Not long after the AFL season roared into life, several players came to a grinding halt. A spike in soft-tissue injuries was widely predicted and duly arrived with over 15 hamstring issues as well as a host of calf and quad problems across the last three rounds alone.
Collingwood is one of the few clubs that has managed to avoid this fate and the Melbourne outfit put the credit for that firmly at an Irishman’s door.
UL-graduate Kevin White is in his third season as the Pies' High-Performance manager having initially joined the club’s Sport Science department in 2011.
They currently sit on five wins from seven and there are only two soft-tissue injuries to show for it, a fact that White takes pride in.
“I was confident coming back we could jump right into it. I knew we would handle it. I know my view is opposite to a lot of people,” he explains. He is speaking from Perth, where the club will be based for the foreseeable after Victoria re-entered lockdown earlier this month.
“Some teams are more relaxed about it or thinking ‘it is bound to happen. It hasn’t been a perfect season.’ If there is a spike in injuries, it is easy for high-performance staff to say, ‘we’d always get that because it was compromised.’ I think that is an easy out. We want to use this period to show what good programming looks like. There are real challenges and the best plans will stand out.
“Let your programme shine - show the difference between a good programme and a bad one.”
White first arrived at the club in 2009 on placement. In recent years he has overseen a total rehaul of their approach to training. The Irishman strongly believes there are fundamental issues with the preparation of teams, whether it be GAA or AFL. In particular, he points to the pre-season.
Protracted, punishing and often, counterproductive.
“It is a problem at home and here. Pre-seasons are way too long. This time, players are not going into a season in a fatigued state. That happens too often. During the isolation period, we made sure everyone trained specifically for the demands of the game.
We have GPS movement profiles to track acceleration, deceleration, changing direction. All conditioning was done with the ball in hand. The boys who didn’t work in that period will get found out.
“We had two injuries out of 47 players. One player did a calf, another did a hamstring. Those two boys had red flags when they came back. One was in Perth alone with no one to train with. We questioned if he could follow the programme. The second one had multiple issues during the pre-season, he was more susceptible to reinjury.”
Over the next few weeks, intercounty GAA teams will undoubtedly look to garner some pointers on returning to play from the AFL. Yet for the past few years, the AFL has been looking right back.
White is one of several Irish coaches running strength and conditioning departments and is extremely complimentary towards the average Irish teenage GAA athlete when compared to an Australian.
That physical prowess is only one step on the road to success. Preparation is about much more than generic strength/power programmes. Every drill needs to have a specific purpose, every session should be tailored towards the game. That can be the crucial difference come championship.
“If you are only thinking about this now, it is too late. The biggest thing is how you train. Are teams training for the demands of the game? Are you training with a ball? Are you training under fatigue?
"You come back and go from nought to 100. In pre-season quad injuries are number one because of all the extra kicking. Calf injuries are number two because players aren’t used to high-intensity changes in direction.
“Too often teams just do running, running, running for volume. Even here, they used to separate their running programmes from their skill-based ones. It was almost backwards. There would be skills early in the session, a low volume. 70% of the session is running. That is madness. Boys save themselves during skills because they know running is coming up. Coaches don’t get the most out of it from a football point of view.
“My thing is if you want players to enhance performance, the demands of the game are vital. Every type of running programme or conditioning at this club has an emphasis on ball in hand, chasing a player, dynamic movement. We never, ever run laps. We do not do straight line running. It is positional specific work or match play.”
The principle is applicable to any sport or code.
Everyone trains to play, so every training is designed to make them a better player.
One of the ones we do is for midfielders. A midfielder is often tagged, a player marking them all over the ground.
“Our running drill has seven or eight coaches spread around the ground with a whistle. It is one v one. One player is alert to where the whistle is coming from.
“He is under fatigue, staying switched on, testing reactive response to changes in the game. He has to get the ball off coaches as many times as possible with a defensive player trying to interrupt or spoil it.
“Full body contact is involved as they are running. They can grapple or bump, it is not straight lines.”
For some teams, things will inevitably go wrong. White stresses that when the injuries do come, that is the time to learn from them. What did their lead up look like? What was missed?
The chaos is a challenge. Collingwood, with White at the helm, is determined to overcome it.
“It can be exciting. People talk about whoever wins this flag will have an asterisk beside their name because of everything going on. For us as a club, we see it as the most difficult premiership to ever win. That’s what drives us on.”