In the best of hands

IT WAS a long road that led Peter Kirwan back to his starting point. As a youngster in Kill, near Kilmeaden in Waterford, his obsession with Australian Rules brought him to Cranbourne, a feeder club for AFL side Melbourne.

When the oval ball didn’t work out he qualified as a physical therapist, however, and after a stint in Bath, he ended up opening a clinic back in Kill.

Kirwan started helping out Mount Sion, and other GAA clubs in Waterford, Wexford, Cork and Kilkenny came calling, along with local rugby and soccer outfits. Then came the Waterford senior hurlers. The players didn’t just know him from the club scene. They trusted him because he knew what they needed.

“Tony (Browne) would have suffered over the years with his hamstrings, for instance, but when it comes to looking after himself he’s one of the best on the team, definitely,” says Kirwan.

“At that age you have to look after yourself, the recovery isn’t as quick as younger lads, but he’s great to do what he’s told, and he does a huge amount of gym and core work in the off-season.

“He eats the proper food as well, which is a huge help to recovery, obviously. He’s one of the most professional guys I’ve worked with, but all of the lads are very appreciative of the help they get.”

Kirwan and the other members of the backroom team bring the focus down to basics.

“We’d analyse the way a guy runs. Myself and Gerry (Fitzpatrick) would look at them: Tony, for instance, would have a very good running stride, Eoin (Kelly) the same. But other lads might run slightly off-centre. Their bio-mechanics might be slightly off — say the left foot is planted slightly outwards as they run. That puts huge pressure on the hip, and that in turn puts stress on the lower back.

“So you try to get lads to run properly, to bend faster, to push off both feet when they sprint. On the Waterford team Paul Flynn is probably the fastest over five yards. Well, when it comes to getting to the physio’s table, anyway...”

Is that important, not pushing off with the same foot every time you sprint?

“It is — players should alternate because obviously if you’re pushing off the right foot all the time, then the right side of your back will be the strongest, and that will be overdeveloped. You should push off both to equalise the development — same for golfers, who’d be swinging one side of the body a lot, obviously.”

Suiting the preparation to the player is a challenge, given the different day jobs.

“Obviously the lads who are driving a lot are stiff when they get to training, they feel it in the lower back. They always need a back rub, and a good warm-up. They could have driven three hours just to get to training, so there’s a stress element given traffic and so on as well.

“You don’t see that stiffness in the lads working manually — they have stronger backs, stronger hamstrings. That’s why the warm-up is more important now than it was years ago, when people would cycle or walk to matches and training having done a hard day’s manual work.

“Years ago people were probably stronger physically, but now players are probably physically fitter.”

The players’ fuelling habits is another consideration. “After training we give them Revive, the Glanbia drink, and we encourage them to carbo-load. People think of carbo-loading the day of the game, but that really begins after training.

“You have to eat properly then for the next session. If you don’t, you’re down a bit for the next session, and so on and so on until you’re in deficit then the whole time and just trying to catch up.”

It’s not all about elite performance. Kirwan has advice for clubs at all levels in all sports based on developments down under. “It’s interesting, in New Zealand now a lot of rugby teams train in ploughed fields because they reckon it builds up the ankles and lower back better than training on level ground. In Australia they train in sand pits because the ground is generally so hard anyway that everybody’s ankles must be strapped.

“I know we give out about muddy grounds here, but for off-season work it’s good to use it to build up joints. Junior teams which slog around on muddy grounds in February and so on are getting in good training. Sand is good as well — you see that Kenyans and Aborigines, who run barefeet in sand, rarely get lower back or leg problems.”

Kirwan’s clinic sees plenty of evidence of those leg problems.

“In field sports a lot of lads run on their toes the whole time, and those lads, who take up road running during the winter, are always coming to me with shin splints. They forget they’re landing on their heels, having been running on their toes playing soccer, hurling or rugby for years. The runners they’re using have all the technology in the heel.

“When they come to me I try to get them to run on their heels. They could be slow to get into that, but it benefits them down the line.”

Kirwan is involved with the local club’s underage section, and he sees worrying trends among today’s children.

“Muscle and strength training is a good base for everyone, but the important thing is good form and technique. A lot of kids are using poor technique, though we also get adults coming in saying ‘I saw such and such lift this weight in the gym’, and they injure themselves as a result.

“In the clinic I see kids of 11 and 12 coming in with groin injuries and so on. That would have been unheard of years ago, when kids walked or cycled to school and played hop-scotch and so on.

“Nowadays, if you ask a kid to turn on the light they’ll use their thumb, because they’re so used to texting and the Playstation. But ask them to put their index finger on their nose, to test their co-ordination, and they’re not as fast as they could be.

“Kids should be more co-ordinated — skipping rope and so on — but to compensate you have to instil stretching in them before games. Get them to do that when they’re young and they’ll avoid injuries later on.”

Kirwan is keen to pay tribute to the others he works with to prepare the team: medical officer Dr Tom Higgins, trainer Gerry Fitzpatrick, physios Emmett Cummins and Sarah Prendeville. And that man from Clare.

“Since Davy came in there’s been a great atmosphere. Modern management is a young man’s job. It’s a 10-hour return trip every night he comes to training, but he has huge enthusiasm. He addresses us before games and sessions, any issues are kept in house because if anything leaks out it’s disrespectful to everyone who’s involved. There’s a fantastic bond there, he treats everybody with huge respect and that’s returned to him.”

A last, casual question about the players’ fitness gets an emphatic response. “They’re all of a level at this stage,” says Kirwan. “They’re fit now. They’re ready.”

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