Steelers’ athletic coach set to offer relevant advice to his GAA peers
Norwig to deliver a presentation in latest of ‘Be Ready to Play’ series of webinars
John Norwig, head athletic coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers. “Gaelic football is a bit like soccer in that there’s constant motion so that endurance is a huge part of preventing injury.” Photograph: NFL Photos
The latest in the GAA’s ‘Be Ready to Play’ series of webinars takes place today with sponsors UPMC utilising their Pittsburgh links to bring in the local Steelers’ renowned head athletic coach John Norwig to deliver a presentation, ‘Advice from the NFL to be Ready to Play’.
Norwig was in Croke Park back in 1997 for the pre-season ‘American Bowl,’ to date the only NFL match to be played in Ireland, organised by the late US ambassador to Ireland, Dan Rooney. Norwig is a former AFL Coach of the Year and has 30 years’ experience at the cutting edge of sports science.
Currently in the midst of the draft process, he outlines his message.
“I said to Cathal Cregg [Connacht GAA Games Manager] that I may present on how to prevent some soft tissue injuries or what we’re doing in the National Football League but I don’t think it’s going to be revolutionary for those involved in the webinar.”
His thoughts on the gradual return echo around recent controversies when he explains that there were limitations placed on how quickly the return could happen.
“When I spoke to some of the people affiliated with the GAA they told me that clubs are only coming back. Our league headquarters mandated that we have a graduated process – there were guidelines on how long we could practise and what equipment we could use – and I think it was a good idea because everybody looks for an advantage and everyone wants to win but we have to take care of our athletes.”
In terms of the chasm between the highly commercial world of American professional sport and the GAA’s amateur players, Norwig hits on an aspect that the sports have in common, the desire to prevent injuries.
“One of the things I’m going to mention in my talk is that hamstring injuries are second-only in their time loss to ACLs. In my world not only do you lose a good player when they hurt their hamstring, it’s a big loss financially for the team because they’re paying those players when they’re injured.
“If you don’t have a gradual return – whether from the end of the season to the start of the next one or returning from pandemic quarantine – people are at a greater risk of injury.”
That warning is resonant given the decision of hurling counties to forego a week’s training in order to fit in another fixture, which sees the AHL resuming next weekend.
Speaking generally about his job, the level of detail is extraordinary. In the current combine, which prefaces the annual draft, all the clubs descend on mid-America to run the rule over aspiring NFL stars.
Medical staff, physios and even consultants are on hand to assess, test and ultimately judge but Norwig points out that his role is just one aspect of the process.
“We’re in the middle of the NFL draft. What we do from the medical side is only part of what goes into the draft. We have 15 scouts who go around the country and look at film and players and determine performance-wise what sort of potential they have.
“Then it’s the medical side, the athletic trainers and physicians of 32 teams would in a normal year go to the middle of the country in Indianapolis and bring about 350 athletes and we would do a thorough physical on them, which entails both internal medicine and orthopaedics. We have the opportunity to do any type of specific testing on those players.
“We then take that objective information and give them a subjective grade and we try to predict to the best of our abilities whether these guys are physically fit enough to participate in professional football.
“There’s also a behavioural health assessment where we use psychologists and psychiatrists and in the interviews with our scouts and coaches to decide whether or not these guys can handle that aspect of it.”
In such a clinical and empirical process, is there any room for inspired guess work or the counter-intuitive sense that someone might make it despite initial evidence?
“There’s a lot of hunches that go on. When you judge somebody’s performance level, one man interprets things differently to another. Remember that medicine is not an exact science. It’s an art. Some of the judgements are based on – let’s hope they’re educated – hunches.”
He is familiar with rugby, having through his friendship with Liam Hennessy come to Dublin in the early 2000s as a guest of the IRFU. His knowledge of Gaelic games is more research based – he is particularly impressed by camogie – but he has a good knowledge of the games’ demands.
“Gaelic football is a bit like soccer in that there’s constant motion so that endurance is a huge part of preventing injury. I don’t know precisely what distance athletes are covering but it’s miles over an extended period so it’s important that they regain strength to protect their joints and soft tissue.
“The big difference between my American football and your Gaelic football is that endurance is far more of a factor in Ireland than it is in the US. In between each play there’s a break and a huddle – 35 or 45 seconds. We run an offensive side on and a defensive side off.
“Hurling is an interesting sport. It’s a very physical game, challenging aerobically and anaerobically and then using a stick and a ball. You have to have so much strength and you have to have courage to get around. I’ve watched those games!”