The county that adapts to the new format quickest will be the county likely to make the biggest strides earliest, writes Dr Ed Coughlan

The hottest talking point across the GAA these last couple of weeks is how the new formats in the hurling and football championships are either helping or hindering our national games.

Like all changes and experiments it will take time for patterns to emerge and things to settle down.

The current narrative speaks to how the hurling championship, with its round-robin schedule, is overshadowing the football championship. For the hurling diehards this is nothing new as they profess that even a bad game of hurling is better than a good game of football. Of course they are incomparable, but that doesn’t stop the debate from raging on.

One thing for sure is that the fans are enjoying a feast of matches every weekend, afternoon and evening.

Such an increase in playing demands brings with it its own headaches. None more so than the management of the players’ energy week in week out. In sport science literature this falls under the subject of load monitoring. How much is too much? And can you ever do too little between games?

Though this scheduling change is new for the top level of Gaelic games, such playing demands are not new in other sports. The easy comparison is to look at professional sports like basketball and baseball with three and sometimes even four games per week across different time zones. But they are also not comparable for too many factors such as differing physical demands, player rotation and so on.

We can all identify the early excuses of managers in the Premier League every season when their teams are expected to play three games in eight days. Yet the evidence tells us that the vast majority of the player’s time on the field is spent walking and jogging with only sporadic bouts of high intensity sprinting covering only 10 kilometres in 90 minutes.

This suggests the physical demands of the game are not such a complex thing to recover from if some basic principles of sport science are adhered to, such as nutrition, sleep and muscle therapy.

The culture and tradition of other sports make their players more robust in coping with packed playing schedules. Take hockey for instance, where playing five games in eight days is not uncommon during top-flight competition.

Obviously, there is extensive player rotation during all games but the turnaround between matches is gruelling nonetheless.

With the continued surge of strength and conditioning coaches and a greater appreciation of the physical preparation of players within the GAA, at least at the inter-county level, the expectation is that players’ physical load monitoring will be well accounted for during these hectic weeks in the hurling championship and the Super 8s of the football championship next month.

However, problems may arise when so-called recovery sessions and off-the-feet sessions such as team meetings, video sessions and leadership group consultations stack up and almost immeasurably impact on a player’s readiness to play.

The astute manager and coach will ensure that their players get some time away from their sport as the new changes get bedded into the future culture of the association.

In times past, Irish rugby learned this lesson the hard way as teams suffered from cabin fever during the Six Nations Championship. It was only when scheduled breaks back to family and friends became the norm that the ordeal of five matches in six weeks became manageable and even enjoyable.

The current weekly training profile of an inter-county hurler or footballer is at least equal to that of their professional brethren in rugby and soccer but with none of the common sense.

The fact that most players, managers and backroom staff in the GAA work outside of the team for their living means training and any team contact is conducted in the evenings, when for most, bodies are beginning to shut down after a day’s work.

Not to mention the phone calls during the day, when quick chats and something small to run by a player becomes yet another thing for them to think about.

So for most players who have expended every effort at the weekend for their county, their greatest challenge is to balance the demands of their job with the quick turnaround of another game the following weekend. This is where the greatest gains can be made for a team striving for freshness.

The county that adapts to the new format quickest will be the county likely to make the biggest strides earliest. This will require restraint from managers and coaches the length and breadth of the country. Often the excitement of an impending match can intoxicate us with the giddiness of thinking we should be doing something. But when games come thick and fast, players need time and space to switch off more than anything else and prepare in their own individual way.

The mental demands of competition are what make a player more exhausted after a 70-minute game where they cover less ground with fewer instances of high intensity than they would in a typical 90-minute training session where their biological markers are off the charts. The additional and cumulative cognitive load experienced by an athlete in regular competition is the silent stinger in their performance that often catches up with them long before the physical load raises a flag.

But we still we hear a lot about players having homework to do away from training and between games, which is likely a ploy adopted from the arena of full-time sport. Where are the considerations for the part-time athlete, who trains full-time already while working full-time as well and who is now expected to compete full-time?

Because the additional revenue from this new expanded competition schedule will shout louder than anything else, it is highly likely that this new packed format is here to stay. So what can any genuine player-centred manager and coach do to put the player’s welfare front and centre?

Leave them alone.

Not entirely of course, but when not in training or the team environment encourage them to switch off without any hint of guilt.

Speak to them about the performance-enhancing impact of being fresh on game day.

Help them to reset the gauge from the efforts of the previous weekend to be able to go again on the next weekend by freeing them from thinking they have too much to do.

Promote time with family and friends and equip them with mechanisms to deal with the passerby on the street with respect but not at the expense of their time or energy.

Work hard on their behalf to ensure that training is short and sweet. Of course training will need to have all the skill, speed and power elements that the body craves on game week, but leave them wanting more with a session that is clinical and clipped.

Invest time and energy with the backroom team on reducing team meetings to the absolute minimum.

Nice to do items are replaced by need to do mission-critical points.

Fifteen minutes is a good barometer to ensure that energy and spirit stays afloat.

Finally, the mantra ‘if in doubt, leave it out’ will serve to reduce clutter in their processing.

Players do not grow up dreaming of training, they live for the game.

Get them there with a boyhood glint in their eye not a weary walk in their step.


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