C.

"Most inter-county managers do a fitness test at the start of the season but few understand what the numbers mean as there are no national norms. Most inter-county players have maintained a level of fitness and don't need to be back flat out training at this time of year, they just need to be in the gym two or three times a week working on an individual programme."

Although it's only the end of October already reports are surfacing about county teams training five and six times a week, both in the gym and on the field. The inter-county culture is largely focused on training, there is always a buzz about the team who starts back the earliest, who does the toughest sessions, who trains the most often or who trains the earliest.

And along with this training obsession a preoccupation with size and fitness is also developing within the GAA but, according to Moyna, who worked on the Dublin team's strength and conditioning for the last four years, there has to be more to a team if they want to reach the top. "Fitness will get you to an All-Ireland quarter-final but it's not enough to go much further. No team has ever lost an All-Ireland semi-final or final because the other team is fitter.

"It's down to skill at that stage and that is the balance that we have to get back, teams should not be doing the volume of fitness training that they are doing. If the amount of conditioning was decreased by 50 per cent, only two to three per cent of fitness would be lost and the skills would improve."

Both Moyna and McCarthy work with top-class athletes day in day out, they know how GAA players compare. And McCarthy firmly believes that there are plenty of GAA players currently playing inter-county hurling and football who could potentially be Olympic athletes. From observing some of the training in the DCU gym, it's not surprising to hear.

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