Strength and Conditioning Undermining Gaelic Football?

Recently, Aussie Rules star and Kerryman Tadhg Kennelly suggested (in the Irish Times) that strength and conditioning is undermining the game of Gaelic football. My initial pass at this article raised a certain level of disappointment, and as a coach who was worked both in an Aussie rules and GAA setting, there are a few things that I would like to put on the table as part of this debate.

Comparing rugby and Gaelic football is the first point that needs to be addressed here. Kennelly states:

"One, we don’t need the physicality that they’ve got in rugby in Gaelic football; it’s taking away from the true element of the game…"

On the facts of the matter, Gaelic football players are not morphing into rugby players, and to me, this comparison shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what strength and conditioning is about. Certainly, there are approaches in strength and conditioning that can be put to good use to make athletes put on muscle mass, that will bring extra physicality to any contact sport, but to suggest that this is what strength and conditioning is doing in GAA is misleading. There are so many elements of strength and conditioning that are invaluable to the GAA player, ESPECIALLY considering that our players are amateur. Players need to go to work the day after a game, and therefore deserve to have everything they need at their disposal to help them recover from games, avoid injury, and low them to get the maximal enjoyment from the game.

At any level, injuries are a part of the game, and the player who happens to be misfortunate enough to pick one up will find himself or herself side-lined. The impact of an effective strength and conditioning program is that the number of these injuries is drastically reduced, improving the performance of the team, and keeping the individual players in the game. At intercounty level, I have seen the lowest level of soft tissue injury in 14 years result from an effective S&C program. At club level, aclub we recently worked with at ACLAÍ went from 13 hamstring strains in one season to 1 in the next season. On a very basic level, strength and conditioning can improve the speed, strength, and power of the players. It can also reduce the chances of injury.

Considering that the majority of GAA players (like the result of us), spend long periods of time in a seated position, tightening the hips, means that the strength and conditioning program has extra to contend with. Improving a players quality of movement is most effectively done by strength and mobility training. Key elements to any S&C program.

"So don’t give the ball away by kicking and that’s what’s happening. The number of S&C coaches makes that inevitable. One hundred per cent. "

I don’t understand this statement at all. Strength and conditioning coaches don’t decide the tactics of the game, the style of play, or whether or not a player should kick the ball or not. In fact, you could easily argue the exact opposite point by the same rationale. That strength and conditioning is making players so physical that they should kick more because the weaker player wont be able to contest with the Paul O Connell- like beast in the middle of the park. In reality, neither is true.

Tactics and style of play is decided at a managerial level, and if the hand pass is compromising the kicking in the game, its because team managers want to keep possession. Many Aussie rules teams employ the exact same tactic when they are ahead in a game, or need to regroup. Tactics have changed in Aussie rules over the last couple of decades as managers try to work out ways of outsmarting the opposition, and the same is happening in GAA. This is not the result of the strength and conditioning coach, or even of the increased physicality that comes with better prepared athletes.

"Players are fitter and stronger and what do you do? You don’t give the ball back so you run with it. To run with it you need to be fitter and stronger so they can’t get the ball back off you."

Players ARE fitter and stronger. In just about every sport, players have become better athletes because of breakthroughs in coaching, programming, technology, and more investment of time and money. There is some overlap here with my previous point, but on another level, who wants to be weaker, slower, and less efficient?! Over time, physical and tactical training in the GAA has evolved to be more efficient and more effective in the same way that it has in just about every other sport in the world.

So do I think Strength and Conditioning undermines Gaelic football? No. Do I think there are immediate issues within the usual structures of GAA teams in general that ARE undermining the integrity of the game and the development of our players? Most certainly. Here are three majors;

1. Poor Coaching

Maybe this is where Tadhg Kenelly is getting is wires crossed. There is a monumental difference between a mediocre strength and conditioning coach, a good one, and an expert coach.

"The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires." -William A. Ward

As with ANY profession on the face of planet Earth, there are much fewer top class practitioners/ coaches/ professionals than there are mediocre. There certainly are MANY more courses 'qualifying' coaches in strength and conditioning these days, with the inevitable result of creating an elite band of coaches, and a vastly populated not-so-good band of coaches.

The GAA is moving in the right direction with its improving standards, better resources and investment in the development of players, but invariably, strength and conditioning can often seem like it is overcrowded with the mediocre coaches who 'tell.' This might be part of the transition into the modern era of the dedicated sports person, whether amateur or professional. Make no mistake, the strength and conditioning coach/ staff are among the most important members of any backroom team, ESPECIALLY when the can INSPIRE, and when they are EXPERTS in their fields.

Strength and conditioning is an art form. One of my favourite things to do as a coach is to sit down with a blank canvas and design the interweaving plan that merges strength and conditioning, skills training, tactical training, recovery, and getting into peak shape at the right time. This is where the art of strength and conditioning happens, and an expert coach can make the different elements required for success merge perfectly and complement each other immensely. This type of planning is what makes a team setup SING!

The mentality of putting somone in charge of the S&C because; 'sure yerman has some qualification in fitness' within the GAA is a major problem that needs to be addressed. Either at county or club level, if you want to be successful, then you must seek EXPERTISE, and invest the time and money into getting the expertise required to integrate an effective strength and conditioning program into the overall system, and to get the benefits of reduced injuries, better athletes, and better performance. As they say, if you think the cost of hiring a professional is too much, you should see the cost of hiring an amateur!

2. Lack of Consistency

GAA teams (even at inter-county level) change their minds more often than I have had Sunday dinner. One year they want X-approach, and the next they want Y. Managers change, and coaches are replaced. This should be a normal part of sporting life, but the common problem within the GAA is that with the more-regular-that-usual personnel changes, the whole system of training, playing, and order of business is kicked out the window as well. Personnel should change, but systems should EVOLVE.

In a professional setup strength and conditioning practices are fed through a system that spans from the underage teams, up to the most senior. If a coach is replaced, the new coach invariably carries on with the system that was in place, and might bring something extra to the table. Only if the system is seriously broken is there a wholesale change. In the GAA, we mostly fail to develop a long-term system when it comes to strength and conditioning, and as coaches change, so does the method of training, resulting in a type of Walter Mitty training progression for players, where during one season they are marching to a certain tune, and the next they are marching in a totally different direction, to a totally new tune. No good for the players, or the team. This type of approach drastically retards a players development, and can have a major impact of the progression of the team, and the enjoyment that the players gets from the game. On an individual level, to-ing and fro-ing like this reduces the chances a player have of truly expressing their skills in the game they love, and to me, this is the essence of taking part in our national games. Expression of skill, enjoyment, and achieving together with a group of team-mates.

On a team/ club level, to take an intercounty setup as an example the U14, U16, U18, U21, and Senior teams are most likely to have a tactical and skills coach each, and strength and conditioning coach each (we might not have got as far as S&C for the U14's and U16's yet, but definitely the older teams). Each coach has his own approach, is employed as a kind of independent contractor, and at the end of a year or two is likely to be replaced by the next in line. Having so many individual coaches with so many programs and 'mini-systems' is costly for county boards, and EXTREMELY ineffective when it comes to winning silverware or looking out for the players development and welfare.

3. Failure to plan

You want to know what's undermining our national games? Lack of long term planning, and the long-term development of our players. From the local club to most intercounty teams, there is a lack of planning, and a failure to implement a practical, sustainable, and effective system of physical development from the youth athlete and up. Most of the time when I start working with footballers or hurlers, they have the physical literacy of someone who has never spend a week training correctly in their lives. Yet, many have committed years to going to thegym 2-3 times per week! This comes down to lack of planning the county boards to bring a player through a program of developing, and maintaining a level of physical literacy, strength, and mobility that can support a career in high level amateur sports. The majority of GAA players I deal with cannot squat, lift, or get their arms over their heads properly. These are among the most BASIC HUMAN MOVEMENTS that are absolutely essential to living a healthy life into old age, never mind playing high level sports. So, we have to start from the beginning with a player of 25 years of age, and start to develop these essential patters so that we can bring them onto the next level of development. When a player gets to play senior football or hurling, they should have the physical ability to perform the basic human movement patterns, and have a 'training age' of around ten years, but in reality, most move poorly, and have a training age of next to zero.

Its time for the GAA clubs and teams to streamlining the overall approach to training. They must develop an overall plan that will run through all teams and realise that this is what is required for long term success, player development, and is a much more financially sound way of funding teams than chopping and changing from year to year.

As for strength and conditioning undermining Gaelic football, if you have a the wrong coach in the wrong position, then maybe, but the blame for this lies with whoever has put that coach in there in the first place. Overall, strength and conditioning is an invaluable part of the modern game, and the fruits of an effective program include long term development, injury prevention, the ability of a player to better express their skills and enjoy the game, and improved chance of success for the team.