As GAA returns, coaches and players face huge challenges to modify training

As GAA returns, coaches and players face huge challenges to modify training
Dr Crokes' Michael Burns and Conor Dennehy of St. Finbarr's in action in 2018. No social distancing there. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

AT this time of the GAA season, performance analysts working at inter-county level have a hectic schedule, with massive volumes of data and footage to continually code and assess.

As well as analysing their own players, performance analysts have also to dissect the opposition, looking at their strengths and weaknesses, seeking an angle of attack wherever they can find it.

Trying to establish trends is a common theme but those trends are usually player, practise or game specific. Searching for more diverse trends is an easier task when there aren’t games, which is why there has been such an explosion of new data and information in recent months.

Earlier on in the lockdown, the Cork senior camogie team performance analyst Niall Collins was able to show how a camogie player is in contact for less than two minutes during a game.

Those numbers may have been surprising but they’re certainly more relevant considering how speed is becoming such an integral part across the GAA.

Winning your own ball will always be a fundamental part of hurling and camogie but there is a huge premium on shorter stick-passing and securing clean possession in both games now.

It’s not about clean hooks and blocks anymore, because swarm tackling, turnovers and huge body hits are the new template. That may have increased the contact zones but the increasingly claustrophobic conditions have also forced hurlers and camogie players to try and move the ball faster than ever.

In that context, it’s no surprise that inter-county senior hurlers now have, on average, around 1.6 seconds to get rid of the ball after securing possession to try and avoid being swallowed up in the tackle.

There is greater scope for more physical contact in football, especially with teams playing so many men behind the ball. Yet a new study commissioned by the GAA has shown that Gaelic footballers spend an average of just 2.5 seconds within two metres of other players during matches.

Those figures were produced by the Newry-based company Statsports for the first ever study into player proximity in Gaelic football. The numbers were taken from four inter-county football matches and five county training sessions in 2019 and 2020. Drawing an imaginary two-metre circle around the feet of each player, it measured the amount and duration of incursions into that circle by other players.

When data from training sessions is considered, incursions into players’ two-metre zone only lasts on average 1.6 seconds, lower than the threshold to contract Covid-19. However, these incursions occur far more often during training sessions, an average of 43 per minute compared to 17 in matches.

Yet with the tackle in Gaelic football generally far more physically intrusive than in soccer, some respected and experienced performance analysts have questioned the data.

Shane Mangan, a sports scientist lecturer and performance analyst, queried on Twitter why the information was not peer reviewed, and how no info was given on the method of gathering the data.

Mangan also listed how an average club player will make 3.5 tackles per game, concede one free, win one free, contest two breaking balls from kick-outs, in addition to standing beside their marker at the start of both halves, which would result in far more than 2.5 seconds.

Players not breathing properly during a match further dilutes the two metres as a base measure.

Mark McHugh, the former Donegal footballer, also questioned the figures on Twitter. “I’m sorry but I’m not buying this,” posted McHugh. “Ask man-markers or players who have been man-marked. They’d be lucky if they have 2.5 seconds without the man holding on to his jersey…” 

With man-marking much more prevalent in Gaelic games, player engagement is fundamentally different to soccer.

Statsports had already produced the 'Player Proximity' white paper that provided detail of contact between Premier League players ahead of a return to training. The company was able to establish that the average incursion in soccer was 3.3 seconds, almost a second more than in Gaelic football.

Yet set-pieces are a significant factor in the variance. The different time-lengths of both games was an obvious factor but Statsports also found also that the number of incursions in Gaelic football – an average of 539 times per game - is significantly lower than in soccer, which is closer to 2,000.

In the study, the longest any one Gaelic footballer tracked spent in the company of another was 58 seconds. The norm though, was much shorter than that, with the majority of incursions lasting less than one second. On the otherhand, players were found to spend an average 24.72% of games inside two metres of at least one other player.

Whatever about the nature of the data, and the question marks surrounding those figures, they can at least help inform coaches and managers as they return to training. That will mostly apply to designing sessions, and how the protocols may change as everyone moves through the Government phases.

For a start, it will certainly be easier to build space into training sessions, where players and coaches are more in control of what happens than in matches.

In the short term, training has to be modified anyway for the new reality, which has been fully outlined in the roadmap for a safe return for Gaelic Games.

Everyone accepts now it will be a whole different reality. And learning, adapting and facilitating as they slowly move forward will incrementally provide coaches, managers and players with greater insight into how they can deal with that new reality.

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