Covid brought many abrupt changes to our lifestyles. One change for the inter-county footballer was that strenuous training moved from the pitch or gym into the garden or spare bedroom.
An unintended consequence of this? Marital strife. Prior to Covid, there was never an occasion when you were gasping for breath 90pc of the way through a training field session and your wife asks why you have not emptied the dishwasher. Your response to this question, when the lungs are desperately screaming for oxygen, is one you may not be proud of post session when the heart rate and lungs have recovered.
Strength work. Bodybuilding. The gym. Weights. S&C. The evolution of a buzz term. In the GAA, like every sport, we have learned to embrace buzz terms. One of the current on trend terms is S&C. Often uttered by those with an overly simplistic view of what it is. Often misunderstood, the importance of S&C should not be understated.
Skill levels, I believe, are largely similar across a majority of inter-county players. From Sam Maguire winners through to Tailteann Cup also-rans. Barring a few outliers, it is broadly true. This does leave aside those unlucky enough to not have been exposed to rudimentary coaching which ensures the basic skills become second nature.
Tactically, a clever management set-up will build a reasonable game-plan and principles that can bring the necessary organisation to allow a team to come close to maximising their potential on this front.
The major difference between our lowest and highest-ranked players and teams is our friend, S&C.
There is an element of natural selection and good genetics at play here. The counties with bigger playing numbers will pick the best players who are also the best athletes. If they have five players of similar skill level for one position, they will pick the guy who is the best athlete. The counties with smaller playing numbers don’t have that privilege.
So, what is strength and conditioning. To start with, let’s dispel one myth. S&C is not going into a gym, looking in a mirror and building arms big enough to allow a player to hold off an opponent under a 50/50 ball.
There are numerous niche nuances of academic and professional definitions of S&C. Simplistically, let’s keep it GAA-specific, and very high level.
S&C is a very structured, strategic, body of work that will limit the injury risk to individuals throughout the season; improve acceleration and top speeds; build the stability, explosiveness and mobility to take and evade contact; and most importantly, it aims to ensure that players can repeat these improved physical outputs more often in the 70-plus minutes of a championship encounter.
For me, this makes S&C the biggest enabler of the most important facet in our game: decision-making.
Decision-making in chaotic, invasion sports is key. S&C allows players to make good decisions more often and for longer periods of time. It increases the ability to maintain the required concentration levels while fatigued.
How does S&C differentiate a team along the spectrum from bottom feeders to high-flyers?
Scoring: The shot under intense pressure that drops centimetres short. The team with the greater repeat sprint ability doesn’t take that shot. There is a team-mate appearing off the shoulder, unmarked, to pop over an easy shot. Or there is a late runner arriving to flick a squared hand-pass to the net.
Executing the basics: A huge bug bear of mine, the sloppy hand-pass. from two metres that goes behind a team-mate’s back, forcing him to turn slightly and causes him to lose momentum. All inter-county players can execute this two-metre pass, but they don’t all have the ability to do it after an intense bout of action.
Tackling: Most inter-county players can execute what will meet the eye test of referees for a reasonable tackle. Foot/body position, angles, centres of gravity, timing. Give them all a theory test to complete regarding this on a Monday and there would be straight As all around. Put them through a practical test against team-mates of a similar athletic profile on a Tuesday and Thursday and we are looking at straight As again. Make them do it 10 times on a Sunday against an opponent who is fitter and faster and they will execute it nine times to turn the opponent back. The one time they don’t? Overlap. Goal.
Talking: A good team bring a vocal energy. A level of on-field communication that ensures organisation, clarity and, crucially, confidence. Every team are aware of this. Listen to two teams of similar athletic ability play each other and the decibel levels will match for the 70 minutes. Like explaining why a delayed finish to work meant you had to postpone emptying the dishwasher until after the spare-room training session, the communication becomes less clear when you are exhausted from tracking faster opposition.
Ten minutes of reduced organisation, clarity and confidence can turn a contest into a lopsided, drab affair.
Kick-outs: How many discussions are dominated by how the kick-out success of teams influenced the game. Kick-out No 1 and every team has eight to 10 lads making themselves an option or creating space for their goalkeeper. Kick-out No 15 and the team showing greater fatigue are probably down to four or five capable of involving themselves. Every kick-out lost is one less potential score for you and one more for the opposition.
Tracking runs: Wing-forward pops over a neat score and drifts back into position. The next play develops on the opposite wing allowing him to recover, he hopes. He hopes his marker will not make that support run forward. Two seconds later and he is chasing him back.
He can keep up with him but his two-second lapse from concentration means there is a 10-metre gap that he is not closing. His marker takes a cross-field ball, draws a defender, before popping to the inside forward on the loop. Point.
The 50-minute contest: There is a band of teams that can be competitive with the very best for 50 or so minutes. But unfortunately for them, they gradually peter out. S&C is the driver here again. It is the effort invested from minute zero to 50 in competing at a physical level just too far outside your comfort zone that eventually compounds and catches up on the underdog. They can reach the peaks, but they cannot sustain them for long enough.
The quality and depth of S&C coaches has improved exponentially in the last decade. This is a testament to some of our third-level colleges who are giving talented individuals an opportunity to absorb, research and develop best practice in what is a relatively new science. To get a squad and individuals to their peak levels of S&C is very much like baking a cake. You need all the correct ingredients and it needs the perfect amount of time in the oven, at the perfect temperature.
So how do we prevent collapses? We ensure that every player has access to the correct ingredients (facilities), at the right temperature (coach knowledge) and crucially for those outside the elite, ensure they get the right amount of time in the oven (reduce squad turnover and ensure a best-in-class long-term athlete development plan is in place). There is no reason why, in about five years, we cannot have 32 cakes of similar quality on display in the window of our Gaelic football bakery.
Or, there is no reason why, in about five years, we cannot have Tailteann Cup cakes which are not of the same quality as our Sam Maguire Cup cakes.