“I’m really eager, really looking forward to this season,” Kevin McManamon told Marie Crowe for a piece that went out on RTÉ a few days into the new year. “I got a good break away from it and I’m itching to get going again.”
McManamon’s “good break away from it” included a few weeks Down Under, observing the work the late great Jim Stynes’s Reach Foundation is doing in Melbourne, as well as some general R&R.
Likewise numerous members of the Mayo team that McManamon’s side have repeatedly pipped for All-Ireland glory have talked about how they’re mad to go again in 2018.
A natural retort to such examples is that it’s much easier for players from the likes of Dublin and Mayo to sign up to the demands of an inter-county regime when they’re invariably in contention for Sam Maguire.
But as much as those setups are undoubtedly helped by having an achievable dream to aspire to, the recent complaints of All Ireland winners such as Kieran Bergin and Brendan Bugler indicate that there’s much more to it than that.
A few months ago a player from one of the counties currently under Dublin’s cosh in Leinster was contacted by the county manager. The previous day the player’s club had seen their involvement in the Leinster club championship come to an end.
The manager wanted the player to attend the county’s next training session. Understandably, the player declined. He needed a break. And so the manger gave him a break all right. The offer to play for the county in 2018 was withdrawn.
That wouldn’t happen in a camp like Dublin’s. Last year a former advisor to Jim Gavin’s setup, Fergus Connolly, articulated the thrust of their outlook in his book Gamechanger without ever namechecking the Dublin experience.
“If there is one central point underpinning sustained success, it’s that athlete health is the most important factor in achieving maximal and sustained performance, for both the individual and the team. Personally, I’ve never cared for coaches or players saying their goal is ‘to win a title’.
Self-propelling success should be the true goal. We’re not concentrating on a single successful season. We’re interesting in dominating and winning multiple championships. And for that, health is essential.
“Those contesting the games must enjoy a healthy, balanced life. An athlete who leads an imbalanced, unhealthy lifestyle might be able to cheat psychophysiology for a time and keep playing at a high level, but after a while, the cracks will widen into a canyon into which the athlete will fall.”
It comes back to a favourite word of another perennial All-Ireland contender with serious longevity. Balance, the theme of Donnchadh Walsh’s Expo conference in Killarney last weekend.
The reason a Walsh and a McManamon and an Andy Moran have been on the go for so long is because they and their setups appreciate that there are times when you have to switch off. Manage and conserve the energy.
They’re not still around just because they consistently contend; they consistently contend because they know what it takes to still be around.
One of the most interesting and alarming points in Brendan Bugler’s blog yesterday as to why he called it a day with Clare was the prevalence of a “one-size-fits-all approach to training”. Gym sessions had to be done collectively. Video sessions, even in relation to the individual player, likewise had to be done as a group.
It echoed much of the sentiments Bergin expressed in recent interviews. It would have suited Bergin much better if he had been able to get in a gym session straight before or after work instead of having to travel in to Thurles to do a workout with the rest of the group. Like Bugler, he attributed it to a lack of trust, leaving the player “treated like a complete child”.
“I sometimes wonder,” Bugler would write, “do GAA managements understand that as guys go through their 20s, they pick up responsibilities?” The answer though is: yes. Contrary to what the popular perception may be out there, some GAA managements do.
One of the earliest principles established in Mayo under James Horan’s beat was the importance of individual responsibility. As a setup with players scattered around the country, it was up to each player himself to adhere to his individually-tailored programme drawn up by him and the team’s S&C coach.
That coach might initially help show you how to do certain exercises but he wasn’t going to be there looking over your shoulder every session. If you didn’t get in that gym session in, that was up to you; the only thing was, it would tell and you’d hardly make the team or the panel.
Dublin have worked of a similar premise, which explains why they are probably the two most athletically-developed teams in the history of football. A similar principle was at work with the Cork hurlers last year. In 2016 in Kieran Kingston’s first year, most S&C sessions were done collectively.
In 2017, he changed all that to a model more along the lines of a Mayo and Dublin. It would save players time and energy and reduce the prospect of cabin fever, being around each other so — too — much.
The team Cork beat in the Munster final seemed to get the mix wrong, judging by Bugler’s account. In his view there were too many meetings, too many video sessions, too much paralysis by analysis in the Clare camp.
While a Bugler would surely appreciate that there is a cycle in the development of every team where such meetings and education is necessary and that there was probably a point earlier in his career that he would have needed and even liked such sessions, his concern is a valid one.
The aforementioned Fergus Connolly has his own challenges now at Michigan, the famed college football programme that this past season again failed to crack the top three in the Big Ten conference, but many of his observations hold.
“The tactical coactive creates a stress load on the player that is greater cognitively than physiologically,” he’d write in Gamechanger.
“You simply cannot put athletes through high-intensity sessions day after day, or sessions that are dense or have high volume. Otherwise you’ll compromise learning outcomes and the players will be worn down.” Obviously, Bugler was worn down in the end.
But it’s important to remember that not every county has drink bans or enforced collective gym sessions, as much as that seems to be the popular narrative.
There are some setups and managers out there smart enough to know that not only does no fun make Johnny a dull boy but very likely it’ll make him lose and pack up as well.
And for every Bugler that decides to call it quits, there’ll be five more county players devastated this week to get the call this week that they haven’t made the panel for the league. They’d love to be the county man heading to the gym, with the rest of the group or otherwise.