GAA Coaches: Fitness Testing the Young GAA Player

Fitness testing can be a useful thing to do if you want to measure progress in certain types of training, and when it comes to young GAA players (14-16 years of age), selecting the right tests and assessing progress in them regularly can really help their development as players. However, all ‘fitness tests’ are not created equal, and the big challenge for coaches of young athletes in my opinion is to make sure they are barking up the right tree. Should we even be testing ‘fitness’ as coaches of young GAA players?! Lets take a closer look at what I am talking about here.

Firstly, lets all assume that we have the same end goal in mind as coaches of young athletes; that is to safely further their athletic abilities, and allowing them to see progress on the way to fulfilling their full athletic potential. As a coach, if this (or something very similar) is not the goal, then its probable that the goal is something like ‘improve speed’, or ‘make the players bigger’. In this instance, as a coach, you have already failed.

Aiming to primarily improve speed, size, and/or explosiveness in 14-16 year old athletes is akin to looking at the small picture, whereby you will get small/ marginal gains, and the potential for injury, burnout, and reaching an early ceiling in training gains is massive. In the GAA, where the focus of players training is mostly on developing the skills of the game, and their fitness, we can assume that 14-16 year old players have a next to zero training age when it comes to strength and conditioning, which means the potential for improvement is massive! However, this potential does not lie in getting the players’ bench press value up as high as possible, or getting them performing the Olympic lifts. The potential will be released by focusing on developing their movement skills.

If yourgoal as a coach is similar the goal that I outlined at the beginning, and your focus in on improving the quality of the players movement, you should match your fitness testing and assessments to that goal. My own personal philosophy on fitness testing young athletes is to assess movement quality first, and marry that up with a select few assessments that allow the players or athletes to safely express the power or strength that they currently have. This approach ensures that I am ‘barking up the right tree’ as a coach, and allows the players to have fun and see their progress over time. Keeping the testing sessions simple, and sticking to strict testing and warm up protocols etc. are crucial, but that’s a whole other post. Lets just assume you are consistent and reliable as a fitness tester for now.

As a sample testing battery for 14-16 year old GAA players with no experience in strength and conditioning work, the following would be a suitable battery in my opinion:

  1. Air Squat (assessing the quality of the squat)
  2. Knee to Wall Test
  3. Hip hinge Test
  4. Dowel to Wall Test (shoulder mobility)
  5. Hollow Back Press Up (with Dowel to Back)
  6. Countermovement Jump
  7. 20m Sprint
  8. Level 1 Yo Yo test

Each of these tests serves their own purpose, and comes with their own standards, protocols and delivery of results. I don’t want to make this a lengthy post detailing testing protocols. The main point is that coaches need to make sure the ladder is propped up against the right wall. For young athletes, especially in the GAA, the potential for improvement lies in improving movement quality. This also comes with a host of injury prevention, and long term health benefits as well. It may not be as ‘sexy’ as testing the bench press or back squat, but it will bring results. Furthermore, if you test these elements, you better start training them, and don’t expect the results to come hard and fast. Developing mobility and improving movement skills take time. Lots of time. And the older the athlete, the more time its going to take. Your coach ego needs to take a back seat, and you need to put the long term development of your players center stage. This is a key component to our training philosophy at ACLAÍ, and its why the soft tissue injury rates are so low in our athletes.

This article is not exhaustive, but you wont go far wrong with the testing battery described here. There are other tests that you could implement once the group has matured in terms of their technical ability and strength, and once again, that’s another post for another time.

What fitness tests have you performed with your athletes? Comments, feedback, and discussion are welcome below!

This Article is by ACLAÍ Owner,and Strength and Conditioning Coach, Ainle Ó Cairealláin MSc CSCS