Fergus Connolly Interview: Protecting the player, and the game

Fergus Connolly has trained sports teams all over the world and helped Dublin to an All-Ireland. His biggest fear for the GAA is the abuse of players by irresponsible managers...

THE conversation with Fergus Connolly took a few twists and turns, but the reason for the chat in the first place was pretty simple.

He seemed the obvious man to talk to regarding pressing issues such as burnout and player welfare in the GAA, given his experience training Gaelic football teams (Derry, Dublin), rugby teams (Munster, Wales), English Premier League teams (Bolton Wanderers, Liverpool), American football teams (San Francisco 49ers, Cleveland Browns), as well as elite US special operations units. He was also the keynote speaker to the AFL Coaches Association last year.

After all, perspective is everything. Or maybe definition is.

“First of all, what do we mean by burnout?” asks Connolly.

“When I hear discussion about hip surgeries or groin surgeries for young players referring to those as burnout, that’s inaccurate. That’s not burnout. Those are overuse injuries. An overuse injury is physical abuse of an athlete.

“Burnout is fatigue-related, and usually a psycho-physiological fatigue. I don’t have numbers for this, and the numbers aren’t readily available, but you hear anecdotally of managers, inheriting a team, and finding out straightaway the number of surgeries needed in the squad are in double digits, and his league preparations are disrupted from the start. If this is the case then that’s abuse of inter-county players through poor training programmes — but it’s not burnout.

“The solution is education with legislation. Education of coaches to avoid these overuse injuries. Legislation to help reduce injury. For example, by limiting the number of training or game days per seven-day period. There seems to be a lot of groin, hip, knee surgeries. It’s inexcusable. Winning games and avoiding injury are not opposites, they are complementary, all part of the same process.”

Connolly can offer some specific GAA experience to back that up.

“When I was involved with Dublin or Derry, and other teams, I made it clear from the start that a soft tissue injury was unacceptable. A hamstring injury or a calf injury — there’s no good excuse for that.

“Yes, disaster will occasionally strike from time to time and someone will get injured, but there’s always a reason or cause for it. Your job, if you’re coaching or managing a team, is to reduce the probability of that happening to zero — and it’s possible to do that. But that can only happen through education and legislation. I see that as the only way to resolve it.

“It’s the responsibility of the GAA hierarchy to set out the ground rules, but you need coaches and teams to embrace the spirit of it. This is why the silence of the GPA is questionable at best. This is a non-profit company allegedly established with only the inter-county players’ interests in mind.

“It’s no surprise we have such injuries. For example, Donegal’s former physio admitted that one year recently, approximately three-quarters of their injuries came in training, not matches. If a players association isn’t concerned with this, what is its real role? This is reported factual information that a group who really had player welfare in mind could actually do something with.

“Or will it take a disabled retired player needing corrective surgery in a few years from now, taking legal action, to force a county board to address these issues?

“What about tackling game volume and fixtures? For example, one inter-county player came to me for advice. He has just played three games in three days the weekend before. He played two Sigerson games and then played an U21 match in a mickey-mouse tournament the following day. Three games in three days.

“I hope to see this young man play for many years, but if this abuse continues the odds are not in his favour. Don’t worry about competing with rugby or soccer for our players, irresponsible GAA managers have that covered.”

Connolly believes the GAA has never had a better administrator than Paraic Duffy to prioritise player welfare. “But the GPA don’t seem to have the same concerns. The GPA will tell you they are busy fundraising so they can ‘raise awareness’ about non-GAA specific issues like mental health, rather than challenging county boards or holding the GAA accountable on the real urgent issues like overuse injury.

“The GPA don’t seem to understand physical overtraining can initiate poor mental resilience. Fix the real issues you can measure and actually affect first, rather than worrying about junkets to the US to fundraise for the company.”

Stripping away the fuzziness about the terms is a must, then?

“Certainly. It’s the starting point. We can’t fix something we are mislabelling. Burnout isn’t a scientific or academic term. The correct terms are over-reaching, overuse, over-training.

“Over-reaching is when you overload a player a little bit harder than before. This is fine with healthy players, they will adapt and get fitter.

“Over-training is where you’ve pushed them too far and too often. You’ve not allowed him to recover and he’s extremely fatigued. Finally, then there is overuse where you continuously overload the tissues or joints and you cause a structural injury, the tissue in the body is wearing down. These are the two finest field sports in the world, but we don’t value it enough to protect the game.”

Connolly was home recently and spoke to two clubs in Ulster on the optimal approach to planning training. “One of the things that I don’t think is very well understood in Gaelic games is the difference between fitness and freshness. Most inter-county players are fit, but when a player doesn’t perform well on a given day, the automatic conclusion is that he’s not fit. He may be fit, but it’s just that he may not be fresh.

“Understanding the difference between the two is vital. Coaches watching players may say, ‘Oh he needs to do another bit,’ but the player may be just fatigued on that particular day — when he’s trained harder he becomes less fresh again. It carries on and on. The goal of a coach should be that the player is always fit on Sunday and always fresh.

Another target for Connolly is ‘peaking’, or as he calls it, the myth of peaking.

“The term periodisation has evolved from Olympic sports, mostly from Soviet philosophies, but in reality there is no traditional periodisation in team sports.

“Most players aren’t far off their optimum at any point in time. If you meet an inter-county footballer three weeks after the season ends he’s not suddenly unfit — he may be a little bit less fit, but it’s not much. Inter-county players don’t take long to get back up that good level of fitness, but if they’re pushed very hard for a few weeks and not left to recover, they can lose that freshness.

“Teams may appear fitter later in the year, but that’s also because the cohesion and communication is much better and smoother between them all as they move on the field.

“Something else that tends to go against the grain is that it’s not games that cause injury, it’s training. The window of time available to train GAA players means a lot of the time they’re pushed very hard, and that’s where damage can be caused.

“I’d stress there that I’m speaking in general terms, and I don’t want to tar everyone with the same brush, but if you’ve games every Sunday you’ve no choice but to train your players only Tuesdays and Thursdays.

“I actually would play games every weekend. If you use the logic from the data in Donegal, more games and less training would actually reduce injury. Of course, if you have no legislation and idiotic careless managers demand players play games three days in a row you’ve little chance.

“Add in the championship calendar, the breaks between games, and that doesn’t help our players either, the swing between games.”

What about the almost-mandatory warm-weather training camps? Is there potential for overuse and injury on those trips?

“True, but because it’s such a short period of time, I think coaches tend to see its greatest benefit as a period of time for teaching players. Well, smart ones do.

“Because you have that time coaches realise very quickly that if they over-train the players then they’ll break them. That’s when there’s an awareness that there’s a limit to what can be done physically — but repetition to educate guys on the ground for tactics and so on can be used.

“Do you need it? No. Dublin didn’t use it and I’m not a fan of it. I think it changes the focus from continuous learning and continuous improvement.”

From Connolly’s perspective in the US, does he see sports science and data in the States as being at the cutting edge?

“That’s a fair question. In the US they are more familiar with statistics but not with sports science or medical. It reflects American society as a whole, for me, in that America’s attuned to stats and figures generally. The games are well suited to it, obviously, rushing or passing yardage in American football are valuable statistics but it doesn’t work as well in soccer or in Gaelic games.

“Key decisions are always supported by evidence and data and that’s going to continue.

“The very first question is — what are we trying to answer? Because if you take all of the data that’s available to any team, your local GAA team, then it’ll give you answers that you don’t need and aren’t useful.

“So, what question am I trying to solve? When you decide on that you look at the data available and work out if that data can answer that question. It may not.

“And that’s a mistake teams make. They may look at tackles and say ‘We’re tackling here, we’re tackling there, we’re working harder’. But if your tackle numbers are high then you’re not retaining possession, so you have another problem, a different one.

“The data will confirm things you know or get you to question what you thought you knew. The data can give you direction, to determine probability and so on. The very last stage is the data telling you something you never even thought of.

“That’s where neural analysis, for example, may help, in that it gives you a correlation between two things you never knew existed. You can put two different people behind the wheel of a car and they can look at the same numbers but interpret them differently — it comes down to the skill of the person, and in this case it’s the skill of the person asking questions of the data.”

So people expect a flash of light but intuition is usually confirmed: confirmation rather than revelation. “My career depends, to an extent, on numbers but I’m very clear that the coach’s instinct is the priority,” says Connolly.

“The best coaches use the data to improve their gut feeling, not simply to confirm it. You never supersede the coach’s instinct; you can measure the heart, but you can’t measure heart.

“You can put all the numbers you like on a Colin Kaepernick, Frank Gore, Paul O’Connell, or a Steven Gerrard, but they can’t measure the intangibles. We can measure a lot of things on an athlete but not everything is important.

“Martyn Williams the great Welsh number seven, told me that if he’d been judged on statistics alone he’d never have played for Wales.

“The numbers aren’t everything and a lot of things we can’t measure are critical. The data can bring you to a certain point and one of the downsides of analytics is to make sure you don’t encourage an analytical player, by which I mean a player who relies on the data rather than instinctive.

“That’s not how it works. Go to the other extreme and think of players who choke — they’re often the players who over-analyse, and you don’t want players over-thinking in sport. If you as a coach have a brilliant analytics team, there can be another question — how much do you tell your players? Whatever you tell the player you’re measuring, that’s what he’s going to improve, so you must be very careful in what you tell him.

What’s coming next, then, in analysis?

“The next frontier is to measure what doesn’t happen,” says Connolly. “For now, we only measure events. We’re always measuring what happens, the guy who sprints, the pass that’s made. What about the guy who doesn’t make that pass, the guy who doesn’t move into that space?

“We’re measuring things that happen, why Tom Brady chose one receiver over another with that pass. But the real learning outcome is in the question why? Why chose him? Why didn’t he hit the other guy who looked like he was in more space? That’s the next frontier, to measure the things that don’t happen and to understand why.”


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