Éamonn Fitzmaurice on the GAA warm-up: How match prep has changed

When I started playing inter-county football, "Right lads stretch the calves, hold for ten and change,” would have been the common refrain
Éamonn Fitzmaurice on the GAA warm-up: How match prep has changed

PLYOMETRIC PREP: Kerry's Paul Murphy and Paul Geaney warm up prior to the Allianz League game at Dr Hyde Park.

WHEN possible, I always like to get to a match in plenty of time. As well as being slightly OCD about time-keeping I enjoy watching the teams warm up. I am curious about the drills they are running, the conditioned games being played while also searching for tell-tale signs that may point towards what type of performance can be expected afterwards.

Warm-ups nowadays are military operations without a second wasted, but their development over the years intrigues me. From something that was viewed with suspicion and contempt, the warm-up is now a fundamental part of every team's preparation, both on training days and on match day as they prime themselves for performance in competition. 

Critically they also form the first line of defence in injury prevention. Traditionally they could be hard to get right and a poor performance was sure to raise questions about the warm-up. Was it too long, too short, too hard, too easy? Different players liked different things. Personally, I always liked snappy warm-ups that were over quickly. I just wanted to get stuck into the action. Nowadays with the development of sport science and the quality of the coaching, most warm-ups at inter-county level are broadly similar and effective. They ready the players physically and for the specific game plan unique to their own team. Surprisingly, there are still a small minority that seem to have a haphazard enough approach.

Having the privilege of working with Mikey Sheehy as a selector for six years meant I was constantly picking his brain about their time to see if I could apply some nuggets to our group. Obviously, the game has moved on considerably but there was plenty of transferable knowledge. One thing that had changed hugely was the warm-up. Mikey tells a story of how when they warmed up back in the day it consisted of a couple of laps and straight into it. In summer time this meant lung-bursting wire to wires in Fitzgerald Stadium. Some of that great Kerry team had trained as PE teachers and they liked to practice what they preached. The likes of John O'Keeffe and Jimmy Deenihan would be stretching away, readying themselves for training while the vast majority of their team-mates scoffed at them thinking they had lost the run of themselves. While Deenihan and O'Keeffe were ahead of their time many of their colleagues didn’t know what a hamstring was. It didn’t bother them though, as they were rarely injured and they won eight All Irelands in 12 years. The fact that Mick O'Dwyer had little tolerance for injuries probably helped also!

By the time I started playing senior inter-county football in the late 90s the warm-up was still pretty straightforward and hadn’t advanced all that much. Static stretching was a big part of warm-ups at that stage. “Right lads stretch the calves, hold for ten and change” would have been the common refrain. 

When we were playing big matches in Croke Park we stayed in the Tara Towers hotel in Blackrock, now the Maldron. It was a brilliant location and we had a lot of good days out of there. After dinner on Saturday, we always went for a stroll up the promenade towards Booterstown. Tomás Ó Sé and myself had a routine where we would always check out Carroll and Kinsella Motors to see if they had any nice machines on the forecourt. Our warm-up on the Sunday would take place in the rugby pitches of Willow Park, the primary school of Blackrock College. We togged off in the hotel and walked up there. An artificial pitch has replaced the grass pitch where we always had our kick around and did a few handy stretches. It was a calm environment and in general the atmosphere was tense and quiet. I enjoyed getting my head in the game for what was to follow a couple of hours later. 

Once we got to Croke Park we did nothing organised. Players did individual stretching in the dressing rooms and when we went out on the pitch it was to have a few kicks before throw in. I developed a routine with Donal Daly where we got a ball and kicked it at pace at each other from 20-25m. I found it brilliant to get the eye in and sharpen my touch and my kicking. Others would have shots at the posts or catch the ball behind the goals and before kicking it out to the forwards. After we lost to Tyrone in 2003, I remember our warmup being dissected and criticised. We were accused of being left behind. At one end of Croke Park the Tyrone fellas were running through sophisticated drills led, somewhat ironically by Paddy Tally, while we were still using the more traditional warm-up at the other side.

IN LINE: Tyrone players in sync ahead of the 2021 All-Ireland final. 
IN LINE: Tyrone players in sync ahead of the 2021 All-Ireland final. 

WHEN Pat Flanagan came in with Jack O'Connor he brought a brilliant warm-up with him. There was the physical aspect on the pitch which involved the usual running and dynamic stretching but what I loved about it was there now was a significant structured football element too. Pat had a drill that combined kicking, handpassing and support running. We worked in units of six, so the six backs would have been together for this drill. I felt it promoted camaraderie and togetherness before the match, readying us for battle. All boxes were being ticked. 

Another feature of Jack Mark I was how we used the warm-up room in Croke Park. Pat would have the room set up so we did a good bit of our initial physical preparation (activation in modern parlance) there just before we went onto the pitch. It often culminated in a little simple drill where a player took a handpass and then ran against a tackle bag to ready themselves for contact in the match. The short straw in this regard was the member of the backroom team that was holding the bag for Seamus Moynihan’s group. Seamo would land into the warm-up room ready for war. When the tackle bags were produced he would drive through them as if it was the last ball that had to be won, to win the All-Ireland. While things were serious at that stage, it was something we would always register and have a chuckle about afterwards. The poor misfortune holding the tackle bag often looked and felt like he had been in a car crash. 

By the time of Jack’s second coming in 2009 conditioned games had been introduced into the warm-up. I was a selector with Jack at that stage and I always observed these games carefully, a practice I carried onwards as a manager. Players spilling ball, spraying loose passes around the place or just a percentage off it would need to be watched carefully once the match began. Often this pattern could continue into the game and it was important to act fast.

By the time I became Bainisteoir, the warm-up had gone to another level again. Sport science ensured that every box physically was ticked and a consistent warm-up led to consistent performance. Both Cian O'Neill and Pádraig Corcoran excelled at this. I loved the game-specific nature of their warm-ups. Handpassing, kicking, tackling, catching and shooting were all covered in a variety of ways. The goalkeepers and free takers had their own specific routines. The physical was mixed with the football. We always tried to play games that further enhanced what we planned to do in the match. By the time the ball was thrown in there was no excuses.

With Finuge we often used what worked best for Kerry in our warm-ups. It probably wasn’t best practice though and kudos to the GAA in conjunction with Salaso (the brainchild of Aoife Ní Mhuirí, one of the best physios I ever worked with) for developing the GAA 15 warm-up (gaa.ie/gaa15) to support club coaches. I like the fact that it is only 15 minutes long as that time challenge is real at all levels when coaches are trying to ensure every minute on the pitch together is time well spent. Ultimately there is little point in having a five-star warm-up if the football aspect of training is being neglected. The more that can be done with a ball the better and the games-based model is a huge help in this regard. 

The advent of band work and activation is a further challenge that puts pressure on that invaluable time prior to the warm-up where a player can develop their position-specific skills in an unstructured environment. Getting the balance of all of this right, while also keeping an eye on the players' training load is an ever-present challenge currently and one I don’t miss.

And with all that said, and despite the revolution in warm-up techniques over the last 30 years, it is still a truism that regardless of how good or bad the warm-up is, the performance and result are all that count. Everything that comes before, including the warm-up, merely gets you to the starting line. 

Once the gun goes off the best perform and win.

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