It’s a key component of all team-sports.
And it’s commonly misunderstood.
When we think about speed for gaelic games, we often focus solely on the physical component. We also have a bias to think about straight-line sprinting.
We think about an attacker breaking the line, soloing towards the goal and sticking the ball in the back of the net. Or we may think of a defender tracking back to make a game-changing block. However, speed in the GAA, or any other team-sport for that matter, is not solely linear.
When we think about speed it is important that we give a complete overview of the sport. In football and hurling it is not only the speed of the body that is important, but the speed of the mind as well. Even the sceptics amongst us, who believe that there is no point in training our GAA athletes to reach higher top speeds, would not argue with us that making the correct decision and executing the necessary skill, as quickly as possible, is one of the most advantageous aspects of performance in sport.
So, we must be able to perceive what is happening in our environment and react with the “correct” response for the given scenario. This is the whole goal of training for gaelic games. We expose the athletes to scenarios and patterns that may happen in the game, to prepare them as best we can to execute effectively when it really matters.
Over time we will increase the intensity and speed of these drills and games, to continually challenge the athlete to reach new heights in relation to their performance.
So as we stress the psychological aspects of the sport, we also stress the physical. As athletes are pushed to react quicker and with more accuracy time and time again, their bodies are stressed to move at higher speeds and with higher levels of accuracy as well.
So, it is fair to say that having the physical side of the athlete’s performance developed to the same level as the technical, tactical and psychological, is of benefit to the athlete themselves and to the whole team. The body must be able to keep up with the mind. We’ve all seen the case of the veteran player, who still has the mental ability to perform at senior level, but whose body just can’t keep up with the youngsters on the field of play.
When it comes to strength and conditioning, we typically break our training down into developing the many aspects of the sport in question. We “reverse engineer” our sport. That is, we break it down into it’s component parts, before improving each of them, to put it back together again at a higher level of functioning than previously.
To use an analogy, we take the motor out of the tractor, take it apart, repair or upgrade the various component parts that need improvement, before putting it back together again to take on any road, hill or ditch that comes in its way.
As performance coaches, we are usually primarily focused on the physical aspects of the sport. We let the bainisteoir and selectors look after the technical and tactical aspects of game-play.
So, when we break down the physical components of GAA, we may break it down into the following physical qualities. Speed, Agility, Strength, Power & Conditioning. Over the course of a season, we need to improve every aspect. However, we will place more emphasis on the importance of developing some at different stages.
So during the off-season, what typically happens is players either go one way or the other. They completely fall off the wagon, head to the local every weekend and the kebab shop or Supermacs on alternate evenings. Or, they decide that next season they’re going to come back in better shape than last year and really put a stamp on the county championship to deliver a medal to the parish.
However, the latter athlete will typically decide to start running the roads, going to the gym and forgoing the temptation of nights out, as they look to get their body in order. What they typically neglect is actually getting up to the field to work on their speed, change of direction/agility and ball-skills. I believe that this is a big mistake.
Now, I know what will be said about being “sick of it”, and wanting a “break from the sport”. I’m well aware of the dangers of burnout, from both a coaching and athletic perspective. However, the reason we play the game is because we love it. We love the thrill of beating our man to the ball. We love the rush of emotion after slaloming through the defence to stick it in the roof of the net. We love the cheer of the crowd when we chase back to dispossess the county star in transition. So, if we love it so much, then it shouldn’t be something that we see as a chore. It should be something that we “get” to do. Not something that we “have” to do.
If you need a break from the sport, by all means take it, but maybe you should be looking at why you’ve begun to feel this way in the first place. Address what aspect of your life you’ve been neglecting and come back ready to become the best version of yourself if that grá for the GAA hopefully comes back. When you do return, make sure you haven’t neglected the physical aspects of the sport so much that you struggle to get back in the side and tolerate the training load. We want you to thrive, not to survive.
Now, if we look at each of the physical components of gaelic games that I outlined above, it’s clear which ones are typically addressed in the off-season and which are neglected. However, it’s also clear which drop-off most quickly when not trained. Sure, given that there are no team-training sessions for the foreseeable future, it’s easier for us to look to improve our strength, power and conditioning. And I’ll never knock anyone for completing a general training program during the off-season. But don’t forget that each of the buckets above need filling. And from the moment one is filled, it’s gradually emptying as well. Don’t forget which buckets are emptying the quickest.
Get up to the field during the off-season. Even if it’s just once a week. Speed and change of direction ability have been shown to drop off in performance in a little under a week if not trained. What doesn’t get trained doesn’t improve as they say. And what doesn’t get trained may in fact even be lost in more extreme cases.
Ask yourself what’s going to have the biggest impact on your ability to execute come next year’s county final? Your ability to play slow, repeatedly? Or your ability to play fast?
To play fast, you’ve got to train fast.
About the author - Peter Wright, of Petey Performance, is an Irish Strength & Conditioning/ Rugby coach and the current the head of Athletic Development at Thomas Davis GAA club. Peter has worked with elite youth athletes in a variety of sports, specifically international representatives in rugby, soccer, athletics, boxing, basketball, tennis, golf, cricket, sailing, and intercounty GAA hurlers and footballers.
Listen to all episodes of "The Petey Performance Podcast" here.
Follow Peter on the socials below: