The cycling guru putting wheels in motion for Waterford hurling

Waterford made it to Sunday's Allianz Hurling League final the hard way.

The cycling guru putting wheels in motion for Waterford hurling

Waterford made it to Sunday's Allianz Hurling League final the hard way.

Last weekend they were facing Galway in the semi-final when Mikey Kearney got his second yellow and was dismissed turning into the final quarter.

Despite that setback, Paraic Fanning’s team had the fitness to drive on, outscoring Galway 0-7 to 0-2 in the closing stages.

A feather in the cap of strength and conditioning coach Stephen Barrett, then?

The Castlelyons native and Waterford IT lecturer says they are preparing their players to “withstand a game for 80 minutes”, as happened last Sunday, without compromising on the skills of the game.

“It’s something we’ve worked on — not as much putting a massive emphasis on the fitness, but you see how teams have progressed in recent years in Gaelic football and now hurling, to withstand the demands of a game for 80 minutes, as we saw last weekend in the Galway game.

“We try to prepare the players to meet the demands of the situation they’ll be exposed to — that’s our job.

“They’ve been good in that they realise the importance of that, and that being fit allows them to express themselves when it comes to hurling.

“We don’t compromise one for the other, it’s fitness as a tool to allow them to go out and to minimise mistakes, to make those tackles and break those tackles.

At this level it takes one missed block, one extra tackle to win or lose a game, so it’s pleasing to see them finish a game like that.

Still, it’s only March.

What happens later in the year, when there’s a flurry of championship games?

“When you’re involved in a sport where you can’t really plan to peak for a Munster final because you may not get there, then you have to reach a point where guys are at a level where they can tolerate it.

“But the other point is that you have over 30 on a panel, and it’s a team sport but one that’s played by individuals.

"Every individual responds differently according to the stage of development they’re at — we have guys like Callum Lyons, who’s new to the panel, so obviously he’s not going to be at the same stage of physical development as Philip Mahony or Kevin Moran.

“It’d be remiss of you as a coach to give Callum the same work as Philip or Kevin, so that has to be borne in mind.

"Because of that you have to take stock at the start of the year and — something we would take pride in — create an individualised approach to the physical preparation.

“It increases your workload tenfold, but if you’re lucky enough to be involved with a top inter-county team you need individual nuances for each player.”

That individualisation helps players commit, he adds: “I’ve found that if you give a player something that’s not generic, that’s tailor-made for them, then you get massive buy-in.

“Last year and this year have been different in terms of the structure of the championship, it’s got that league structure, so the players have to be ready by May 12 and the first championship game — they have to be in peak shape for games coming week after week.

“And our guys are fit now, but they’re not as fit as they can be, as they will be, and they know that. We’re in a phase, probably, where we’re working more on strength and specific endurance before moving to more specific game-based stuff closer to the championship.

“People often say ‘the league doesn’t mean anything’ or ‘this team is flying fit’ but you go to games to win games.

"We don’t really alter what we do in the league, the guys are still in the gym on a Monday and the pitch on a Tuesday and so on. That changes when you get to the championship but the guys believe in the process and follow the process, which is the most important thing.”

Barrett’s background in cycling is an intriguing counterpoint to his hurling duties: He competed in the Rás and trains World Tour cycling team AG2R.

“I get asked about that a lot, I’m working with them (AG2R) at the moment so I’m over and back a lot. I’m 9 to 6 in cycling mode and then 6 to 9 in hurling mode. It’s easy to switch between them, but they’re two sets of high-performance athletes who want the best for themselves.

Yes, they’re two different sports but your job as a coach is still to get guys to adhere to a programme and plan, and people often ask if I bring anything from the cycling into the hurling or vice versa — from a day to day lifestyle management point of view the modern GAA player is very well equipped in terms of managing work and training and so on — you can bring that into cycling, for instance.

“A professional sportsperson, all he or she does is train, but there are times it’s not as easy as it sounds, because a professional will ask questions: Why’s he doing this drill or exercise?

“A lot of that comes down to the information and how that’s disseminated. If there’s no reason or explanation for why a professional athlete trains... they know they should train, but if there’s a lack of ‘why’ there can be problems.

“Once you can attach ‘why’ to the ‘what’ of training, you see a massive bump in performance. In my first year with Waterford, I spent a lot of time explaining the ‘why’, so it’s a lot easier now because the lads are more self-sufficient, more autonomous.

“I don’t have to check they’re eating properly or doing recovery sessions — they’re doing all of that because they understand why they have to do it.

"That’s a huge trait I can see in successful trainers and coaches — attaching that ‘why’ gets a big bump in performance.”

Is that part of a wider societal trend, the general acceptance of gym culture?

“I think so, society in general has more of a notion of the impact of physical fitness on overall health — Instagram and other social media, programmes on TV, it’s the nature of the beast that people want to look after themselves now.

“When I was in college there might be only a handful of fellas going to the gym, but if you go to the Mardyke Arena up in UCC at lunchtime the gym will be packed with young people looking to improve themselves physically. It’s an overall thing.

“And that has come into the GAA too, no doubt about it, and that goes from video analysis and hurling skills to nutrition and everything else.

“The biggest thing, though, is that players see the impact all of that has on their performance on the field.”

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