Michael Dempsey: Teams probably in better shape than ever this year

Former Kilkenny fitness coach happy to look on from a distance as bizarre season nears endgame

When Paul Earley and the Football Review Committee were analysing the state of football for their first report, which launched nearly exactly eight years ago, one statistic struck him as saying a great deal about the different spectacles provided by football and hurling.

“One of the reasons I believe hurling scores so highly is that there is a contest for the ball every 20 seconds and people love to watch the contest. None of us want to see the ball being moved side-to-side, over-and-back and over-and-back, let’s be honest.”

Such differences go beyond simply style and represent divergent requirements in preparing for the games. A week ago, Waterford hurlers bucked the trend of teams losing on their third successive weekend in action with a dynamic victory over Kilkenny in the All-Ireland semi-final.

Yet this Saturday evening, Cavan footballers play their seventh match in eight weeks against Dublin. Mickey Graham’s team won the Ulster final, playing on a sixth successive weekend.

Michael Dempsey has been involved across both codes. A player and then manager of his own county Laois, he came to prominence in hurling having moved to Kilkenny where his expertise in physical preparation of teams brought him to the attention of Brian Cody, in whose management he served for 15 years until the end of 2019.

During that period he was involved in 11 senior All-Ireland finals and the winning of eight. In his view there are definite contrasts in the preparation for either code.

“Physical demands in hurling and football are probably different. If you look at football you’re looking at an average of nine and a half kilometres distance that a player would cover in a game. In hurling, it’s probably eight to eight and a half - and they’re not the most important efforts.

"You'll probably get some in Gaelic football who will reach kilometre counts of 12. Brian Fenton of Dublin and two or three powerhouses on most teams who you will say are freakish and they're capable of covering greater distances and almost always have a greater impact on the outcome.

“The efforts that really matter in hurling and football are the high-intensity efforts. In football you’re talking about two kilometres at high intensity whereas in hurling it’s around 1200 metres. The ball travels more in hurling whereas in football it’s more about retaining possession.

“There may be a difference in the requirements between the games but in both the high-intensity efforts lead to creating scoring opportunity or preventing the ball going in at the other end. Those efforts are key and there is more specificity in training now; it’s geared to what you actually do in a match whereas before we were probably all doing long runs.

More rucks

“Now with all the data, we prepare for what you will be asked to do in the game.”

He believes that whereas football requires greater athleticism, hurlers need greater physicality to play their game, which partly reflects Earley’s point about the frequency with which the ball has to be contested.

“I’ve been having a debate with football people for years about this. They would always say that football is more physical. I would have argued differently. Again there’s been a huge evolution in football. The tackle is more clearly defined, the standard of refereeing is good and the application of the rules

“In hurling the tackle is harder to define and you have a lot more rucks, fighting for the ball and contact. In football when you go to tackle the ball is normally gone.

"There's already been some work done by Kieran Collins (Director of TUD's Gaelic Sports Research Centre) that tends to the same view that hurling is a more physical game."

It’s a demarcation that may help to explain why Cavan and other football counties that down the years have had gruelling schedules of week-on-week play are able to fuel their efforts by the psychological bounce they get from winning whereas hurling teams are more likely to feel drained by constant activity – even allowing for the Waterford exception.

Dempsey says he doesn’t miss the intercounty involvement but acknowledges that the bizarre nature of the 2020 season has meant that he never has to go to a match. Viewing it all on television adds a certain distance.

“It might be different if I was there in the stand looking down,” he says.

He missed as a result being there for Kilkenny’s thrilling Leinster final win as well as the defeat by Waterford.

He’s sceptical about the universal applicability of something like ‘third-week syndrome’ simply because there are so many moving parts in the task of getting teams ready for big matches and playing championship hurling.

“I’m not sure that’s a purely physical issue. You have to take in to account that the team that’s waiting for you is waiting for you because they performed particularly well and got a break in their schedule on merit. Maybe the form of the team that’s playing a third week in a row hasn’t been great in general and they’ve simply reached the end of the road.

“Obviously injuries can be an influence and also if you’ve been playing for three weeks running, your opposition has the opportunity to analyse you is some detail how you play and who your form players are so they can make plans”.

Best example

In theory one week should be enough but that’s just the physical side of preparation.

“We’re not dealing with robots and I know people are very interested in the hard science and love the data that goes with that but you have to see the player from a more holistic perspective – the psychological, social and emotional aspects.”

This theme of variety and the interconnectedness of preparation is one that he warms to, as it underlines his view that sending out well-resourced and successful teams is as much art as science – judging what an individual as well the collective need and ensuring that both approach matches in optimal form and mood.

“The more I learn, the more I realise I don’t know. When I started out as a young coach you have a black and white view of things because you lack the experience and understanding.

“The older you get the more you realise a sporting performance is multi-factorial and complex – a mix of the players and technical ability, a mix of game sense and tactics and what cements all of that together is the psychological, that ability to stay focused, stick to a game plan and maximise the individual performance.

“Dublin are the best example in any sport that I’ve seen of players being totally empowered to go out and get the best out of themselves and problem-solve as they go. They’re exceptional but illustrate how it’s pointless to get carried away with one aspect of the mix.”

Dempsey is struck by how careful and thorough teams have been in negotiating a way through the pandemic but also thinks it has bequeathed an unexpected positive.

“We’ve probably had the longest pre-season in the history of the GAA, which has given panels who’ve handled it well time to get into great shape and sort out any long-running injuries.

“Going into this year’s championship, teams have probably been in better shape than ever. That’s given more time than usual to focus on tactics and getting the mentality right.”

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