Thursday 23 November 2017

Crossing codes of GAA's coaches

McGuinness' Celtic link can help blaze trail for his peers

Donegal manager Jim McGuinness
Donegal manager Jim McGuinness
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

In embracing the prospect of a call from a professional soccer club to hire his services at some point in the future, Donegal manager Jim McGuinness was quick to stress earlier this week that the skills he has acquired through the best part of a decade of third-level education were "transferable".

With an educational background in both sports science and sports psychology, McGuinness sees himself primarily as a sports coach. But it is as the manager of the reigning All-Ireland football champions that any tenuous link with Celtic has been created. Only through that shop window has the potential for greater things emerged.

Still, that link between an All-Ireland-winning football manager and a professional soccer club has struck something of a blow for Gaelic games coaches and the potential for much greater cross-pollination with other sports in the future.

The recent history of coaching in Gaelic games is that it is very much import rather than export led. Clubs and counties are more than happy to seek the services of additional coaches with backgrounds in rugby, athletics and even boxing in the belief that it gives their preparations a more polished, professional look.


This season, for instance, two former Irish Olympic athletes, David Matthews (Cork hurling) and Sean Cahill (Meath football), and a former Irish rugby international, Andy Ward (Antrim football), were involved with inter-county teams.

The propensity to defer to others sports for knowledge about preparation is centred on one belief: that they knew better.

The trade deficit has been alarming, but even the notion that McGuinness would work at such an altitude in professional sport has been an awakening as to how far coaches with GAA backgrounds can now go.

To date, the exportation to other sports of specific Gaelic games coaching knowledge has been minimal.

Three years ago, Wasps Rugby Club in London, then one of the eminent forces in the Premiership, took John McCloskey, the former Armagh team trainer from 2002 to 2007, into their coaching staff for 12 months.

The citation announcing McCloskey's arrival made for impressive reading, with his Gaelic games background referenced as the core reason for his arrival.

"The addition of John to our set-up sees the introduction of a new role dedicated to the strengthening and development of our players' core skills. To have someone solely focused in this area we show a commitment to long-term development and, in John, we have a man with a proven coaching ability and great record in Gaelic games. His strengths around handling, aerial skills and kicking are key aspects of the modern game."

Wasps coach Shaun Edwards, who has doubled up as Lions and Wales coach too, was equally receptive to the idea of a Gaelic football coach adding something to their effort.

"John is a proven winner at elite-level sport, winning the All-Ireland championship and National League in Gaelic football. I think that a big part of that was due to John helping them learn about winning the ball in the air -- which is becoming more and more a part of the game (rugby), and I think his arrival will be really good for the club."

In 2006, former Kerry and Limerick coach Mickey Ned O'Sullivan was invited to South Africa to coach the rudiments of the Gaelic football high catch to the five Super 14 clubs. It was at the behest of the Springboks' high-performance unit that O'Sullivan made the journey as they sought to expand their kicking and catching game.

John Morrison, one of the GAA's original master tutors, was brought into Ulster rugby for a similar reason during Alan Solomons' time in charge.

Morrison also spent a few days in the early 2000s with Leicester Tigers explaining drills used in Gaelic games for multi-directional running.

"Rugby had a need when I was over with Leicester. How would they get more multi-directional running. They asked me what games do I coach for multi-directional running.

"Rugby was essentially one-directional. They moved side to side, but now they wanted movement off the shoulder in different directions, which is essentially what Gaelic games is about," recalled Morrison.

"When I was brought into Ulster rugby they said 'we like your high catch' and they were trying to move it on that time. They looked for the bio-mechanics of the movement," said the man who devised a drill for Armagh midfielders to improve fielding using balloons.

"With the Gaelic high catch, when you jump into the arc of the ball and have your feet like a skier, from the time you take off to the time you land you can roughly go three metres. Whereas when the rugby player was getting it he was just standing there and was easier tackled. He's usually hauled down and pushed into touch.

"Our (Gaelic football) catch is very transferable. When a kick goes cross-field, the rugby player who is defending is already coming across him blindside, so the opponent can actually jump from behind him, catch it above him and land running. It's a question of adapting Gaelic skills to rugby."

Bryan Cullen's work with the Leinster rugby academy, Enda McNulty's mental coaching across a variety of sports and Mickey Whelan's past in soccer coaching underline how skills can transfer.

Niall Moyna, head of DCU's Health and Human Performance Academy, believes there will be a surge of Gaelic games coaches adapting their skills to other sports over the next decade.

"The really good coaches are the ones that have a knowledge of multiple sports," figures Moyna, a firm believer in cross-code pollination.

"There hasn't been a lot of Gaelic coaches moving out, but my view on that is that, in the next 10 or 15 years, that will change because of the knowledge our coaches are attaining."

Moyna also feels the GAA obsession with employing rugby coaches for strength and conditioning is on the wane. "One of the concerns I had, and it's starting to wane now, was people coming from a rugby background and they didn't really understand the requirements of Gaelic games. They were trying to impose exactly what they did with rugby.

"Ours is a much more intermittent type game with repeated sprints and short recovery. Theirs is much more power, longer recovery and for a number of years, particularly the beginning of the last decade, we lost the run of ourselves," said Moyna.

"The perception was they have a better knowledge base. That's not the fact at all."

The pathways available to becoming full-time Gaelic games coaches will ensure those greater levels of export that he predicts, Moyna says.

"From skill acquisition to conditioning to tactical deployment, there is no reason why Michael Dempsey (Kilkenny trainer) or other coaches of that status could not make that leap in the future."

Irish Independent

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