Thursday 14 December 2017

Sinead Kissane: Former Ireland athlete has Cork ready to fly from starting blocks

Dave Matthews, the former international middle-distance runner, is hoping to have the Cork footballers up to speed for their clash with Kildare
Dave Matthews, the former international middle-distance runner, is hoping to have the Cork footballers up to speed for their clash with Kildare
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

Dave Matthews always liked the instant impact of trigger words. I'm fast. I'm strong. I'm in the shape of my life. The words were like answers in a rapid fire buzzer round to any sneaky questions in his head about his form as he lined up for a race when he was an athlete.

The buzz words sharpened him up to be ready to go on the b of bang.

He likes using trigger words in his current role as trainer with the Cork senior hurling team.

You're fast. You're strong. You're in the shape of your life.

Sometimes he will have earmarked players he needs to have a few words with. Sometimes he whispers lines to players like "the legs feed the wolf" during a tough training session. But every time he will make sure to speak to every single one of the 30 Cork players at training. Even if it's in the dressing-room beforehand, even if it's just a line or two, he always tries to communicate directly with each one.

Matthews describes his approach as "holistic". It is something he has carried over from his athletics career and from his former coach, the late Noel Carroll. During Matthews' time on scholarship with UCD as an international athlete, I also ran for UCD athletics club. And every time he competed in an inter-varsity event it always gave the rest of us in the club a huge bounce. That's the kind of presence he has. But he also just has a good way with people.

"You need to know what makes a player tick and what makes a player thick," Matthews says. In other words, don't try to piss players off or get their backs up unnecessarily. Matthews admits he has never raised his voice or shouted at players at Cork training. In fact, when he's got a point to make he does the exact opposite and lowers his voice.

But what if a player needs a good old fashioned bollocking?

That's not his style. "Sometimes your voice can be your most dangerous tool," Matthews adds. "You have to use choice words with players."

Strength and conditioning in the GAA got a bit of a bollocking recently when footballer Alan O'Connor and hurler Brian Murphy returned playing with Cork after a season out and slotted seamlessly back into inter-county standards. The debate was fuelled by fitness coach Mike McGurn's assertion that "time is being wasted dicking around on strength and conditioning".

So is time being wasted dicking around on strength and conditioning?

"Hurling is all about the skills and strength and conditioning is second to all of that," Matthews maintains. "One of the biggest problems with athletes in athletics is that they train too easy on their hard days and train too hard on their easy days". In his four seasons as trainer with the Cork hurlers, Matthews only did back-to-back training sessions once with the players. He admits he messed up three years ago when the squad went on a weekend training camp to Fota Island. A week later they were well beaten by Kilkenny in the League. Lesson learned. That was the only time they did consecutive training days.

He doesn't believe in extra sessions for amateur GAA players. His belief is back-boned by the way he developed as an athlete. "When I was 16 years of age, I trained five days a week. At 17, I trained six days, at 18 I trained seven days, at 19 I had 10 training sessions a week. And when I was 22 I had 12 sessions a week as a full-time athlete," Matthews explains. "It took me years to get to those extra sessions."

Former athlete Gary Ryan learned the hard way at times about over-training when he competed for Ireland. As fitness coach with the Tipperary Senior Hurling team, it's something he's very conscious of. "You can't think they're unbreakable. It's counter-productive," Ryan points out. "There are times to be tired and there are times to be fresh - it's getting that balance right."

Ryan believes his background has helped in the GAA because there is so much analysis in athletics. If you want to run 45 seconds in the 400m, you need to know precisely what you've got to do to run 45 seconds. "Athletics is very numbers driven with no guess work," Ryan says. "You break it down into requirements. With Tipperary, I explain what we're doing and why it's going to benefit the player". Tipperary players also take part in POMS - Profile of Mood States - which is a psychological rating scale used to assess mood state. Players fill this out two/three times a week and management also work off those results.


Matthews and Ryan roomed together a few times when they competed for Ireland at major championships. They now share an incredible drive to have the players in the best condition possible. "We understand what tapering is like," Ryan says when it comes to the challenges of peaking a team. Matthews has cut training sessions short with Cork in the past because he felt it would be of more benefit to the players. "A bad coach sticks to the plan. A good coach reacts to what they see," Ryan points out.

It will be 20 years this September since Matthews ran the Irish record for the 800m which still stands. He remembers writing in his diary that the race felt effortless, like hitting the sweet spot.

He hopes they hit the sweet spot when Cork play Galway in the All-Ireland quarter-final at Thurles on Sunday. He will give players certain trigger words as they warm-up to try and get them bubbling at just the right temperature. So they're ready to go on the b of bang.

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