One of Ireland’s leading strength and conditioning coaches has warned that thrusting players straight back into competitive action in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic without recourse to another pre-season would be a recipe for disaster.
Mike McGurn, who has worked in the English Premier League, with Bernard Dunne, the Irish rugby team and many more world-class organisations, also believes that calling time on the current seasons and starting again would be in the best interests of the players.
Sport has been all but mothballed until at least the end of March but it appears inevitable that the current strictures on mass gatherings will be extended for much longer than that as authorities north and south grapple with the unprecedented situation.
That leaves players and other sportspeople, like the rest of us, in a holding pattern and one that has obvious biological effects from a general fitness perspective, as explained by McGurn who is now lead S&C coach at Queens University in Belfast.
“Normally when you are planning any type of [S&C} programme in any sport you always start at the end point and work your way back. I don’t think the likes of GAA, rugby or soccer can go back to any type of competitive action until they have another pre-season.
“If this reaches anything beyond six weeks you need to have another pre-season of at least three or four weeks. So, they go into a maintenance phase now until there is some sort of directive but this phase could last three or four months.
“If it does it does but it would be madness for the government to say in June, ‘right, we’re in the clear’, and a week later for the GAA to decide that the season is back on again because the players are going to get injured. It’s not good practise.”
What would be best for the players does not automatically tie in with what works for the various sports from a business perspective. Contracts have been signed with sponsors and TV companies and a myriad of other stakeholders on the basis that seasons are finished.
Drawing a line through the remainder of the GAA, rugby and football seasons would have the potential to wipe millions off the accounts of sports organisations, many of whom are already feeling the strain from lost gate receipts during the shutdown.
McGurn’s focus is athletes and their well-being, however.
“For everybody the best thing in all honesty is cancel all the seasons, get a start date for all the different sports and then they work back six weeks from that with the start of a pre-season and just go again. It’s the only way you can do it. At the minute it’s a minefield.”
All athletes and coaches can do for now is adapt as best they can.
McGurn puts together individual programmes for every one of his athletes and he could deal with anywhere between 65 and 90 on any given week at Queens between the ‘Big 3’ sports and others as diverse as fencing, hockey, boxing and gymnastics.
The rowers in his care have been allowed take some ERG rowing machines back to their digs as the virus threat increases and advances in technology have allowed him to continue working remotely with his students in the form of a vast tool box of video clips.
“You would have to chop a leg off of them to stop,” he said of their refusal to give in to the crisis but, while they and others have been taking every precaution possible, the lack of clear directives and firm action from Stormont and London has led to huge confusion in the north.
Queens switched to online lectures in midweek, by which time various playing pitches were empty and only a few were making use of the gym but the Northern Ireland Executive has only belatedly decided to close the schools, one week after the move was taken in the Republic. Some schools took that decision for themselves long before Arlene Foster announced it. The McGurns have three children at primary level and they were among the 781 kept home at the start of the week from their particular school. Only 109 turned up.
“That’s a pretty big vote with their feet. Rightly or wrongly, we’re not the experts, but we didn’t send them.”