Dr Ed Coughlan: Player freshness key in All-Ireland final build-up

From a loading perspective there are two considerations left, what needs to get done in the gym and what needs to get done on the pitch
Dr Ed Coughlan: Player freshness key in All-Ireland final build-up

Mayo’s head of strength & conditioning Conor Finn conducts pre-match stretching with Mayo players before the Allianz Football League Division 2 North Round 2 match between Westmeath and Mayo at TEG Cusack Park in Mullingar, Westmeath. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

And then there were two.

The manner in which Mayo and Tyrone have found their way to this year’s GAA All-Ireland SFC final could not be more different. Starting with their respective league campaigns where Tyrone had a mixed bag of results, albeit in Division 1, with stern tests each week. Mayo on the other hand cruised through their Division 2 games, as expected.

Their respective provincial championships were similar in how Tyrone again had a more arduous path than Mayo. Tyrone had Division 1 opposition in Donegal and Monaghan to overcome en route to their Ulster Championship title. Whereas, Mayo had Division Four teams Sligo and Leitrim to beat before their outstanding second-half performance against Division 1’s Galway to become Connacht champions once again.

The narrative that follows these teams now has the benefit of hindsight to offer foolproof theories as to why each have benefited from their respective paths to the championship decider next weekend. For Tyrone, they have battled through tougher opposition that stood to them during their Covid-enforced lay-off before their semi-final match against Kerry last weekend. For Mayo, they have built slowly through the summer and needed the shock of the first half against Galway in the Connacht final to kickstart their summer in earnest and ready them for the battle against Dublin, when they found themselves again in a similar position, with a mountain to climb at half- time.

When word filtered through that Tyrone initially gave Kerry a walkover, another narrative was preheated ready for use. If that happened, Mayo would’ve been raging favourites going into the decider because of how battle-hardened they’d have been in comparison to a possibly undercooked Kerry side, who would only have had a mildly challenging Munster championship to prepare them for battle against Mayo. Not to mention a longer lay-off between the Munster final and the expected All-Ireland final.

Now, we have a complete reversal of fortunes for Mayo who will not have had a game in four weeks when they line out against Tyrone who will be buoyed by their win over Kerry as well as the fact that a two-week turnaround is about as good as you can ask for in circumstances such as this.

Credit to both Lee Keegan and James Horan who were aligned in their responses to questions about what they made of the longer time period between their semi-final against Dublin and the eventual date for the final. In both cases it was a resounding message of being adaptable and whatever the timeline is, they’ll cope. Indeed Horan went so far as to delegate the responsibility to the experts within his setup who are accountable for such tasks.

Nowadays most if not all of the counties have highly professional medical teams as the engine room behind preparing the players for the rigours of senior inter-county football. Mayo have one of the best in this regard and like all good teams it is built on consistency of personnel.

When James Horan assembled his first medical team in October 2010 as the new manager of Mayo, he appointed Sean Moffatt to lead that side of the house for him. It is no surprise that Moffatt was still central to what Mayo do from a player welfare perspective when Horan returned for his second term eight years later in 2018.

He is the current chairperson of the Intercounty Doctors Committee and his role with Mayo sees him lead a team of practitioners across strength & conditioning, physiotherapy, nutrition, and player welfare.

He is renowned for being an advocate of joined-up thinking amongst his staff and his holistic approach to player engagement is reflected in how players, past and present, speak of him and how he leads his crew for Mayo. One person he will have had close contact with in recent weeks will be Conor Finn, the S&C lead for Mayo, another highly regarded practitioner, and one who served his time with Barry Solan before leading the programme himself.

For coaches like Finn, a four-week turnaround leading into the All-Ireland final is a specific enough challenge because of how it differs from anything else during the season. For example with one week between matches the priority is recovery first and foremost and to get adequate activity into the players that did not play sufficient minutes in the previous outing. In addition, players need to be super fresh for the next throw-in within a week of the final whistle.

In essence, a one-week turnaround is what you’d expect the final week into any game would look like even if there were one, two, or even three other weeks beforehand. So if two weeks are optimal, as mentioned above, it is because it affords everyone time to catch their breath, add some more on-field time, and critically to optimise recovery protocols.

A week makes a world of difference for elite athletes in terms of acute injuries such as knocks and bangs to move from a place of immobility to being fully functioning once again.

Three- and four-week windows can be used effectively at different times of the year when counties have options for challenge matches against meaningful oppositions which are often more telling than yet another in-house A v B game. However, when there are only two counties remaining such challenge matches become almost impossible to arrange and coaches and managers have to rely heavily on their internal systems of performance analysis and metrics for player profiling to determine who’s hot and who’s not.

With one week remaining, everything revolves around the specific goal of player freshness. So much so that the communication between Finn and the team’s physios, Mark Gallagher and Brendan Butler, are of critical importance. From a loading perspective there are two considerations left, what needs to get done in the gym and what needs to get done on the pitch.

In the gym, there’ll only be time for maintenance work, possibly focusing on some key lifts, functional movements, and mobilisation routines to help the players recover from the last few week’s training sessions. At this stage the taper to peak is well and truly in motion.

On the pitch, other discussions happen between Finn and the Mayo coaches James Burke and Ciaran McDonald who themselves will have their tactical agenda to fulfil. A possible schedule might include one one-hour session, high in intensity, with short enough recovery between bouts of effort. Any session after that might have longer bouts of recovery while keeping the intensity at match pace, leaving time to run through tactical scenarios focusing on their strengths and those plays needed to counter what you’d expect from the opposition.

This year’s final may not be the match up that neutrals had wished for but neither Mayo nor Tyrone will care. Their timelines to prepare for next Saturday are very different but neither Mayo nor Tyrone will care.

In the hours and days after the final we will be clutching at straws to match a narrative to fit the result.

If Tyrone win, for some it will be linked to the advantage gained from their shorter turnaround. If Mayo win, their capacity to deal with the hand they were dealt will magnify their achievement, once and for all.

In the modern game it is as much a match-up between the backroom teams as it is between the players on the field, and with one week to go, it’s anyone’s guess.

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