Coaching in Gaelic games increasingly focused on mobility and speed
Dietary expertise used in tandem with technology means players enjoy extended careers
Clare strength and conditioning coach Joe O’Connor goes through a warm-up drill with the players prior to the senior championship semi-final at Semple Stadium, in 2014. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Impho
Taking a break: All-Ireland football champions Dublin enjoy some homecoming pizza in 2011. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
It’s 60 years ago since the GAA introduced a ban on collective training of inter-county teams. It felt the practice reeked of professionalism. The ban only lasted a year, however. Shackling payment of players in the organisation’s sports is one thing; reigning in the drive to win (and its mad scientists) is something different, it seems.
Kerry’s training camp in the run up to the 1955 All-Ireland Gaelic football final is instructive. The day unfolded with military precision: a brisk walk before mass, light breakfast, training session out on the pitch, lunch, followed by an afternoon training session. This regime went on for seven days a week until the Wednesday before the final – Dr Eamonn O’Sullivan, Kerry’s fitness guru, even built in a tapering-off element to his model. It had all the hallmarks of a modern outfit. Plus ça change.
Players’ attitude to diet is one area that has markedly transformed in recent times. Gone are the days when a player’s mother might push extra trifle on him the day he’s lining out in the final up the road at Croke Park, as happened to Dublin’s Kevin Moran in 1976 because, as he later said: “I’m playing in the All-Ireland final!”
Jamesie O’Connor toiled on “the hill in Shannon”, the base for Clare’s infamous winter endurance training sessions during the mid 1990s. The hill was seen as revolutionary at the time, as much for the type of animal it bred as for the extra kick it gave hurlers in the last 10 minutes of a championship match in summer. When it came to refuelling, though, they ate like kids on a school tour.
“I was speaking to Jim McInerney, who played with us in [winning the All-Ireland in] ’95 while coming to the end of his career. Jim’s son David is obviously with the Clare seniors now. Jim thinks we trained every bit as hard as the current seniors do. He thinks the biggest change is the diet and nutrition side of it. He sees David with a fridge full of pasta and chicken at home. Whereas we were going around to a diner in Ennis called The Sherwood Inn after training, and you were getting your ice-cream cones and drinking Fanta!”
O’Connor adds that he reckons players today train “a bit smarter” than in his day, too. He cites a regret that Ger Loughnane overtrained the Clare hurlers in his last year as manager in 2000, doing 30 training sessions in the six-week run-up to their first-round Munster championship clash with Tipperary. The team was empty – one player was a stone under his fighting weight for the match – and overrun by nine points. Their season, in the days before the qualifiers, had ended in June.
In addition to work commitments and the on- and off-field drama of several long seasons with Loughnane’s Clare, O’Connor and his Doora-Barefield club-mates, Seánie McMahon and Ollie Baker, contested All-Ireland club championship finals in ’99 and March 2000.
“I was just sick of it as March-April 2000 came around,” he says. “I remember Loughnane called myself, Seánie and Ollie out to a meeting in Crusheen. I just needed a break from it, to get off the treadmill. I was convinced he was going to say, ‘We’ll give ye a couple of weeks off and re
charge the batteries.’ It was the other way – that we’d ‘gone soft. It was all in our heads.’ I thought it was nonsense. Rest is as important as anything else.”
It is a difficult balancing act. At one point during the 2011 season, Cork’s dual star, Aidan Walsh, was involved with 19 different teams, and this was before Jimmy Barry-Murphy managed to coax him on to Cork’s senior hurling panel. Cork’s hurling selectors were so concerned recently that the team’s marksman Pat Horgan was overcooking himself that they detailed a spy to report sightings of him on Glen Rovers’ field and ball alley.
The nutritionist Ruth Kilcalwey, who looks after Mayo’s senior footballers and Galway’s senior hurlers, offers some insight into what happens the body when it is at risk from overtraining. “If somebody is running on empty at this time of year, what will happen is that an athlete’s dietary energy will be directed into locomotion – the energy they need to move around in training, and they’ll sacrifice the other systems in the body; for example, their immune system, their bone health, their concentration levels, their digestive system. All these systems will be in danger of illness. We’d have ways of monitoring levels of muscle breakdown, which is an indication of running on empty.”
Kilcawley also explains why top-level athletes are at greater risk of infection at the very moment their bodies are ultra-fit. “There is an immunity window where they are more susceptible to infection after training. They’re in environments where there are a lot of bacteria in changing rooms and they’re travelling together on buses. They also breath more – they are literally taking in more air than the rest of us because they’re breathing more in a session so they’re more at risk from any airborne infections.
“As the season progresses, stress plays a big role. The difficulty with a GAA player is they have to maintain work, relationships, life, as well as heavy training sessions and lack of sleep. When I worked with Connaught Rugby, the players could go home for a little sleep after their morning session.
“GAA players’ carbohydrate intake at this time of year would be higher in the days running up to a match and lower on their rest days. They also take a small amount of supplements – carbohydrate-containing sports drink like Lucozade Sport or a protein shake, and vitamin and mineral supplements, for example, iron supplements.
“We know that people who run a lot can tend to be more at risk of iron deficiency anaemia for two reasons – an increase internally in loss of blood through the jingling and jangling of running and also the foot strike. When the foot strikes the ground, it affects red blood cells that are being circulated through the foot at the time. They’ll get fatigued earlier on exertion. They’ll feel dizzy and weak, and this can happen at just sub-optimal iron levels.”
Mike McGurn, who worked as Eddie O’Sullivan’s strength-and-conditioning coach for the Irish rugby team, and recently with the Armagh Gaelic footballers, notices that inter-county Gaelic football teams have moved away from an obsession with bodybuilding weights. “They’ve figured out that you don’t have to be big to be a Gaelic footballer. You have to be very mobile, explosive and quick
. . . The other thing that has had a massive impact on how we train teams is the black card. It has reduced physical contact by 50 to 60 per cent in Gaelic football. Smart coaches realise that they don’t need their players as big and bulky as they would have been five, six years ago. You can’t rugby tackle or shoulder-charge players any more. Players are a bit leaner . . . They need to be more dynamic.”
When it comes to one of the distinguishing traits of top players – their change of pace off the mark, Ross Dunphy, the Dublin hurlers’ strength-and-conditioning coach, says speed-work training has to have built-in breaks to be effective.
“Old school, you would have had trainers dogging the players – ‘repeatability, repeatability,’ with little time for recovery. That has changed. For the body to have complete replenishment, you need a certain amount of recovery time so you can go maximally again.
“If you go down and watch an athletics session in Santry or the track in UL, this year or in two or three years’ time, you’ll see the same warm-up. For sprinters, you’ll see not quite standing around, but recovery periods, and you’ll say, ‘Jeez, they haven’t done much in that session. Are they doing any work at all?’
“There’s no point in me going out with the hurlers, and saying, ‘I want you to do that 20m sprint’ if the players are at 90 per cent. You’re not training . . . to get faster that way. You have to train fast to be fast.”
Gaelic games – like other sports – have become enthralled to technology gizmos over the last few years, including GPS tracking devices for monitoring players’ performance. The Clare hurlers log information daily into a WhatsApp application, including diet and sleep patterns. According to the sportswriter Christy O’Connor, a rival inter-county player who attends college with some of them privately wonders what’s the point of it; that they never seemed to be able to switch off.
“There are hundreds of pieces of technology which you could potentially use,” says Martin Kennedy, the Dublin Gaelic footballers’ athletic development coach. “I could go on all day, but it really comes down to what you do with the information. There’s the device, the data, and the so what? You have to justify the point in collecting all this data. If there is a point, you need to have a strategy to give appropriate feedback to both the players and the management.”
Former Kilkenny hurling star
Eddie Brennan says that one of the big changes he noticed over the span of his career was that players nowadays maintain their fitness levels year-round.
“There’s no time of year when players tend to let themselves go. Yeah – in their downtime, they’ll go out and have their few nights out. They’ll eat the food that you can’t eat during the summer, but by and large you don’t see these fellas carrying big potbellies and weight when they come back at the start of the year . . . they’re not going to the gym because they feel they have to; they’re going because they probably enjoy going, and they see the benefits of it when they go back in January.
“Even after winning an All-Ireland in 2011, the vast majority of Kilkenny’s players had not let themselves go in the period where they were off from September to Christmas. Particularly with the older fellas on the panel, I noticed Tommy Walsh’s fitness . . . hadn’t dipped. I remember there was a fitness test done in December 2011, and his fitness levels were the exact same as in February 2011.”
Not every county has its players on such an even keel. Loughnane scoffed at Offaly’s hurlers last February, saying they were living in the dark ages when it came to conditioning: “They’re the only team in the modern era where you still see players with fat legs, bellies and arses.”
In defence of the likes of Offaly, its county board labours with an annual income about a quarter the size of its counterparts in Dublin, Kilkenny and Tipperary whose teams can call on the food-and-fitness know-how of extensive back-room teams. It often takes money to eat at the top table. Dietary diary of a top player prior to the All-Ireland final MONDAY Because it’s the week of a match, our training will be very light. On Monday evening, we’ll have a weights session, which will be optional. It will be explosive stuff, lifting light weights really fast. We’ll do very low reps, about three or four reps per set, with a long gap between sets - about three or four minutes to give the body time to recover. I might have a protein shake afterwards.
I’ll have my lunch that day, and a snack an hour or two before the weights session. I might have a cup of coffee too just before it to give me a bit of jolt. You’d be tired after the day’s work.
The week of a match, our nutritionist doesn’t want us eating loads of carbs – potatoes, bread, pasta, noodles, rice – because we might overeat and put on a bit of body fat. We can eat as much protein – meat, chicken, tuna, eggs – as we want because our bodies don’t store any excess fat. It either burns it off or we get rid of it when we go to the bathroom. And we eat lots of fruit and veg. If we are eating carbs, it’s slow-release like porridge, nothing high sugary. We might have a little bit of carbs on Tuesday or Thursday so we have energy for the pitch sessions.
We’re eating like a normal person during the week because we don’t have to eat the enormous amounts we would earlier in the season when we were burning lots of energy, and lifting lots of weights. TUESDAY We’ll have a collective training session. This includes a warm-up, kick passing, shooting at the posts because I’m a forward and a short, intense match. We’ll do some sprinting in pairs also. You might have to wait for the signal from the coach to go left or right or go back. It’s nothing too taxing because the management wants us flying on the day of the game.
WEDNESDAY Mid-week, we’ll have a weights session, but this will again be optional.
THURSDAY On Thursday, we’ll have a collective training session again. This entails a warm-up, working on flexibility, limbering up, ball handling and kicking drills. And then we’ll have a short conditioning game.
FRIDAY This is a rest day, as we’ll be travelling to Dublin the next day. We’ll start to increase our carbohydrate intake – bread, pasta, spuds, stuff like that – in the run-up to the match because we burn up muscle carbohydrate very quickly from all the running during a game. We put it in the bank from 48 hours beforehand and then we can take it out on the day of the match. SATURDAY On Saturday, we’ll have a high-carb lunch in a hotel half an hour before hitting out for Dublin. On the way, we’d be given sandwiches or “goodie bags” (yoghurt, banana, a cereal bar). They basically keep us eating like prize cattle!
We’d be hydrating as well. We’d only drink Lucozade Sport around training, before, during and after. We’re told to never drink it any other time, and only for pitch sessions because we wouldn’t burn it off during weights sessions unless it was a really heavy one early in the year.
In the run-up to a game, though, we’re advised to start drinking Lucozade Sport because it’s very high in sugar. If you try and get all the food into yourself – the pasta and potatoes – it’ll fill you up. You’ll feel bloated, but if we get the carbs through drinks – water and sugar basically – it’ll go through your system very quickly. It’ll take out the carbohydrates, the sugars from the drink, and we’ll pee out the excess. It allows us to get more carbohydrate into our muscles without filling the body up with fiber, fat and protein, which would reduce your appetite.
Our nutritionist will give out Dioralyte at dinner, which is something you’d normally take if you have diarrhoea – salt and sugar in a sachet basically. We’d drink it with some water while we’re watching TV back in the room. SUNDAY A lot of players – club players for example – are under the misconception they must eat on the day for the match, but you eat for the game a day or two days before. You want to get all the food in and then give the body enough time to break it down and get rid of anything you don’t want.
For breakfast, we’d have a selection of scrambled eggs, beans, toast, yoghurt, fruit, Weetabix, muesli, cereal.
The morning of the game, the nutritionist gives us a container, which we have to fill before or after breakfast, for hydration testing. It’s not any fault of the players because we’re really careful with our fuel intake, but sometimes depending on the hotel we’re staying in, the hotel can be very warm, and you could sweat a lot at night. The odd player might be a little dehydrated because he’s sick or recovering from a flu or cold. It’s just an insurance policy. If necessary then, you’d get some Dioralyte and make sure to drink enough water.
We have lunch three hours before throw-in, which is usually chicken, pasta, a bit of tomato sauce, and vegetables, a bit of broccoli maybe. I’m so sick of pasta and chicken that when I retire I’m never going to touch them again!