In the modern world of GAA, putting a management and coaching structure in place around a county team or a club team is seen as one of the key determinants of future success. Not that long ago, it was a simple process of appointing a manager, who then picked a couple of selectors, and off they went, getting stuck into the job and sharing the workload as best they could. Nowadays, the manager is still the key appointment but it has become much more about the ‘management team’ and in almost all cases, any reference to this team will include a special mention for the strength and conditioning coach’. Why is this?
Well, the role of the strength and conditioning (S&C) coach has assumed a level of importance that is second only to the manager himself and in some cases may actually be seen as on a par with the ‘top job’. In modern GAA-land, if you are sitting down with a county board or club chairman to interview for the job of manager and you want to get laughed out of the room - tell them you don’t need an S&C coach.
Over the past 15-20years, there has been an explosion in the focus on strength and conditioning, to the point that it has become an industry in itself. There are gyms everywhere, in fact, it would be unusual now to find a GAA club without some form of gym room. Indeed, many players have their own home gyms and they religiously follow the individual programmes set out by the strength and conditioning coach.
How does one become a strength and conditioning coach? There are literally hundreds of courses that you can study to become qualified. There are undergraduate degrees, Master's programmes, and even PhDs so much so that it has almost become a separate branch of science in itself. Every single third-level college in the country has numerous options in the field of ‘S&C’. In my day, there was PE teaching in ‘Thomond’ and that was pretty much it.
Now don’t get me wrong, before you start objecting to what you have read so far. I am not for one minute saying that S&C is not important, of course, it is. In fact, it is a vital component of success for any individual involved in sport. I would have loved to have had the same level of expertise in this area that is available now. Those of my generation can only marvel at the level of science and individualisation applied to what back in the day was known simply as ‘getting fit’ and for the most part consisted of multiple laps and repeated long sprints for every member of the panel regardless of size, weight, cognitive predisposition or pre-existing level of fitness.
I get the focus on strength and conditioning but what I don’t get is that there is not at least an equal level of focus on skills development. In my mind, the ‘managerial team’ appointment announcements should reference the skills coach first and the strength and conditioning coach second. When I hear about the lads doing individual S&C programmes, my first thought is, where are the individual skills improvement programmes?
The GAA has made a huge investment in S&C in recent years, it would be an interesting piece of research to try and quantify this and also to identify the relative budgets and time allocated to S&C compared to skills development.
When John Wooden was developing his famed pyramid for success in sport, what did he put at the very central core of the pyramid? Well, it should be no surprise that he put ‘Skill’and he defined it as “A knowledge of and the ability to properly and quickly execute the fundamentals.” (Wooden,1988).
It’s a simple but important fact, you won’t succeed in the sport if you can't perform the basic skills when it matters.
In case you are wondering, ‘Condition’ is also a block in the pyramid but it is certainly not given any premium level of importance. Most managers and coaches will reference and quote John Wooden but how many actually follow his teachings?
One of Wooden’s basic coaching principles was that of ‘repeated practice’. This concept has been further researched and explored in many books and articles including the interesting Talent is over-rated (Colvin, 1988). The basic premise is that if you repeat a skill or sequence of skills using the correct technique often enough in practice, then you will become proficient enough to repeat it in a game situation. As a matter of interest, I have always thought the term 'practice’ used by the Americans is so much more accurate than ‘training’. After all, what are we doing in all this preparation but getting ready to play the game better? Practice makes perfect.
The point here is that skills matter and they matter a lot. Watch any analysis of a game by the pundits or indeed consider the internal video review sessions of games played. Are they focusing on the upper body strength of the players or the kilometres run? Well, it may come up from time to time but the main focus will be on the execution of a skill such as a well-taken score, a key pass, an important tackle, a high catch, etc. Even more likely is that the focus will be on the non-execution of a skill such as a missed scoring opportunity, a dropped catch, or a poor tackle.
So, John Wooden was right, if you want success, practising the fundamental skills must be a priority.
Go to YouTube (see link below) ... and search for the second goal Con O’Callaghan scored against Mayo in the All-Ireland SF of 2019. In the same movement, he executes a safe catch, a brilliant feign-hop (leaving Lee Keegan for the dead), and a perfect right foot shot for goal. Con is a brilliant footballer but he was not born with these skills, he was coached them as were all the other Dublin players. Of course, they are excellent athletes but would they have won 6 in a row without dedicated and focused skills coaching – no way. And if you think skills coaching is just for forwards, another search will show Michael Fitzsimons executing a perfect spin move to take the ball into space and set up a score for Dean Rock against Tyrone.
What makes the game what it is? Do people watch Gaelic football to see players running 15km or ‘bursting through lads’? No, they come for the entertainment and a big part of that entertainment is watching players display their skills. When Gaelic football is played well, it truly is the beautiful game. When you see a player soar into the air and make a catch or dummy solo or kick a score with the outside of the left foot, that is what you will remember, not the abs on the number 6 as he walked off the field.
To be fair, a lot of skills academies or development squads have a strong skills focus and that is the way it should be. The earlier kids start learning the skills of the game, the better players they will become. Getting good technique from an early age certainly gives a player the opportunity to execute those skills when it matters. But, I am always surprised at the lack of skills training at adult level. Is the assumption that players can’t get any better at their skills? Or is it seen as more important than they are athletes and that they learn the system to give the team the best chance of winning?
I am always impressed by the knowledge that modern GAA players have of the S&C process and how good their technique is in the gym. Everyone can describe and demonstrate flawlessly how to execute lifting skills but can they describe and demonstrate the perfect technique for executing a tackle or an evasion skill?
Allocating 10 minutes at the end of training for kicking or shooting practice does not mean that you are covered. The S&C plans are goal-focused with key metrics and timelines set for a path to improvement. Unless the skills plan has a similar structure, it is ineffective.
In my view, every GAA team should have a skills development and improvement focus as a key part of their preparation. Every single player can add a new skill or at least improve an existing one. Tackling needs to become an art, evasion is essential, kicking, catching and hand passing are all integral parts of the game. Call me old-school but there is no point in burning up the GPS units or ramping up the personal best for the bench press if you can’t kick the ball accurately over 20 meters.
To play the game of Gaelic football at a high level you need to work on a lot of things, DON’T leave skills behind.
Wooden, J., Tobin, J., 1988. They Call Me Coach, McGraw-Hill, Columbus, Ohio. Can be accessed https://www.thewoodeneffect.com/pyramid-of-success/
Colvin, Geoffrey. 2008. Talent is overrated: what really separates world-class performers from everybody else. New York: Portfolio.
Con O’Callaghan goal v Mayo 2019 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3MXu3WlUfGI
About the Author: Frank McNamee is a former footballer for Longford and Fr. Manning Gaels and is also the former manager and coach of Longford U21’s and Dublin U17’s.
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