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What it Takes to be a Top GAA Player

There is no one thing that will make you a top player. Also, there is no secret. There is however a lot of misinformation out there. I want to kick this article off by giving you the key message. Success comes from the right blend of the various elements, in the right amount, at the right time. What exactly the elements are, how much of each is required, and at what time they are needed is a matter of opinion, and will change from coach to coach. I am going to let you in on the basics of what I think you need.

Training fads come and go, and it can be easy to jump on the wave of ‘the next best thing’. It is equally easy to miss a crucial area of your development, over-train in another area, burn-out, or pick up an unnecessary injury. Based on personal and professional experience over the years, the following are the things that I think are required for you to become the player you want to be.

  1. A skills practice

Both hurling and football (in its male and female incarnations) are skill based games. Therefore you need to practice your skills like any top athlete in any other skill based sport. If you need more convincing about this then go an read the book ‘The Talent Code’ by Daniel Coyle. Alternatively, remember the advice you got from your first ever coach at school or in your club; ‘Carry your hurley/ football everywhere with you, and practice your striking/ catching up against the wall.” They were right. You need to ‘build a skills practice’ which includes the sessions that you do with your team, but crucially, that also includes individual sessions where you can engage in meaningful ‘deep practice’ on the basic skills of the game, and the skills that you need to develop the most. This is something that I have carried with me from childhood, and I still practice my skills alone.

  1. A strength and conditioning program

Yes, our national games are highly skilful games. Yes, they are amateur games. However, our games are evolving, and have changed hugely in the last ten years. There is much to-do about strength and conditioning programs these days with talk of overtraining, too much of a focus on ‘strength and bulk’, and ‘all that gym time causing injuries’, so I am going to lay down my thoughts on this as bluntly as I can in black and white.

If you want to play the game for as long as possible, get the most out of yourself, and come out the other side of your playing career in one piece so that you can hop and skip on to the next phase of your life when you are finished with playing, then strength and conditioning is a crucial and absolutely essential part of the puzzle. Strength and conditioning is not something you dabble in at the start of the season, and then set aside as the league starts. It’s an all year round element of your training that you ignore at your peril. Your strength and conditioning work should vary as the season progresses, and should fit your body like a glove. If you are not feeling the love for your strength and conditioning training, then its probably because you cant see the obvious link between it and becoming a stronger, more powerful player, and the massive improvements that it can bring to you on the field of play. We’re all intelligent people here, and I can tell you that if I struggled to see the link between the hard work, and the benefits that it was going to bring, then I probably would not bother with it either. However, let me explain in brief what exactly should be getting from your S&C program. Your should feel like you have a stronger body, that you are training yourself to be able to run faster, jump higher, recover quicker, take big hits, give big hits, and stay generally in tune with your body so that you know how you are really feeling as the weeks and months go by. Your gym training should have a higher purpose than simply lifting more weight, and should ADD to your capacity, not take away. The wrong amount of gym training, at the wrong time, with a poor program, and bad coaching are all among the key offenders that will cause you to lose your mojo, make you more likely to get injured, and turn you off the gym training. All these negative side effects are enough to turn even the most dedicated player away, but please, get connected with a professional coach, and tap into this essential component of your overall training program.

  1. A system for learning from performances

Honestly, in the formal sense, having a system for consistently learning from performances (games in this case) is still mostly the domain of the professional sports person, the individual athlete, and the top intercounty and club teams. The most common approach is to play the game, cool down a bit, get togged off, and await any little nuggets of feedback from the next team-talk, and/or get a few bits of advice from some family member who was watching the game. If you play well, you might give yourself a pat on the back, and if you play poorly, you might come down hard on yourself.

If you want to get progressively better as a player, and learn from each game, then the approach described above does not cut the mustard. Its time to build a system (i.e. a routine that you can automatically and consistently call upon) so that you can quantify your performance, pick out the strong elements of your performance, identify the weak spots, and take away a couple of meaningful action steps that you can follow through on in the days proceeding the game during your dedicated practice time. This will result in much more consistent progress in the right direction, and give you a focus point to concentrate your training efforts on, instead of simply leaving it to chance whether you learn from each game or not. Over the years, I have developed a neat little system for doing this.

  1. A functioning recovery protocol

I want to keep things simple on this point, but bear the following in mind; You do NOT make the most of your improvement DURING training sessions, but BETWEEN training sessions, when you are recovering. The better you can make your recovery, the more you will improve. You only have a finite amount of time to recover after a training session or match (i.e. before your next session), so you need to make damn sure that you have something in place that will give you a recovery boost between them. What your actual recovery protocol looks like is up to you, and depends on the time you set aside, the setup that you have, and if you actually believe that your recovery is a most important part of the puzzle. Your immediate post training and/or game recovery protocol can be anything from fifteen minutes to an hour long, and at the very least should contain an element of getting the right food into the system, rehydrating, and moving the body. Sleep is also a turbo charger of the recovery process, and you should pay close attention to how much of it you are getting, and the quality of those Z’s!

  1. A plan that works

Much like your recovery protocols is dependant on your individual circumstances, your overall plan is dependant on the structure of your season, your work/ study schedule, the other commitments in your life, your goals, and the most important things that you need to work on as an individual player. Your plan will include the 4 elements described above, but in what amount and at what time is where the expertise of a coach comes in. For me as a coach, designing ‘the plan’ is the equivalent of an artist starting with a blank canvas, and is one of my favourite things to do as a coach. In the S&C word, this is called periodization, and in simple terms it is the roadmap that give you direction and focus on the journey to your overall goal for the season and further afield. Lack of ‘a plan’ can result in all of your efforts in climbing the ladder resulting in you getting to the top, and suddenly realizing that you had the ladder propped up against the wrong wall, and this would be a total bummer as a player.

  1. Nutritional practices that support your efforts

This is not a ‘nutrition article’ so I wont be going in deep here, but all of the above is as useful as a chocolate teapot if you are overlooking your nutrition. The food that you eat, and the liquids that you drink can be the difference between pottering along nicely for yet another season, and smashing through your perceived barriers and achieving more than you though you were capable in your sport . Generally speaking you should focus your efforts on drinking adequate fluids (water) each day; eating mostly whole foods, building daily nutrition habits to fuel your training, performance, and your life in general; having a pre-game nutrition routine; building your post game/ training nutrition protocol; and eating the right amount of foods to boost your recovery and maintain optimal body composition.

This article is by Ainle Ó Cairealláin MSc CSCS.

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