Prepare for the unpredictable by making game extension of warm-up

PREPARING FOR BATTLE: Wexford’s players warm up ahead of their Allianz HL Division 1 semi-final against Tipperary at Nowlan Park in April. Warm-ups are an important component of a side’s preparation but Ed Coughlan believes ‘not enough appear to have games infused into their plan’. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

As the weeks roll on in both the hurling and football championships, the excitement levels will also build. The odd unpredictable result will keep everyone keenly interested from one week to the next.

From a fan’s perspective that unpredictability is exciting and within the administration offices of the GAA it may be a significant factor in sticking with such an archaic competition structure that has such disparity in qualification routes across the provinces. An outsider looking in must be left scratching their heads as to how teams in the Ulster and Connacht Championship are supposed to be playing for the same ultimate prize.

From a player’s perspective, it is about minimising the unpredictable moments.

No-one likes to be at the wrong end of an upset, and everyone goes into a game with what they believe to be their best foot forward. Yet, having seen a few games over recent weeks, it appears some teams are giving away ground where there are easy gains to be made in the preparation of their players.

Of course, no-one knows what goes on behind the closed doors of training sessions across the length and breadth of the country, but the warm-up is there for all to see, should you make it to the ground early enough.

This is part of player preparation that has finally regained some of the ground it lost following the now infamous quote from Italian and AC Milan legend Andrea Pirlo. When asked for his opinion on the pre-game preamble he responded:

It’s nothing but masturbation for conditioning coaches.

Admittedly, back in those days, warm-ups were dismal in their structure and delivery with little or no evidence to guide people on what best to do, but times have changed and as the knowledge has developed, so too have the practitioners.

Sport science continues to have a significant positive influence on the progression of our national games with the knowledge and understanding of where the limits of athletic potential lie within the game, but only if the evidence gets aired. It is remarkable to watch how some coaches ready their players to compete.

The assumption is every squad is up to date by now on the benefits of a mobility session prior to hitting the field for the final stage of the warm-up. Surely, there isn’t a player in the country without access to a foam-roller, trigger ball, and set of mini-bands to take ownership of their own mobilisation and activation protocol, allowing the medical staff to focus on those who need more attention prior to throw-in.

At that stage, every player should then be ready to add the physical and more dynamic elements of the warm-up. Yet, still we see players emerging from the dressing room engaging in static stretches and long-hold manoeuvres, suggesting they are far from ready to engage in high-intensity movements, not to mention the high-risk actions of stopping, turning, landing and tackling. So be it — the show must go on.

Fortunately, most teams appear to be applying the best practice principles of an effective warm-up, but unfortunately some teams are not quite there yet, and if this is lacking in some inter-county set-ups, the concern is the same is even likelier to apply at club level.

In general, there are three phases to an effective warm-up, the first dealing with the medical side of things to reduce injury risk by increasing body temperature in the muscles and range of motion across the joint complexes.

Secondly, preparing the body physically, and readying the system for varying levels of intensity. This requires a phased approach to ensure the body eases itself into match intensity movements, before finally moving into the match intensity phase of the warm-up.

It is here a more common-sense approach should prevail. If the sole purpose of a warm-up is to prepare a player for what is about to happen when the game begins then as many elements of that game should be reflected in the warm up — no matter what sport you play. You would not expect a top golfer to step on the first tee without having first hit a range of shots in their warm-up, each with a purpose, a context and a target, gradually building up to full speed.

However, that element of specificity is probably the one consistent missing item in warm-ups that are below standard across the four codes that are played each week, from hurling and camogie to football and ladies football.

Not enough warm-ups appear to have games infused into their plan. For want of a better term, there is way too much ‘tippy-tappy nonsense’ going on that is often excused as ‘getting their eye in’. If that is the case, where did their eye go since the last time they had the ball in their hand? This obsession with having senior inter-county players, the best of the best, go back to the most basic form of skills before they play, is similar to having your four-year-old child starting every day with crawling — just to get their legs in — even though they figured out how to walk a few years earlier.

Ideally, a warm-up will reflect meaningful elements of the game from start to finish. The aforementioned basic skills can be done in low-intensity games where the cognitive aspects of play are experienced from the beginning.

If games are won or lost because of decisions made during play, then look to have your players make decisions in their warm-up. Decisions about when to pass or hold on to possession. Decisions about when to follow a player or move into space. Reactive decisions about when to track a movement or evade a tackle.

None of these items are prepared, if you have your players running through a highly choreographed drill where, only a matter a seconds into it, the players know exactly what’s going to happen, when it’s going to happen and from whom it’s going to happen. The unpredictability they’ll experience in the match a short while later could not look more unlike this sterile scenario, however slick it may appear to those of us in the stands.

However, if the players are engaged in small-sided games in varying sized spaces where the skills of each game are

integral to the real game in a meaningful way, then not only are the players being prepared physiologically and cognitively for what lies ahead, but they are also being prepared tactically and physically.

The final item of an effective warm-up is how the intensity builds over the 15-20 minutes. The final phase should be at least at match intensity where the full rigours of the game are experienced before completion.

In simple terms, it is critical the players have experienced their first wind, given a strong tackle, taken a fair challenge and found their voice in genuine open play manoeuvres so that when the referee gets play underway, it should feel like an extension of the warm-up, and not a change through the gears.

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