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Coaches from other sports are all the rage in the GAA, writes Damian Lawlor, but are teams benefiting?
I n Crossmaglen today, an Olympic boxing gold medallist, a top sports psychologist, an Olympic canoeist and an internationally renowned rugby fitness trainer will be on the sidelines for Armagh's league clash with Westmeath. Welcome to the modern world of the GAA.
This scene will be replicated at other venues too as a host of inter-county teams seek experts from outside the parameters of Gaelic football and hurling. Renowned athletics gurus like Jim Kilty and Dave Mahedy have long since revolutionised the way GAA teams prepare, but there is a rapidly growing inclination to look even further outside the box for proficiency.
Which brings us back to Crossmaglen, back to today's game. Westmeath's masseur is Michael Carruth, who was also brought in to help with the team's conditioning. And if the mere presence of a former Olympic champion in the dressing room isn't enough to lift the players then there's also team manager Brendan Hackett, an established sports psychologist who has worked with the Irish team at the last four Olympics.
And while canoeist Eoin Rheinisch might not be able to break his busy schedule to make it to Crossmaglen, he'll be keen to see how they fare after his work in developing their fitness programme.
Meanwhile, Mike McGurn will take up residency in the Armagh dug-out. The fitness coach of leading Welsh rugby side Ospreys, McGurn has also played a key part in some of Irish rugby's greatest moments over the past decade.
Elsewhere, the Clare hurlers have introduced Shannon star Fiach O'Loughlin as their physical trainer for the year. And only lately Mick O'Dwyer's Wicklow players held a day-long clinic with former cross-country star Catherina McKiernan. Cork footballers haven't been left behind either. They recently enjoyed the benefits of a session with triple Major winner Pádraig Harrington
"A lot of people have lost the plot," says Gaelic football analyst Martin McHugh. "Counties do all these fancy things but are they producing skilful players? Do you see the likes of Kerry and Kilkenny going down this road? No, they focus on producing home-grown, skilful talent, players who can put the ball over the bar. It's not just the fitness and backroom side of things. In regard to the whole landscape, I think we've completely lost the run of ourselves and it's putting a strain on county boards too."
And yet there's no disguising that the days of countless lap running, the obsession with gyms and weights, mountain and Crusheen-like hill torture sessions are numbered. Instead counties are looking elsewhere for a conditioning edge. Looking to the outside is the latest craze. "I'm not surprised to see teams going that way," says McGurn, who also trained Sean Boylan's Irish side to their most recent international rules victory against Australia.
"The reality is the GAA has become so modern in their dealings that teams are now looking for every extra inch. We've all heard the horror stories of players being flogged and I think most people want to forget them. What they're looking for now is a level of expertise in strength and conditioning and that's why they are looking outside the box."
Fiach O'Loughlin came to prominence after training the Cratloe hurlers to a county title last year and is now playing a similar role with the Clare team.
"Fiach looks after the physical side of things and he has a lot of new ideas, including explosive reactions in the first five-10 yards and specific drills for that," explains Clare selector Danny Chaplin.
"Even now the game is changing a lot. You have way more contact on the physical side and you have to work on shouldering and body work a lot more.
"We take the skills and tactics but Fiach has the expertise in gym programming and the players are very happy with him. He's not flogging the lads and they're looking forward to his sessions and not burnt out after a short time."
It's most likely an entirely different approach to the one taken by their most recent manager, Mike McNamara, who liked to push teams with heavy-duty, long-distance runs. But while O'Loughlin focuses on his own approach, his namesake and team manager, Ger, looks after the playing side of things.
"The message is simple," says McGurn. "If you're there as a fitness or conditioning trainer, stick to that. Don't try to be a coach. The opposite also applies. People should not be interfering in areas that they have no knowledge of."
It doesn't lessen their impact. In fact, since joining the Armagh team, McGurn has identified plenty of areas where he can help players improve. "Firstly, GAA players don't need muscle mass, they don't need to get any bigger," he says. "Over the years I've seen Gaelic footballers in the gym bench pressing, arm curling and shoulder pressing. What a waste of time. It gives no performance enhancement whatsoever.
"They need to work on getting the lower body stronger, becoming faster and more aggressive. Look at last year's All-Ireland final -- Cork were by far the better conditioned team, but Kerry were more skilful and that's what won them the game. So I agree when people say not enough training is done with the ball and I like to work with the ball most of the time. You want strong legs and core but you really need to practice the skills of the game. You could bench press 200k and squat 1,000k, but if you can't put the ball over the bar it's pointless. Maybe Gaelic football has gone too far down the route of conditioning and forgetting about the basics: can you tackle, can you kick, can you pass, and can you shoot? It's a very simple game that's complicated by coaches.
"My approach to training GAA teams is to do no more than 42-minute sessions with the ball when possible. Less is more; teams can bring in outside experts all they like but the players must be able to put the ball between the sticks."
While McGurn acknowledges that it's great to see GAA teams tapping into so many different sporting disciplines, he says the players are still the only guys who matter.
"Skill is king and it's all about the players, we're just facilitators," he insists. "That said, coming back to the GAA has been very refreshing for me. The Armagh lads are very receptive and it's like when I started with the Irish rugby team; they're dead keen for a new approach." And though the GAA might cringe at the idea, maybe the powers-that-be should consult experts like McGurn to make adjustments to their moratorium on winter training.
"That situation is similar to when you had provincial rugby players playing for Munster and Ireland," he recalls. "We went around to the provinces, asked them, 'how long is the training for, when do you need him by?' Come to an agreement and put the player in the middle. It's got to be athlete-centred. It can't be club-centred or county-centred. The GAA are missing the point.
"If you train for two hours, you're going to get burned out. If you're doing two 45-minute sessions a week you won't burn out ever. Clubs and teams also have got to talk. If you've got a player who is playing colleges, club and county, coaches should get around and say, 'You're the player, what's best for you'."
The Fermanagh native feels the next step in GAA training will be a subtle move away from traditional drills and towards game scenarios. For instance, he spent 45 minutes last week working with Armagh midfielder Charlie Vernon solely on making 'marks' ahead of their league opener with Meath.
"I like game management where you put yourself in a situation as it happens in a match. Can you break a tackle and put the ball over the bar? Can you stop a player coming through at speed? Can you field a high ball in the air? I can see us being more about game management than drills in the future."
The old school may baulk at the notion but with the trend of looking outside for help gathering momentum, change will continue to be the order of the day.