Monday marks a historic day in the history of the GAA. Never has collective training for the inter-county scene returned so late in the season. Then again, never have we known so much about how to return to training after an extended lay-off as we do right now. It is the perfect opportunity to lean on the evidence and principles of best practice to ensure the safe return of our players across all codes.
However, if we are to believe the stories from around the country, most inter-county teams haven’t been away at all. This has nothing to do with collective training in person, but the apparent connection maintained between players and their management teams throughout the pandemic, albeit online and from the comfort of their homes.
It begs the question, whether some players are already sick of the sounds of their management team’s voices? How interactive were these online sessions they’ve had to endure week in, week out? How much work was prescribed by the manager concerned that the players needed to be watched closely, given clear instructions, and set tasks every week to ensure they didn’t lose focus? Remember, these sessions were in addition to the online content players had to engage in for work or college.
Before Covid-19, training was a release from the rigours of the rest of your life, but throughout lockdown, there is a concern that training became indistinguishable from the rest of your day.
How many management teams reminded themselves that the calibre of the person it takes to become an inter-county player already separates them from the masses? These are the best players from across the county. Oftentimes, the standard-bearers within their own clubs, only to find they’re the norm at the inter-county level.
For many of them, self-discipline, focus and setting and achieving goals is a large part of what made them inter-county standard players in the first place. The motivation to become elite at anything, and in particular an elite athlete, means that hand-holding and micro-management are seldom required.
There have been some horror stories around the country of multiple Zoom calls every week, each lasting a couple of hours, where players are merely passengers in the process, as management teams look to fill time. Fear of missing out became a very real experience as word from one county led another county to do something similar just to be able to say they’re doing the same.
In fairness, there have also been some uplifting stories of player-led sessions, with a great balance between focus and fun spread across weeks instead of days, with buddy systems to enable players to manage themselves and each other without the feeling of being under CCTV surveillance.
How successful online coaching has been will only become apparent when on-field coaching returns. For those players who’ve seen this last year as a chore, their excitement and enthusiasm to get ball-in-hand will only last so long. They can expect more of the same when they back on the grass.
Sessions for the sake of sessions, crammed with a checklist to get through because of the expectation that they need to be match fit and skilful yesterday.
For those fortunate enough to have managers and coaches led by the evidence, they can expect to see a gradual build over the ten weeks from April 19 and the start of collective training, to the weekend of June 26 and the start of the provincial football and hurling championships.
Of course, there are the reformatted national leagues to be contested throughout that period, but they cannot be prioritised over the welfare of the players. Never has the old adage - It’s all about the Championship - been more pertinent.
Hopefully, the players will experience layered training sessions, where the demands of their sport are drip-fed to them through game scenarios and principles of play. This also serves the purpose of introducing the skills aspect of the game with that all-important ingredient of context. Skills work can be accelerated in a way that physical work cannot, through movements and interactions that reflect the game.
Bang for buck is of critical importance at a time like this because work-to-rest ratio supersedes everything. If the players are not allowed time to recover within and between training sessions, any work completed is tainted by the likelihood of breaking the player rather than building them.
It doesn’t need to be explicitly stated, but if players sense calmness and patience on their return to training, then panic is likely to be kept at bay. However, if they’re met with frantic energy and a sense that they don’t have a second to waste, then tension will be the overarching feeling in the camp rather than togetherness.
Red flags to be watchful of will include jam-packed training sessions, long intense bouts of exercise with insufficient recovery time, minimal game scenarios, and the reddest of red flags, finishing the session with sprints.
Players will have aspects of their sport that they absolutely love and can’t wait to get back to, so it is imperative that coaches don’t get in the way of that.
Excuse the gross generalisation here, but goalkeepers love the sting in their hands of a well-saved shot, backs love dispossessing their man, midfielders love getting under the high ball and forwards love popping the ball over the bar. Collectively, they love engaging in their roles in the fullness of a match, but they’ll accept game scenarios as a way back in.
If there’s one lesson we learned from Covid-19, it’s that isolation is tough, and it’s no different in sport. Our games are best experienced in full, not in isolation, especially when we have been kept apart for so long.