'There's no way senior players are burnt out'
Former Tipp hurling star-turned-Premier physio Paddy O'Brien feels inter-county players are treated like 'babies' compared to the past
Having suffered nearly every injury under the sun during his playing days with Toomevara and Tipperary, Paddy O'Brien knows the emotions flying through a player's head when they park up at his physiotherapist's table.
An All-Ireland winner with Tipp in 2001, O'Brien's promising inter-county career was stopped in its tracks by a variety of afflictions - hamstring injuries, back and hip surgeries, shoulder problems, you name it and he has probably had it.
Premier game-time was limited as a result and despite huge success at club level, including two Munster Club SHC titles, his days in blue and gold ended prematurely in 2006. His extensive injury history is certainly being put to good use, however.
Fifteen years after winning Liam MacCarthy on the pitch in the same forward line as Eoin Kelly and Lar Corbett, O'Brien returned to Croke Park as part of Michael Ryan's backroom team as the three-in-a-row-seeking Cats were convincingly put to the sword. But as Tipp's head physio his perspective is far removed from his playing days.
"We don't watch the game," O'Brien says. "Someone said to me after the final that Seamie Callanan got nine points from play, I didn't have a clue because I'm watching back to see where the ball came from and see is there a guy limping or a guy holding his shoulder.
"You're watching a player thinking, 'Is he going to call for me to come on or do I have to go in and see what's happening and make a quick decision?' You can't sit back fold your arms and give your opinion like a hurler on the ditch because you'd miss things that change the game."
The real fruits of labour are seen in his Toomevara clinic where players are assessed in a safe environment and put through their paces on the way to regaining full fitness. All-Ireland finals are anything but that, however, and split-second calls must be made in the heat of battle.
"When everything is ramping up and the lads are going absolutely crazy in the warm-up area, we're inside on our treatment benches just laughing away because we know what's going on. You can't get involved in the hype because then you'd forget what your job is and be fogged in your judgement," he says.
"You have big calls to make and you know the enormity of what's coming, you know the emotions that a player is feeling, you have to remain impartial and remain the rock for the player and the management because you are usually the decision-maker between both.
"If you make a wrong call it could be the loss of a game. If you go with your emotions and say, 'It's an All-Ireland final, I have to let this guy out, he's begging me to go out', it could cost everybody involved. Management are really respectful of our decision and what I say goes every time, it's never questioned.
"I remember back in the day hearing managers disrespect the physio and telling players not to go in there because 'they won't let you play' so thankfully that culture has changed."
With an ex-player's intuition he's well equipped to read a player's body language. Some are in denial, trying to train through the pain barrier so understanding the psychology of injury and its emotional side effects is paramount to recovery.
It's a cruel business but he's learned to be brutally honest from the start. He was fuelled on false hope more than most during his playing career and now some days as he struggles to get his socks on in the morning, he wonders, 'Why did I do that to myself?'
He would change very little, however, with his main regret being that scientific strength and conditioning (S&C) hadn't evolved during his era. His memories were of adhering to a winter cardio programme consisting of "hill running and running laps until you puked" and he doesn't see crippling injury post-retirement hurting the current generation as much as his own contemporaries.
Modern S&C is about "power and injury prevention" and O'Brien scoffs at the notion of burn-out at inter-county level, believing it's more enjoyable than ever "knowing you're in good nick and in the best hands" with players "looked after like babies" in the current system.
DXA scanning, hip, back, core and flexibility screening are just some of O'Brien's responsibilities before the season starts while players are assessed before and during training through groin squeeze tests and counter-movement jumps which indicate whether a player is heading towards the red zone for injury.
O'Brien possesses software to log injury analytics, arrives two hours before training as players buy into prehab work before sessions commence. "If someone needs physio every day they get it," he says, while training is modified when a player is carrying a knock. "There's no way senior inter-county players can be burnt out, they are absolutely immaculately looked after and there's not enough games within the inter-county season to have them burnt out.
"Training is so scientific and they're rested and tested so much that there's no one burnt out.
"There's a lot of science with lads logging in their sleep scores, their training scores and their fatigue scores and anyone that's down in their scores is pulled out and rested. We're so far on and the players are really minded compared to our generation when you were afraid to tell a manager you couldn't train."
O'Brien, whose younger brother John was on Tipp's All-Ireland-winning side in 2010, does have a special interest in the 18-23 age bracket ("The Fitzgibbon Group"), however, and feels selfish managers make them "the only danger group" with regards to over-training.
Off-season surgery, particularly on hip impingements, has become the norm for inter-county players but O'Brien feels it's something unnecessarily "overdone" by those seeking a "quick fix" rather than what's best for their long-term health.
"Why do people go for these scopes? Because they want the quick fix, they're not willing to go through the rehab. They think, 'Oh let's get this scope done, it tidies my hip up' and then they don't adhere to the rehab and the same hip, the same person, they break down again. It's the need to get back on the pitch too quick, not everybody but a lot," he says.
As part of the Premier's 20-plus backroom team, which included two-time Heineken Cup winner Denis Leamy, O'Brien stresses the necessity for all involved and feels Tipp must raise the bar even higher in 2017.
"Are they all needed? Absolutely," he says. "Every time you win something you have to go another level again; if you don't have another gear change or you don't bring in some kind of different element, then it's very hard to sustain it. We have to go look harder than we did last year."
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