They’re not happy being stuck on three All-Irelands. In Tyrone, they crave more and, going by what we observed last Saturday, the county looks geared towards achieving that.
Last Saturday, they opened the doors of their Garvaghey Centre for a coaching clinic by one of the world’s premier skills coaches. As a measure of their generosity as well as their ambition, the invite extended to everyone from everywhere, but was ultimately taken up almost exclusively by coaches from within their own province, and predominantly from within their own county.
The facility is three years old now, but looks as immaculate and as clean as it did upon its opening. With five grass pitches, two 3G pitches and a main building designed in the shape of a curved Celtic T, it stands as both a shrine to the past and a statement about the future.
In the large open-plan main foyer, information boards outline the history and vision of Tyrone GAA. Though the figure and image of Mickey Harte and his All-Ireland- winning teams feature prominently, there’s no chance here of ever thinking Tyrone football only started in 2003.
All strands of Tyrone GAA are represented. As modern and polished as the place is, there is a soul about it. In other centres of excellence where county teams operate from, the surroundings can be sterile and detached from the rest of the county’s GAA experience, or else staid and even haunted by black and grey images and ghosts of the past. Here there is a sense of everything being connected: The past, present, and future; player, coach, official, and supporter; club, schools, and county.
The impression was only cemented by the seven large presentation boards visible at the top of the 200-seated tiered theatre where much of last Saturday’s clinic with Dr Dave Alred took place. Each board represented a pillar of the Tyrone games-development programme. Especially central to the vision is improving skill levels by improving coaching.
“If the clubs are the heart of our association, then our club coaches are the arteries going to our players,” says the board. In a survey of coaches within the county, the five areas identified as the most difficult to coach were: Tackling and blocking, shooting and scoring, developing both sides, high fielding, and freetaking.
It’s probably what prompted them to invite Alred over last weekend, along with the manner of the county’s exit in this year’s All-Ireland senior championship. All summer, even in their successful Ulster championship campaign, Tyrone were erratic from deadballs, something that ultimately caught up with them and cost them in Croke Park. For all the reasons for their defeat, the fact Mayo had Cillian O’Connor as a freetaker and Tyrone didn’t was as decisive as any.
Last Friday evening, Alred gave a clinic confined to just the county’s team and management. On the Saturday, then, as we’ve mentioned, it was open to everyone, but even more generously and impressively, players from the various Tyrone county squads made themselves available for demonstration. As Alred tutored the 175 coaches in attendance out on one of the outdoor 3G pitches, he actively encouraged the coaches to, in turn, tutor the players, most notably Darren McCurry, Peter Harte, Mattie Donnelly, and Niall Morgan.
Just think of the humility and confidence that governed their presence there last Saturday. Harte and Donnelly are both All Stars. McCurry and Morgan each kicked costly wides in the closing minutes of that All- Ireland quarter-final against Mayo. In another county, such players may have been too proud or self-conscious to put themselves forward to demonstrate and be judged, mindful of any slight and whisper of onlookers, but not them. It was a beautiful example of what the great late Irish coach educator Pat Duffy termed Drawbridge Down coaching. Too many setups can be too guarded: The drawbridge is up, even to coaches and players within their own system. In Tyrone, they put out their best to learn from the best, so everyone could learn.
Alred is an exceptional coach with an extraordinary technical knowledge of the art of kicking a ball. He’s probably most famous for his pioneering work with Jonny Wilkinson. Such was Alred’s and Wilkinson’s technical expertise, we learned that Wilkinson learned a completely new goalkicking technique in the latter stages of his career. If Wilkinson continued to hyperextend his kicking form like so many GAA players are prone to do, he was only inviting further leg injuries, which would end his career.
One evening upon watching Cristiano Ronaldo’s free-taking technique, Alred identified a way Wilkinson could generate his customary power without hyper-extending his kicking leg. The Toulon years were rooted in that discovery.
What makes Alred such an exceptional coach, though, is not just what he coaches, but how. It’s what makes his new book The Pressure Principle recommended reading and it’s why his coaching transfers across so many sports: The art and principles of coaching remain the same. Out on the 3G pitch, he had Harte, McCurry, and Morgan et al starting out kicking only 10 metres out from the goalposts on the hurling wall. Without ever saying it, he progressively brought them out further. Basic, but how many coaches do you see allow players shoot from range straightaway?
He constantly asked the players how a kick felt to them instead of just offering them instructions. The more a player has to figure it out for himself, the more engaged he is, the more active the learning is, the more ingrained the skill becomes.
Alred would offer plenty more insight throughout the day. Such as Johnny Sexton — whom he worked with last Thursday in his first kicking session after a three-week layoff — devoting almost half his practise time these days to kicking off his left foot: “The effort he is putting in to his left foot at this stage in his career is incredible.” Such as there being no such thing as natural skill: “At some stage, it was learned.” Such as not telling players to ‘keep watching the ball’, but instead being more specific and telling players and coaches, for example, to focus on the piece of stitching on the ball; that he can’t stand soccer players randomly spinning the ball before a direct free kick, instead of having a set routine like Ronaldo, with the valve or the logo of the ball staring back at him.
Again, though, it was Tyrone GAA that impressed as much as Alred. Win Ulster and their All-Ireland quarter-final next summer and Mickey Harte’s side are due to face off with Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final. As it turns out, Jim Gavin’s setup also welcomed Alred during his visit; on the Thursday night, they had a Drawbridge Up session. Gavin was also the only GAA inter-county manager at the recent international sports data and performance conference in UCD. He’s still seeking ways to raise it again.
But, he’s not the only one.
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