Strength and Conditioning in GAA: 3 Essentials

I spent the weekend in my hometown of Belfast helping Naomh Pól CLG mark their 75th anniversary with a strength and conditioning workshop with 23 of the underage and senior coaches. Over the course of an hour and a half, we covered some great ground, and we had some nice discussion and practical demo's and practice of the key aspects of the workshop. Preparing and delivering the workshop got me thinking about our approach to strength and conditioning at club level of the GAA, and in particular within the underage grades as there are some distinct and unique challenges pretty much across the board. So let's set the scene.

Roughly speaking, most GAA clubs at underage are supported and 'staffed' by volunteer coaches that have a passion for the Gaelic games, but probably have little or no strength and conditioning expertise. Even if there is 1 or 2 coaches who DO have the expertise, it is very difficult to implement something across the board with all the other coaches and teams. Its more than likely that equipment is limited to that that can be brought onto the pitch or into the hall, and we can also assume that the whole team needs top be trained within 60-90 minutes in one collective session. You probably have the group together twice per week for training, and one game or match at the weekend. The strength and conditioning work is competing with the skill and tactical elements of the session, making it even more important to be as efficient as possible. With strength and conditioning being based on learning the movements and skills required to train, and having to maintain a good standard of technique within the group, the challenges for the coach(s) to implement something effective, safe, and fun in this environment are very apparent.

Having established the challenges for the coaches, the challenge for ME was to present something that would be useful and effective from the get go, which is exactly what we did. Here are three of the most important things that you can do as a GAA coach to blend effective strength and conditioning work to your setup.

A note on the work 'effective' before we start. I define 'effective' as something that is going to have a positive influence on the individual player, and the group, for the long term as well as the short term. Effective strength training should set the young player up for long term health, a bigger percentage chance of injury free participation, better performance and more enjoyment of the game, and lay the foundation for more advanced strength training down the line. Further, effective means that the strength training is married well in terms of design and timing with the skills work, tactical training, and competitions/ matches. So here are three essentials that you should consider as a coach.

1. Work on your coaching philosophy

Before you work with players/ athletes, you need to work on yourself. Developing a 'coaching philosophy' is one of the most important things that you will do as a coach. It might sound complicated, or even unnecessary, but believe me, as soon as you get a draft coaching philosophy in place you will enjoy your coaching more, you will be clearer on what message you are delivering to your players/ athletes, and those you are coaching will have a clearer sense of purpose. Developing a coaching philosophy is as easy as jotting down the most important things that you want to get across in your coaching, the things you feel are most important, what you value most, and how you want to build the relationships with your players. You can see more about developing a coaching philosophy here.

2. Quality over Quantity

Given the challenges of the underage GAA coach that we have already established, the tendency can be to set up some circuit training, give a quick demo of the exercise, and blow the whistle. 60 seconds at each station, and move on. This in my opinion is a mistake in the typical GAA club setting. The emphasis on quality goes out the window when payers are trying to do as many as possible in a given time, and all the goals established above in the 'effective training' paragraph will not be met. Instead of 10-20 exercises, choose 2-5 exercises that are the most effective, and that are within your ability to coach perfectly in terms of technique. Choosing the 5 or so most effective exercises is a whole other post or workshop, but its what we went through at Naomh Pól at the weekend. We went down the rabbit hole, and both discussed and practiced executing and coaching some of the best possible exercises that will definitely set the players up for long term success, and everything else described in the 'effective training' paragraph if implemented consistently. Which brings me neatly to my next point.

3. Develop for the Long Term

When you are coaching an underage team, you are in a position of immense responsibility. First and foremost, you have up to 35 children under your supervision for a few of hours every week. Secondly, you are probably the person who dictates the majority of each individual child's physical activity for the week. Third, your approach to coaching has the potential to impact the player's personal, profession, and playing career for the rest of their lives. When I started off at Naomh Pól around two decades ago, I had great mentors and coaches in charge of my teams. Seamus McEochaigh, John and Paul Crossey, the great Jim Nelson to name but a few, and many more through the years at county and school levels. I still hear them talking and giving me advice at times! Needless to say, being under the wing of my underage coaches was a very positive experience for me, but it could have been different if there were not all great coaches and mentors. From a strength and conditioning prospective, as a coach, you have an amazing opportunity to teach your players how to train, and how to move, which will give them much more than a bit ofa boost on the field. Of the hundredsof GAA players that I have coached over the years, quality movement is always a huge issue. Players are getting hip surgery, knee surgery, back surgery, and the list goes on. When I train senior players, often we have to start from scratch and retrain the movement patterns that should be the most basic for us as humans. Working with underage players, you have the chance to help them develop and keep these movement skills that will not only make them better players, but reduce the chances of them being struck down in their prime with unnecessary injury. When you think about it this way, its not hard to realise that strength training for young GAA players is not something to test out for a few weeks at the beginning of the season. Its something that needs to be married carefully and effectively with their training all of the time. Developing for the long term means investing time in teaching the techniques, practicing them, and progressing them. Developing for the long term also minimises rushing through technical demos so you can get the session started. If you spend a year teaching techniques, and getting stronger in a few select exercises, and teaching the importance of strength and movement training as part of your overall philosophy as a coach, your players will remember and thank you for many years to come for helping them enjoy the games and develop as players and as people.

This article is by Ainle Ó Cairealláin MSc CSCS.