Tuesday 25 June 2019

How sporting success can be traced back to sound athletics roots

Dr Tom Comyns and Gary Ryan know all about the value of speed from their various backgrounds in coaching. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Cathal Dennehy

The thing that stood out about Simon Zebo was his top-end speed, how that kid in the golden vest would rise into full stride and rocket away from his rivals - pace that would one day be utilised on a much grander stage than the Munster Juvenile Athletics Championships.

The thing that stood out about Shane Long was his power, how the stocky kid in the red singlet would explode from the blocks, leaving me and other 12-year-olds trailing before we'd even reached the first hurdle.

Shane Long. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Shane Long. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Almost 20 years on, it's easy to see how such athletic gifts contributed to their sporting success, but back then theirs was a talent that had not just been born - it was also being made.

At Slieveardagh AC in Tipperary, little did Tommy Lyons know that in Long he was honing an agile athlete whose acceleration would one day take him past Premier League defenders. And at Leevale AC in Cork, John Sheehan could never have guessed he was laying foundations for a sprint prodigy who would grow up to become one of rugby's finest wingers.

But this is a story we've seen before, and will see again.

A few years ago, a Fifa-backed study deemed Gareth Bale to be the world's fastest professional footballer after he clocked 36.9 km/h in a game, but when searching for the root of his speed, it's best to look past Real Madrid to Whitchurch High School in Cardiff, where as a teenager Bale did everything from sprinting to triple jumping.

Denis Hickie. Picture credit; Brendan Moran / Sportsfile
Denis Hickie. Picture credit; Brendan Moran / Sportsfile


Just ahead of Bale at Whitchurch was Geraint Thomas, who back then was better known as a middle-distance runner, slowly building the aerobic engine that would one day carry him to Tour de France glory.

Athletics, then, is not so much the end point for a sporting career as a beginning, a platform from which to launch the loftiest of ambitions.

Just ask Gary Ryan, who ran for Ireland at the 1996 and 2000 Olympics before becoming a coach. He was hired as a speed consultant for the Clare hurlers in 2006 and when former Tipperary manager Eamon O'Shea asked him to become Tipp's fitness trainer in 2014, he jumped at the chance to help his native county.

In inter-county training sessions, those with an athletics background quickly become apparent.

Thomas Barr. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Thomas Barr. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

"You can spot them in the first five minutes," said Ryan, speaking at the recent launch of Irish Life Health as an official partner to Athletics Ireland. "If players haven't been exposed to athletics, you could have a 21-year-old who's had 19 years of not being taught to run or who's been taught by someone who doesn't understand technique."

It's a point echoed by Tom Comyns, a former sprinter who was on the Irish 4x100m team with Ryan at the Sydney Olympics. Between 2006 and 2012, Comyns was a speed trainer and strength and conditioning coach with Munster Rugby and these days, along with lecturing in human movement science at UL, he is S&C coach to Thomas Barr. Through his years in professional rugby, he always saw a difference between the athletics haves and have-nots.

"I was working with guys like Paul O'Connell, Marcus Horan, Alan Quinlan, Jerry Flannery and even at the elite level, the sound technical proficiency in speed was often missing. You can try to get someone quick, but if they can't run properly, you're in a losing battle.

"That fundamental sprinting ability - if you have the technique and apply it - you see people progress. Denis Hickie was one of those I worked with in the Irish set-up and he'd been an Irish schools sprinter - you'd clearly see he had those qualities."

In those without that technical proficiency, Comyns and Ryan were playing catch-up, trying to re-train defective motor patterns that had been hard-wired into the brain.

"As you get older, it becomes a default, so you might see improvements in training, but when you go into competition, it'll default back to the original technique," said Comyns.

It can be a complicated fix, one that could be avoided if those across the Irish sporting spectrum had a better start. Whether you blame parents, the PE system, fast food or smartphones, what's clear is the fundamental movement skills of Irish children are in dire straits.

In one study conducted by Dr Sarahjane Belton at DCU, just one adolescent out of 250 was able to successfully execute all nine fundamental movement skills. Running, throwing, catching, hopping, jumping - simple stuff that every child has the potential to master by the age of 13, yet 99 per cent of them don't.

That lack of foundation can be destructive when teenagers transition to sport-specific training.

"The big thing I see is people can't land properly and that puts you more at risk of an ACL [anterior cruciate ligament] injury," said Comyns.

When it comes to improving speed, Ryan has a simple analogy: "The people who improve more are those with better technique. It's like having two engines from a formula one car - putting one in a Lada and another in a car that's aerodynamic. You'll have the same engine, but one will break down and one will win the race. It's about efficiency."

He's biased, naturally, but there's objective truth in Ryan's chosen solution. "Athletics is really accessible, cheap, a sport of opportunity and equality, and that's why it can be a game-changer."

Athletics Ireland has more than doubled its membership over the past decade to 60,500, with juveniles accounting for the majority. But what more can be done?

Comyns would like to see all national governing bodies concentrate more on fundamental movement skills in children, something the GAA and Athletics Ireland have done.

And for parents hoping to foster a love of sport or an active lifestyle in their kids, Comyns recommends doing what he does with his five-year-old daughter: get them going on basic movement skills at home.

"Five or 10 minutes on fundamentals - running, hopping, skipping, jumping and landing - makes a big difference."

Ryan is on the same page, citing how, as he came out of a shop with his two children last month, they lined up unprompted, called out 'on your marks, get set, go,' then took off down the street - unwittingly honing a skill that could take them just about anywhere in sport.

"Athletics is really well placed to be a sport for all and that might be what makes it grow," said Ryan. "It's the most natural thing in the world."

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