Sunday 15 December 2019

Training camp fires the intense focus of finalists

Training camps are not a new idea, but they are effective

Donegal's use of training camps has brought the squad together, according to manager Jim McGuinness as his side prepare for the All-Ireland Final
Donegal's use of training camps has brought the squad together, according to manager Jim McGuinness as his side prepare for the All-Ireland Final

Damian Lawlor

MOMENTS after Jim McGuinness had masterminded his team's incredible win against Dublin to reach another All-Ireland final, he was asked what his plan had been.

Managers are typically slow to reveal this information, but McGuinness was pretty forthcoming. "Streamlining our game-plan, dissecting theirs, forming tactics, reviewing video analysis and going from there," he offered up. It was only in subsequent interviews with the players that you realised all of those strands were brought together at a five-day training camp in Johnstown House where they laid the foundations for that semi-final win.

"Repetition, repetition, repetition," one player smiled when asked exactly what they did there.

Last weekend, McGuinness was keen to put a sheen on exactly what gains can be made from camps. While most county boards could not afford to send their senior team away on one, never mind three, training camps in a year, the Donegal manager privately sourced the investment for his team whenever they have gone into camp.

Any manager would love to have his troops to hand and it helps the players too for they can compact a 14-hour day into five or six hours' intense work. At home, they are in the gym for 7am to be in work for 8.30. Then they must get a protein shake and nutritious breakfast into them. The majority would work until 4.0 or 5.0, hop in the car and then go training for three hours. The prospect of stuffing steak, chicken and pasta into them at 9.0 is about as appealing as getting back home at 10.0 or 11.0. So if the funds are there, why not make life as easy as you can for everyone? It's like any business plan: once there is an end reward looming, the investment is worth it.

"When you get away for four or five days, then it's like the cream on top of the cake," says one inter-county hurler. "It pulls it all together. The manager can sit down with you and thrash out your exact role, then he can hit the training field and quickly act the play out. It sticks. At training back home the boss could be in demand everywhere he turns.

"The only downside is that in the current climate it's hard to get time off work. For a teacher or a student, it's easier but some of us struggle with taking time off. Our bosses don't really want to know, it can be stressful. But when you get past that, and everyone is together, the camps can be magic. My manager doesn't spend much time worrying about the opposition but we fully tune into our own game. We get the team moving and get to know one another off the field."

While it's easy to conjure up visions of McGuinness and his men in front of TV screens at Johnstown House or Lough Erne, the camps serve to release the pressure valve too. "We would go off our trees otherwise," the hurler expands. "Usually, there's a pool table and we play table tennis too. Others go to their rooms with headphones but mostly we all mingle. Some lads play cards, others might watch a soccer match. The key thing is we wake up the next morning ready for business, eat the right things and kickstart the day in the right vein. Going home there's a sense of having all the work done."

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Weeshie Fogarty's book on Dr Eamonn O'Sullivan shows how far back the policy of bringing teams away to training camps actually goes. O'Sullivan and his Kerry teams were way ahead in how they used to train collectively in Killarney for a few weeks before All-Ireland finals. This was a good 50 years before Joe Kernan and Armagh started going to La Manga for specialised training modules.

O'Sullivan trained the Kingdom to win All-Irelands in 1924, '26, '37, '46 and again in '53, before adding three more titles in '55, '59 and '62. That's a remarkable record, and winning eight titles before losing the ninth final he was involved in.

O'Sullivan encouraged plyometric-type training with skipping ropes, strength training, speed work and intensive drills similar to what is in vogue now. He saw that with the whole squad assembled he could work on their metal strength too.

His camps would often last two weeks and sometimes even three; he liked to spend time balancing hard training with the monitoring of players' diets and encouraging relaxation and spirituality. Daily Mass was compulsory. O'Sullivan felt that while he pushed his players hard, the emphasis on recovery after training and rest was one cog that he couldn't control outside of group sessions, hence his preference to have all of his men 'on site'.

Eventually, the GAA banned the practice after an emotional Congress debate in 1954 because of perceived breaches of the Association's amateur status. Not for the last time, the notion of compensation required for players to engage in such camps would rear its head.

And so the practice disappeared for a while, and it wasn't until Joe Kernan's first year in charge of Armagh that it grew again. Armagh went to La Manga, won an All-Ireland and the trend was reborn. Twelve years on, Kernan's legacy has survived - both of this year's All-Ireland finalists have already been away on camps.

These teams may not have the financial resources of Dublin, but their managers are innovators, with the gift of getting people onside, and they can raise the funds needed either through co-operation with the county board or investment from supporters.

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