Ciarán Deely's guide to designing your best coaching session

Designing a coaching plan is easy. Coaching is not! If you know that, you know a lot already. Ciarán Deely outlines the secrets to getting the best out of your GAA training session.

Ciarán Deely's guide to designing your best coaching session

Designing a coaching plan is easy. Coaching is not! If you know that, you know a lot already. Ciarán Deely outlines the secrets to getting the best out of your GAA training session.

Coaching is science, coaching is art

A colleague of mine has always said physiotherapy is an art form, but backed up with science. I view coaching, training, and sport science in the same manner. The science is important, it gives you a platform and a foundation. But it is in the art of coaching where the real beauty lies.

Designing a coaching session is easy. With some knowledge and a step-by-step formula (which I will outline to you below), you can simply plug in the different components of the coaching session, like you would put pieces of a jigsaw together to produce an engaging picture.

1. Warm-up

Though it may seem a strange thing for a Strength and Conditioning coach to say, I’ve never spent much time on warm-ups and don’t tend to dwell on it much. For me, it is a quick exercise of preparing the players for the session ahead.

In professional set-ups, you have more time and access to the players, so you can work on specific physical outcomes such as improving their mobility, stability, ability to generate force, and holding isometric positions that improve their movement efficiency.

When it comes to Gaelic club and county teams, your access to them is so limited and you do maybe only three sessions per week — so I would say spend your time wisely on other things instead. In every single warm-up, I expect a technical or tactical outcome.

So, if we are going to work on one v one defending later in the session, you must think if there is a way to scaffold that into the warm-up so it’s mentally and physically tuning the players and their bodies for that unit of practice.

The warm-up, incorporating some simple ball exercises and dynamic stretching, is adequate in preparing physically for the session. A simple acronym to remember is RAMP — raise body temperature, activate the muscles, mobilise the joints, and prepare for performance.

2. Technical proficiency

The preparing for performance aspect of the warm-up is an ideal opportunity to get some skills practice into the session, to test and improve the players’ technical proficiency.

One of my first sessions providing sport science and S&C support to the QPR U23 squad was an interesting and quite funny experience. When I rocked up to do my warm-up with integrated skills practice, who was there in the session only Joey Barton, Bobby Zamora and Richard Dunne — all of whom weren’t included in the first-team squad for the game at Loftus Road later that day. It meant I was taking them through their core skills and technical practice.

Something I learned from that day, and continue to do so, is the importance professional clubs and players put on working on the basic skills of the game every day of the week, regardless of what age or stage of their career.

A simple practice I like to do with my teams are Core Kicking Skills practice — a range of different kicking techniques from a variety of distances and angles, using different parts of the foot, both left and right. This can be done in pairs and ensures all players get lots of touches of the ball.

And not a cone in sight! Do two minutes duration for each kick and join in yourself too, even — we are all players!

3. Locomotive skills

The next part of the session is a physical section that I like to call ‘Locomotive Skills’. And I call it ‘skills’ because it is a physical ability that can be learned, practiced, and improved. You can incorporate the ball, opposition players and a variety of cones, equipment, colours, and stimuli.

The ASAP concept involves working on one of the players’ acceleration, speed, agility and plyometric ability. This is usually taken by the sport scientist or S&C coach, and can be run off over a five-minute period. The players love it and it’s a chance for them to focus on getting faster, accelerating quicker, and turning more efficiently.

The practice I’ve included in the session plan on the facing page works firstly on their change-of-direction mechanics, before progressing onto a reactive agility exercise, in response to calls, cones, colours, or sounds.

4. Principles of play

This flows naturally into the next section of your training, where you are devising a practice that incorporates some aspect of performance and principles of play that you want your team to play with.

A simple practice that I have taken from professional soccer are the 5 v 2 possession boxes, where five attacking players keep the ball away from two defenders in a 10m x 10m box. This should lead to huge intensity in the tackling and physical contact from the defenders and will challenge the attacking players to hold possession in tight spaces, under huge pressure, in a chaotic environment — just like in a match!

Do 60-second reps and continually rotate the defending players.

5. Tactical awareness

The tactical awareness unit of practice is now getting into the real meat of the session. Often, I would have taken this section of the session myself as manager, as I had specific pictures in my head of how I wanted the team to play.

This is where you can use ‘Spot & Fix’ in your coaching — stopping the session to change the exact positioning of a player or unit of defence in response to where the ball is and/or what the opposition players do. I like to call this ‘pitch geography’ and is probably my favourite part of coaching, as it is the most challenging!

The ‘Phase of Play’ in the session plan on the facing page is one which is set up to promote counter-attacking at speed in possession. A simple set-up of four attackers v seven defenders is organised on three-quarters of the pitch, with the defenders starting high up the pitch out of position, and two additional attackers starting with the ball versus two defenders.

This is for the attackers coming from deep to move the ball at speed through the hand or by the foot to catch the overloaded defenders out of position and get a shot off before they get back into their typical packed defensive shape. Rotate the players coming from deep with additional players after each rep.

6. Games

Once the focus of the session has now been set and scaffolded, it is time to see can the players bring that learning into the game, with more freedom.

I work off a periodised microcycle — the training week — of Small-Sided Games (SSG), Medium-Sided Games (MSG) and Large-Sided Games (LSG).

For this session, I’ve focused on a Three-Team Tournament Medium-Sided Games format. This is one of my go-to format.

Usually it involves about 9 v 9 players, on a pitch 45m wide x 80m long, with one player on each team acting as an unopposed ‘bounce player’ on the end line of the opposition team’s goal. The ball can be played into that player, who then must give a one-two to another advancing player who comes running in support.

This promotes the ball being played in early and support players getting forward into advanced positions — something we need when looking to counter at pace. Do six repetitions of three-minute games, with a team rotating out each time.

If you want to really keep them on their toes, tell them first two or three goals or scores stay on and losing team continually rotates off!

7. Fitness development

My own philosophy is to do the fitness work at the end of the session.

I do this for three reasons — firstly because I believe you will do the majority of your fitness work with the ball in the Games, Phase of Play, and Principles of Play practice in the main part of the session; secondly I believe at times you must isolate components of fitness to increase the stimulus the player is being exposed to and maximise its ensuing benefit; thirdly, if there are any modified players who are returning from injury then it is very easy to pull them from the fitness work at the end so they can focus first on the ball work right throughout the session that preceded it.

In the example session, I have focused on Repeated Sprint Ability, a vital component of fitness in the modern game where players are expected to perform high-intensity exercise and repeat them! The protocol here is six 40m sprints @ 90% max, with 36 seconds of recovery between each rep, allowing for some, but not all, recovery of the muscle and physiological system. Complete two sets of it.

This is perfect fitness work to perform in preparation for the big Championship day in Croke Park!

- Ciaran Deely is a sport scientist with QPR FC and former manager of the London senior football team.

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