End of the championship season shouldn’t mean end of progress

Gearoid McKiernan of Cavan.

Every athlete and coach wants to be competing on the final day of the season. But what becomes of those whose season ends early?

In many sports, this is not a problem. On the Premier League’s final day, much will likely be riding on the matches at either end of the table. Rugby is not too dissimilar, with top-four finishers playing off soon after the regular season.

In contrast, the post-season in the NFL and NBA, stateside, can add many weeks to the campaign for those who make it.

But the clarity of when your regular season ends is plain for all to see, however early that might be.

However, the inter-county hurler and footballer has no such clarity. All-Ireland finals are contested in September, and yet, for some teams, the inter-county season ends in June.

The majority have fallen by the wayside by the end of July, which spells the beginning of another season, the club championship, not to mention the backlog of league fixtures.

But elite sport is about continual development and being engaged in an environment that feeds the appetite for progression.

Elite athletes and coaches thrive on their hunger for improvement, week-in, week-out.

How is it possible that there is such disparity within the GAA as to how long your season lasts?

No-one knows when they’re done or how much more they have to give. If you do not know when your off-season is, you cannot plan for your next phase of development.

In-season reviews of sessions and matches, which you’d expect from elite athletes and coaches, are merely top-ups during the season. A post-season review is where major gains can be made.

This is common practice in rugby and soccer. In fact, in every sport. Even your tour golfer will schedule an off-season, a pre-season, and even an in-season break. All that in a sport that has competitions 51 weeks of the year.

The inter-county coach or manager whose season ends prematurely will reflect on what might have been, knowing that it will be many months before they get to do anything about it.

The accepted term afforded to management teams is two to three years. Continuity is key for effective implementation of any vision, but if the players that management are hoping to develop lose that thread of continuity, inevitably they’re blown off course, attempting to satisfy too many masters.

More needs to be done to harness the relationship between inter-county teams and clubs for the athletes, who invariably suffer most in the middle.

This end-of-season hiatus is the root cause in the disparity of quality between counties.

Those who regularly compete at the business end of the season benefit from a consistency in season length, which feeds a consistency in planning, and an engagement in the continuity that underpins year-on-year development. It is a cycle that feeds progression and enables growth.

From a management perspective, ego drives a lot of the rancour between club and county.

The power afforded to inter-county managements is often misused in relation to the club scene, and so begins a tug-of-war for athlete access.

All too quickly, the experiences of a club manager are forgotten when he becomes inter-county manager.

Such memory loss feeds the cycle of poor interpersonal relationships, as the overarching feeling is one of ‘I’ll show them how this is done’, with little or no connection to what has gone before, or respect for it.

If player welfare is truly at the core of everyone’s ethos, then a rolling relationship should be the norm when the inter-county season ends and athletes return to their clubs. That is, continuity between the fitness coach at club and county. Continuity between the skills coach at club and county. Continuity between the medical staff at club and county.

In fact, continuity between everyone who works for, and with, the athletes is an essential element to ensure year-on-year progress on everything from skills development to injury management.

This is essential for any county stuck in the cycle of early exits. The farce that is the fixtures schedule is not going away anytime soon. Some progress will be made in some areas, but nothing significant enough to protect the most valuable asset in every sporting organisation — the athletes.

So far, the mess in question revolves around management teams who are mid-term in their agreement.

Year one of two, or two of three. Save a thought for the athletes whose early exit also marks the end of their current manager’s reign. It might be a blessing if things went from bad to worse during their time, but the tradition in the GAA is that a replacement will not be installed until the very beginning of the following season.

And so the cycle of wiping the slate clean, starting with a blank canvas, through fresh eyes and a renewed energy . . . how many more clichés can I fit in one sentence?

Again, continuity is key to creating the type of environment that elite athletes thrive in.

How many new managers, coaches, and support staff personnel taking over an inter-county team in October will have the sense to speak to the person who vacated their position last weekend?

Since when does a failed manager or coach have nothing to offer his successor? So much about elite sport is rooted in learning from failures.

It is bad enough that the GAA tradition is that managers see out their term, no matter how bad it is, but the fact that there is little respect for learning from those who have gone before is worse.

Sport in general suffers from this ego-driven ailment. Entire backroom teams are replaced with little or no handover in transition or continuity of staff.

Rugby stands alone as one of the few sports that respects continuity.

Often, S&C and medical staff are retained, because rugby understands that you do whatever it takes to provide a sense of continuity for the athletes.

How much critical information about athletes and their environment evaporates when a management team vacates their position without an effective handover? Is it ignorance or arrogance that prevents practitioners from picking up the phone to inquire about a predecessor’s experiences?

The GAA will try to convince anyone who is prepared to listen about the amateur tradition that is the bedrock of its history.

But for those athletes who conduct themselves in every way, shape, and form in a professional manner, they deserve more from those who are charged with making them better year-on-year.

If continuity breeds success, and humility enables continuity, it is high time the community of coaches starts talking.


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