Speed is the winning ingredient for Tipp sprint coach
Shane McCormack: ‘If you can find 10 one per cents that’s 10 per cent come All-Ireland final day’
Sprinter Phil Healy and coach Shane McCormack. “With Phil Healy I’m looking at the hundredths of a second. With the hurler it’s not as specific as that. I was essentially tasked to make them faster.” Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Shane McCormack is sitting in a departure lounge in Dublin airport when his phone rings. It’s an unknown number, and he doesn’t answer right away. He’s about to fly to Glasgow for the European Indoor Athletics Championships alongside his prized sprinter Phil Healy, so the call better be important.
“Hello, is that Shane? This is Liam Sheedy.”
Okay. They’d never met or spoken before. He knew Sheedy wasn’t long back as Tipperary hurling manager, and had no idea where that phone call would lead.
Fast forward six months, and McCormack is sitting at the front of the Cusack Stand in Croke Park as Tipperary hurling captain Séamus Callanan is delivering his All-Ireland winning speech. Not long down the line he hears something important. “And thanks to our sprint coach Shane McCormack.”
What happened in the six months in between is that McCormack added to Tipperary’s “one per cents”, as he puts himself, another small piece in Sheedy’s big picture that was beautifully completed with Sunday’s victory over Kilkenny.
He also added to that increasingly new (or old) association between athletics and the GAA, which may feel like a perfectly historical fit only it isn’t without some danger. Now read on.
McCormack actually comes from a Gaelic football background with the Clonard club in Wexford, before drifting more into athletics. Sprint coaching is now his passion, based out of Waterford IT athletics club in an amateur sense: his day job is director of IT at Sun Life.
Healy first linked up with McCormack in 2014, describing him as “the mastermind” behind her becoming Ireland’s fastest woman. Last summer she lowered the 100m record to 11.28 and 200m record to 22.99 – the first woman in 40 years to hold both sprint records at the same time. This is what interested Sheedy. He didn’t return as Tipperary manager after eight years to make up the numbers, although he was looking to make up some extra per cents.
“With Liam you could see immediately how he operates,” McCormack tells me on the phone this week. “They’d already been back a few months, and he wanted to drop in a bit more speed, and cleverly worked it into the programme. Because that’s still the basis of all sport. Speed kills, speed wins.
“They already had a fantastic strength and conditioning coach in Cairbre Ó Cairealláin, who brought a great all-round perspective, and his selectors and coaches, Tommy Dunne, Eamon O’Shea and Darragh Egan were all very progressive, all very advanced.
“What Liam wanted to find then was those extra one per cents. If you can find 10 one per cents, that’s 10 per cent come All-Ireland final day. Liam was intelligent enough to put aside a certain amount of time to get everybody faster. And just by doing that they got faster, not only because of what I did. I was just another one per-center, maybe even less.”
Or maybe more: anyone watching Tipperary on Sunday will have been impressed by their speed, and in truth that includes McCormack. The pace at which Callanan steps away for his goal; the pure swiftness of Niall O’Meara’s turn for his goal; the amount of ground covered by Séamus Kennedy; and maybe fastest of all, Cathal Barrett’s counter-attacks from defence, especially when finding himself the extra man.
For McCormack this is simply tapping into potential that’s already there. “With Phil Healy I’m looking at the hundredths of a second. With the hurler it’s not as specific as that. I was essentially tasked to make them faster, in a shorter window, and looked at it three ways. It had to impact them in a positive way, it had to be simple to work with it, and it has to ensure they didn’t get injured.
“A lot of it is also going with how they hurl. We look at it as bold or audacious, but to me it’s actually magic, which might sound silly, but it’s keeping with that sense. You watch them hurl, and you realise these guys are already thinking fast, it’s already in their neurology. It’s about connecting how they hurl with how they run without over-complicating the biomechanics.
“Because these guys were so talented anyway, so well conditioned, it’s a far easier job. And they are athletes. You could take the top 5 per cent from any county panel, and they’d make it in the short sprints, up to 800m maybe. So it was simple mechanics to get them running in the right position.
“Look at any field sport, it’s what you do with your first step, and the angle of the foot, like coming out of the starting blocks. If you don’t get that right you’re going to disrupt the whole acceleration process. It’s a little different in hurling, with the standing start, and jumping, but it boils down to the same physics, and you build it from there.”
The end result, like any good coaching practice, speaks for itself, and it’s inevitable that more GAA teams will look for that extra one per cent with a designated athletics coach.
That association is increasing all the while: former Irish 100m record holder and two-time Olympian Gary Ryan previously worked as Tipperary fitness trainer, and David Matthews, still the Irish 800m record holder, held the same role with the Cork hurlers under Jimmy Barry-Murphy.
Former Irish 10,000m champion Noel Richardson has also acted as fitness coach with the Kilkenny hurlers; former athlete Joe O’Connor working with Clare and now Limerick. John Coghlan, who started out solely as a sprints coach, is now full time with Meath GAA.
McCormack is slightly worried by all this, not because he has any intention of abandoning athletics for the GAA, but feels others already are.
“Someone actually said to me I sold out to the devil, as if I was giving up on athletics, and I know some people have no time for any connection between the GAA and athletics, which makes no sense either.
“Athletics is a way harder sport, no doubt about that. And you don’t always get the same sense of belonging as the GAA club, so anything we can do to make that easier for the athlete, and coach, we should be looking at.
“There may be an increasing role for the athletics coach in the GAA, and if it’s done the right way, with say a GAA athletics liaison officer, it can support both sports, to co-ordinate the services, give it some structure.
“Sports are cohabiting anyway, the GAA was partly founded as an athletics association, and I think there is room for the two sports to coexist again, make more gains for everybody.”
There’s another lesson in there, and McCormack is only a phone call away.