Dr Ed Coughlan: How champions keep it simple

Sport is the greatest platform for making excuses to deflect attention from failings in preparation.

None more so, maybe, than golf, where without hesitation or a hint of humour, a golfer will suggest they would have won a tournament ‘if only they didn’t bogey three of the last five holes’.

Such a seemingly harmless statement of delusion is the beginning of a defence mechanism destined to take the player further away from executing correctly the next time they’re in contention.

However the GAA, in its current Championship format, is not far behind. Munster hurling champions have a ready-made excuse for not winning an All-Ireland in over a decade — ‘there’s too much of a break between games’ is the oft-mentioned answer to excuse their inability to adapt to the task at hand. (Ignoring the fact that Kilkenny are en route to winning three-in-a-row in just 12 matches while managing the exit of dozens of All-Ireland medals from their dressing-room).

In football, Ulster teams have the excuse that there are too many matches and it’s too tough a route to All-Ireland glory. Yet, the best teams, athletes, and coaches have no time for excuses, but invest time and effort in identifying reasons and addressing their problems as challenges and their failings as opportunities. There is no one route best suited to All-Ireland success, but in the right hands, any route can be sold as the optimal path to glory.

But such soundbites are the common fodder that fill pop psychology books that adorn the shelves of many a sporting enthusiast. The ‘what to do’ is easy to read and chat about amongst ourselves; the challenge of the ‘how to do’ separates the best from the rest.

So how do you leave the excuses of varying timelines between matches behind you? The answer is in the question. A one-week turnaround is very different from a two-week and a three-week and so on. A poorly contested quarter-final, we are told, is scant preparation for an expected tightly fought semi-final. Excuses, excuses, and more excuses. You can only control what was in your control, bemoaning that which is beyond you is a recipe for the ultimate excuse — ‘we did the best we could with all the hurdles we had to overcome’; a classic deflection away from self-reflection that suggests the victor won by chance, and not method.

Freshness is the key to any between-match schedule. Physical freshness of your starting players likely to play again within the week is of utmost importance, in fact, it is priority No 1. Here the old adage of ‘less is more’ holds firm. The experienced S&C coach knows when to trust the adaptation process because they understand the physiology of recovery, rest, and rebuild, in that order. As does the physio, nutritionist and sport psych, among others.

Those players short of game time, need it and as early in the week as possible, because you may need any one of them come the weekend. This is where communication between your S&C coach and field coach is critical. Remember, those players in question are short of game time only. Apart from the last match, they’ve trained just as hard as the rest, so don’t have them run meaningless metres in overly-prescribed physical sessions to make up ground.

Have them make meaningful runs in physical games that provide them with the most important element required for match-readiness: decision-making.

Have them make decisions more complex than which cone to run around and when and where to stop. To be game ready, you need to be brain ready; and that comes from the confidence a forward gets from scoring, a back gets from defending, a keeper gets from saving and a midfielder gets from rising above everyone around him to catch that all-important ball.

Be conscious of the time-on-feet that your players have to endure between matches.

Be aware that time-on-feet is a continuum that equates to a lot more than physical output. Obviously, a match appears on the high end of the scale, but a video session is cognitively-taxing activity that appears somewhere around the midpoint. All too quickly, other apparently essential items such as recovery sessions, team meetings and bonding sessions fill the schedule and the time-on-feet figures go through the roof.

Players can’t quite put their finger on it, because they’re busy and managers and coaches often fail to respect the potency of down-time to becoming a champion. One of the fundamental points of learning a skill or anything for that matter, is time for consolidation. However, if you have no time to breathe because you’re going from one thing to the next, there is no time for consolidation, nor reflection, nor progressive development.

A one-week turnaround is defined by doing less for some and more for others and trusting the process that got you there in the first place. A two-week turnaround is about getting everyone on the same timeline by the end of week one so that the group is aligned as a unit for the performance in week two.

Week two comprises of reduced sessions and nothing more than the usual contact time. You have to trim the fat from your schedule for an effective two-week turnaround, and that means realising that it is not long enough to do everything so it is defined by ‘the need to do’ over ‘the nice to do’.

A three and four-week turnaround is about those players who are down the pecking order in the squad. Make them your focus. If you can honestly convince them of their worth to the cause, not through rhetoric but by action points and meaningful targets, in-house games will become the ultimate barometer for success on the big stage.

But remember, on match week leave them all wanting more, so have them fresh from games rather than fried from running as their performance always reflects their practice.

  • Dr Ed Coughlan is a skill acquisition specialist across sport with extensive experience in football and hurling at inter-county level. Twitter: @DrSkillAcq

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