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The appliance of science

Kerry players are pictured during a squad training session
TRAINING DAYS Kerry players are pictured during a squad training session ahead of the All-Ireland Final two years ago.  Pic: Sportsfile

The appliance of science


PAT Spillane often jokes about the training methods Mick O’Dwyer used with the great Kerry team of the 1970s and 1980s, and the lack of variety in the sessions. “Dwyer would occasionally introduce variety into his sessions,” noted Spillane. “Instead of doing 20 laps around the pitch twice, we might do ten laps once, followed by 30 laps.”
Variety and enjoyment weren’t issues for the Waterville great but O’Dwyer would often point to All-Ireland success as justification for his methods of slugging lap after lap in Killarney.
He was a man of the time though. Those methods would appear to belong to another era. John Morrison, Mayo trainer in 2006, often boasted that none of his sessions were ever the same. Training sessions consisting purely of laps have been replaced at inter-county level by sharper, more concise drills that bear a greater resemblance to match situations … and are enjoyable for the participants too.
Statistics gleaned from actual matches have been used to control the type of session individual players do and much of this is seeping down to club level, particularly among senior clubs. Put simply, information is available now that wasn’t available years ago that will help players and teams work on their specific needs.
A Gaelic Players Association (GPA) report highlights a number of practical statistics that are applied to Gaelic football and hurling training. Current Mayo trainer Jim Kilty, together with Liam Hennessy of the IRFU, were deeply involved in producing this report. It shows that players in the full-back and full-forward lines players make 45-65 runs per game, half-backs and half-forwards make 55-75 runs per game and midfielders usually make 85 runs per game.
These figures should influence the type of training players do. The figures are able to give fairly precise requirements for a given training session, concentrating on shorter spurts rather than long distance. Other figures from the GPA report have a huge bearing too.
On average players change direction over 360 times in a game, meaning the drills that involve running or sprinting in straight lines only scratch the surface of game simulation. Also, in hurling, a player can reach an opponent to challenge for or reach the ball within five steps of their sprint, therefore meaning that only a limited time will involve a player neither tackling for the ball nor in possession.
There are no precise figures in this regard for football yet. But there will be broad similarities, notwithstanding the greater frequency of overlapping runs which naturally involve longer runs without the ball.
Jim Kilty admits that the evolution of sports science and statistics relating to Gaelic games means that it is necessary to switch from the old slog of lap after lap to more modern techniques.
“A study by Newham in 2001 showed that the average Premiership soccer player covers now up to 13.2k in a game. But only 13 runs are flat out and the average distance a player runs is 13.4 metres. If you look at Gaelic games, it’s multi-directional, multi-skilled, physically challenging,” explained Kilty, who is the franchise holder for Speed, Agility, Quickness (SAQ) Ireland, arguing that Newham’s study has a broad carryover with Gaelic games.
The evolution of Gaelic games over the last decade has been a wholesale one. Players are now clearly bigger, stronger and faster on average. Not surprisingly, Ulster teams have been to the fore and new information is being gleaned all the time.
“Northern teams in the early 1990s made the connection between physical strength and Gaelic games rather than stamina and Gaelic games. As a result they went from being a province where only two counties, Down and Cavan, had won the All-Ireland to where they have won seven of the last 15,” said Kilty.
“However, in the last two years, strength is not seen as a huge factor; it’s only seen as a basis. What people are looking for is power, which is strength and speed. You’d have the big, strong man playing at full-forward but the full-back could come at him with a bit of speed and strength – power, and overcome your man’s strength. The three major emphases that have come about are: from stamina to the weights room; from speed endurance to repeatability of speed; and to more use of the ball in training, even in pre-season work.”

MARTIN MCINTYRE would concur with a lot of that analysis. The winter months will see practically all inter-county teams on weights programmes and a lot of clubs are following suit. McIntyre, who is Roscommon minors’ strength and conditioning coach for the second successive year, advises that now is the time of year to be undergoing strength and conditioning work.
“You should be looking at starting this year working on core strength and then gradually moving into power work closer to the season starting. You can mix a little endurance work in with this. Strength and conditioning programmes need an input from the team’s manager. It depends on when he sees as the important stage of the year, be it league or championship or whatever, and thus to tailor the programme in that fashion,” admitted McIntyre, who runs the Sports Injury and Sports Medicine (SISM) Clinic in Castlebar.
McIntyre, who has previously been involved with the strength and conditioning programmes with the Kerry senior team under Pat Flanagan, deals with a lot of sports injuries in his professional work in Castlebar. He is keen to stress that this is the time for anyone with a history of injury to be working to avoid any such instances this year.
“Now is the time for injury prevention and screening of injury. If players have a weakness in a certain muscle that became apparent last year, then now is the time to be working on building it up and adding to the strength. In terms of injury prevention it is important that what’s done at this stage of the year is a gradual re-introduction, not too excessive. What’s important is an introduction at this stage of the year to core stability. That means the strengthening of your middle region, your stomach and your back,” admitted McIntyre, himself a player for the Belmullet Division 1 team.
Jim Kilty trains the Mayo team on Tuesday nights and takes the Dublin-based players on the Thursday night as well as being down west at the weekend. He is glad to see a shift in quantity of training to quality of training.
“I’m a great believer in the hour and a half session with rest here and there. If you have rest at the right time, guys will actually improve. It’s only when you take a rest day that the training you have done actually grows the body,” added Kilty, who also trains European 100m hurdles silver medalist Derval O’Rourke.
Kilty adds that excessive straight line sprinting has little relevance to the modern Gaelic footballer or hurler.
“We now know that players only run in straight lines for 10 per cent of the time in a match so that 90 per cent of the time they are changing direction. It does seem to be better if you can get people to sprint with a few changes of direction.”
Along with his boast about never conducting the same session twice, John Morrison would insist on every drill being performed with the ball. It’s obviously not always practical but should be a target.
“I think it’s very important to be sports-specific in what you are doing. The more skills you can develop while doing endurance work, the better. You should be aiming to do about 80-90 per cent sports-specific work on the training field,” added McIntyre.
It’s a long way removed from pounding lap after lap of the pitch. The appliance of science, and not the slog, is now at the heart of the philosophy of Gaelic games training.

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