KIERAN SHANNON: There’s more to training than sweat and tears

All over the country teams are back training, aspiring and vowing to “work hard” every night.

But how many teams will just settle for having built up a serious sweat and the comfort that comes from collective effort and suffering, and how many of them will go to that higher place of not just having worked hard in their session but having worked hard on their game?

There is a significant difference between the two, and it was one of the strongest take-home points to come from last weekend’s annual GAA Coaching Conference in Croke Park.

One of the guest keynote speakers was Wade Gilbert, a professor at the California State University, Fresno, who specialises in coach education. One of the most noticeable features he’s found about the best coaches and the best training sessions is that often the participants don’t look very good. They’re riddled with mistakes. In fact, the US Olympic volleyball team that he has observed actively want every session to “look ugly”, to use a term of their esteemed coach, Karch Kiraly.

Former team-mates often talk about Wayne Gretzky and why he was the greatest ice hockey player to ever skate. They’d often see him falling down while he tried out solitary drills on the ice, as if he were a novice. In attempting a new manoeuvre to make himself even greater, he was willing to look stupid.

Last weekend Gilbert encouraged coaches to create an environment where certain mistakes are not just tolerated, but to an extent, encouraged. As he puts it, the best coaches and teams don’t want their players to view training as a place for proving their ability as improving their ability.

It was a theme underlined by coaches much closer to home. Paul Kinnerk has been one of hurling’s leading field coaches of the current decade for his work with the Clare minors, U21s and seniors, though he’s now teamed up with his native Limerick for 2017. A former senior county footballer as well, he ensured his presentation resonated with coaches involved with the big ball as much as those more consumed by the smaller one.

He showed a series of video clips of goals all featuring a “third man run”, the most spectacular probably being James O’Donoghue’s goal in the epic 2013 All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin when he darted in taking a handoff from Donncha Walsh after an ingenious penetrative pass from Kerry’s quarterback that day, one Colm Cooper.

Those goals didn’t just happen, Kinnerk argued. There was a trend. There was a certain level of trained spontaneity. Goals like one from Tots O’Connell in an U-21 game in Thurles were straight from the training ground.

But again, it involved training ugly. Kinnerk believes there’s still a place for drills to help cement technical skills, but it’s in creating games in training that you create better decision-makers. And at the start that means the players have to be allowed to not look that smart or good.

The key for the coach is to ask the players questions, often questions that you’ve pre-prepared so they’re specific and to the point; the more time you spend in the planning phase of yours sessions preparing the right questions, the better the solutions emanating from the players.

“When did you make the decision to make that run?” “When I saw him look up.” Little subtleties like that are more likely to be picked up and pointed out by a James O’Donoghue and Shane O’Donnell than an Éamonn Fitzmaurice and Paul Kinnerk, or quite likely, from them hearing a Colm Cooper or Podge Collins say it on the training ground, but such insight is only likely to be maximised by the group when prompted by the right questions.

The other point Kinnerk emphasised to coaches was to remain patient when a particular move kept breaking down.

“If players see your enthusiasm, they’ll keep at it. Even if it takes three sessions to get it, they’ll keep with it if you will.”

Another highly impressive presentation was that of Mick Bohan, a skills coach to the Dublin All-Ireland winning team of 2013 and who last year helped Clare footballers reach their first-ever All-Ireland quarter-final. Everyone following, let alone coaching, football in this country should seek it out when it goes up on the GAA coaching website later this week. For one thing it will lay the myth that the primary reason Dublin are currently dominating senior football is because of their superior resources. That’s not the main reason why they’re winning. The main reason is because of their superior coaching and skillset.

Bohan had the humility to say that Kerry remain the best kicking team in the country but the advances that Dublin have made on their skillset in recent years because of the work of the likes of Bohan is undeniable.

On one slide Bohan showed Diarmuid Connolly practising with two footballs at the one time; soloing one of them with his right while holding the other in his left arm; then alternating. He showed a video clip of the Dublin ladies team he currently manages with each player using two footballs at a time, then another illustrating how Kevin McManamon used all four limbs — pick up with his right foot, bouncing the ball with his right hand over to his left hand to drop the ball onto his left foot to kick from range in an All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry.

Eoghan O’Gara is another player who blossomed under Bohan’s coaching. After the 2013 All-Ireland final against Mayo, a game Bohan reckons Dublin would not have won without O’Gara’s introduction 10 minutes before half-time, the player’s mother thanked Bohan at the team banquet. O’Gara had been on the senior panel since 2010, making key plays like the goal that swung that year’s watershed All Ireland quarter-final against Tyrone, yet that 2013 season had been the first season, his mother said, that she could go to a Dublin game and not hear her son being abused for his skillset.

That All-Ireland final performance was coming. That season the set-up had devised a shooting test in which the maximum score a player can get is 36. The week of the All-Ireland final O’Gara set a team record 33.

As his mother alluded to, even a year earlier that would have been unimaginable. At some point no doubt O’Gara had to look even uglier in training to look so good in September 2013, his two footballs falling all over the place, a bit like a humble Gretzky on the ice. But he just picked them and himself back up and went again.

You look at how McManamon has pushed on since 2013, so comfortable now using all four limbs, for all his work with two footballs.

Dublin aren’t winning All-Irelands because they have more money than anyone. They’re winning because they literally have more balls than anyone.

They don’t just work hard in games and at training. They’re working harder and smarter than everyone on their game.

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