IN THE LATEST column, Donegal GAA’S Strength & Conditioning Coach Declan Gallagher was in Doha and the Ardara native steps in for Dermot Simpson to discuss Athlete Training Loads.
Athlete Loading: Get Your Own House in Order – Part 1
By Declan Gallagher
A few weeks ago I attended the second Aspire sport science conference in Doha, Qatar along with Dermot Simpson, who works in world renowned sports medicine hospital Aspetar.
It was a three-day event bringing together the world’s best minds focusing on one topic; Athlete Training Loads. The conference was exceptional with talks from coaches from all the major sporting leagues and associations such as the NFL, NBA, MLS, AFL and coaches preparing athletes for the Rio Olympics.
The conference was held is Aspire Academy which is part of the Aspire Zone Foundation and is one of the world’s leading sports facilities. To give you an idea of how big this place is, it can host thirteen different sporting events simultaneously. The staff were the most impressive aspect in my opinion with top class professionals from all around the world plying their trade there.
Training load is the hot topic in sports at the moment and none more so than GAA. This is an area I feel strongly about as I coach athletes from all sides of the spectrum and have been on both sides of the fence between the demands placed on club and county players.
My philosophy is simply “prepare athletes as best I can, in an ethical manner” and that’s it. Putting the technical sport science talk on a backburner for now, I am going to talk about my thoughts in GAA physical preparation and look to provide possible solutions.
The GAA has come under scrutiny the last few weeks with their introduction of new age grades and reducing certain fixtures. People have come out and lambasted this as they didn’t go far enough in their approach. At times I am left bemused by some decisions made but at least it’s a start!
What are people at the coalface: the coaches, trainers and players doing to make this better? Get your own house in order first.
There is so much talk about injury rates and fixtures yet the same cycles are happening to youth athletes as they progress and to senior adults season to season. Definitely, matches dictate training and teams are at the mercy of fixture boards. There is still so much in their control of how we can prepare athletes for this.
Problem One Problem Two Club Players:
Too few games
County Players (All Grades):
Too many games
Play more club games without county players
One of the main areas of contention clubs have is “wanting to play games” which is a fair argument and completely understandable.
When fixtures can be played and clubs are cancelling and delaying games until they have county players back or certain players are at a stag that weekend or there is a 21st party for so an so then the motive changes from “wanting to play games” to “delay everything to suit our needs”.
Again there is absolutely nothing wrong from wanting to win but please choose your argument and base your behaviour off this. The “cost” is uncertainty and disgruntled club players not getting regular football and county players playing all year round. If you are willing to pay the price then fine but take responsibility for the consequences -injuries and people leaving the sport.
Championship, in most counties, is five to seven games for the teams who go all the way. It’s the seven to six league games on top of that which have not been played during the season that adds to the problem.
Club games at times are postponed for senseless reasons, this has a lag effect which leads to fixture congestion down the line to the players who need a break from the sport – the elite players and youth athletes who are in the early stages of being elite.
People want fixtures for club players yet postpone games at times as there is no county players, then when they are available proceed to drop a few club players so they don’t get game time anyway?
The argument here is “other clubs are doing it so why should we lose out”. Again, this is your decision. Some people sneer when looking at what different sports codes have done when dealing with fixtures. Please remember this, your sport isn’t as special as you think it is. There are more similarities in team sports than differences and looking at what has and what has not worked for other sporting bodies is a smart approach.
In amateur rugby in Ireland most teams receive a fixtures list for the season ahead with dates and times of kick-off and by and large this is carried out as stated for the entire season across a provincial league.
No cancelling games if there was a wedding on, or a 21st party or when a player wasn’t available due to playing for a higher level team. Players are away for numerous reasons and guess what happens? The clubs play matches anyway. Players and families are happy because they have clarity. There was no fixture congestion at the end of the season and the “99%” are happy.
The Playing Year
In the AFL (Australian Football League), a few clubs stagger the training and playing loads placed on their first and second year players in a senior set up at 80% and 90% respectively and apply a similar model for players finishing up their career. They call this managing people in and out of their careers. In GAA it’s the opposite with 17 to 21-year-olds subjected to multiple teams with concurrent competitions running and people wonder why injuries have increased. They aren’t mini adults, they are still developing.
There are athletes coming off 12, 13 or 14-month seasons due to the global playing demand placed on them. This is especially true for 17 to 21-year-olds. This is probably the one “unique” aspect of GAA but nothing to be proud off. Coaches from other professional bodies are astonished when they hear this. It simply wouldn’t happen in their sport or if it did people would get fired.
With this multifaceted demand there is little accountability from relevant bodies. In youth athletes players could be on anything up to six different teams. No one is directly to blame for players breaking down as the causation may be long standing and easy to blame on others entailing a massive diffusion of responsibility.
Everyone is responsible: Are you asking players how they are coping on a regular basis? Are you trying to monitor training? Is this information actually being used to modify and make the appropriate change or is it just lip service? Do you plan recovery periods? Do you plan extra training for players that need that or throw them into the wolves? Not all interventions are reducing training, some are modifying or increasing training for certain athletes.
We look at sport seasons as a singularity too often and do not consider the effect one season has on the next on an individual level in terms of their motivation and physical preparedness. Players invest so much into the sport, let’s invest back to them.
Sport Average Length of Preseason NFL (American Football) 26-30 weeks MLB (Baseball) 17-21 weeks ATP (Tennis) 7-10 weeks PGA (Golf) 4-7 weeks GAA Minus 8 weeks to ?
People recognise that minor, under-21, club and senior level county football has developed significantly over the last five years with increased physical and mental demands being asked of players. Key stakeholders need to re-calibrate their expectations accordingly. You cannot simply add and add and add and expect nothing negative to happen.
One of the most neglected areas is an off-season. In many areas of life, time away modulates motivation. A global off-season meaning that athletes are away from all primary sport specific activities, not just time away from one team. Play a different sport completely, do light general training and catch up on reading. This may not come down from head office but you as a coach can create this for your athletes.
Training load is a massive talking point in GAA at the moment, it needs to be a massive action point from everyone involved and not simply pointing fingers at someone else.
There are obvious organisational issues at play, yet people can strive to control the controllable and provide your own structure to players and their families.
Instead of complaining about it, what can we do about it ourselves in making the journey better for all involved?
Qatar GAA Training Session
Whilst out in Qatar, I had the pleasure of training the Qatar GAA men’s team for a session. I think its brilliant the community that is going on out there and was genuinely impressed with the standard of some of the players. Thanks to Jon Mollen for all his help with it and thanks to Dermot Simpson for putting me up and showing me about Qatar.
Declan Gallagher (pictured above with clubmate Paddy McGrath after the 2014 Ulster SFC final) is a strength and conditioning coach currently going into his third year with the Donegal senior team having also operated as a performance analyst and GPS analyst.
He has worked for Ulster Rugby and Irish Rugby as a coach and has over a decade’s experience in athletic preparation.
Declan has an Honours Degree in Sport Development and Coaching along with a Masters in Sport and Exercise Psychology.Tags: