The Christy O'Connor column: GAA players are now faster and more athletic

The Christy O'Connor column: GAA players are now faster and more athletic
Jerry O'Connor racing past Clare's Brian Lohan. His hard-running style is now vital for a modern midfielder. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

IN A recent feature piece in the Irish Examiner, DJ Carey spoke about the comparisons between players from his era and the current era, and how the game has evolved and developed in the meantime.

It’s always impossible to compare players from different generations. Each player is a product of their time, but Carey was still in no doubt as to the levels current players have now reached.

“I think there’s very few from my era who’d survive in today’s game,” said Carey. “That’s not to say they couldn’t be developed and trained to survive and do well in the modern game, but the way we were at that time, very few would survive. The speed, the strength, the skill — it’s a different game nowadays.”

Kilkenny's DJ Carey in action against Cork's Diarmuid O'Sullivan. Picture: Des Barry
Kilkenny's DJ Carey in action against Cork's Diarmuid O'Sullivan. Picture: Des Barry

Hurling is constantly evolving. In the 2010 championship the average score by a winning team was 2-20; in 2019, it was 2-25.

Despite such claustrophobic conditions, and space being instantly swallowed up, every team now still expects to shoot the lights out. Yet that level of expectation wouldn’t be possible unless all of the other metrics in the game had risen too, which most of them have.

Nobody has studied hurling’s modern evolution more than Damien Young, former Tipperary player and current Tipperary performance analyst.

After publishing eight research papers in International Journals, Young recently completed his PhD, where he investigated the match-day demands of hurling.

Despite all the information, there had been a serious lack of in-depth knowledge out there of those demands - before Young’s Phd research, there was only one published paper available that described the match-day demands of hurling.

Yet as in any sport, the conditioning of the players should rely on the evidence-based research that quantifies those match-day demands.

Maximising time spent with players has never been more important for coaches. And more data enables coaches to be more specific in the preparation of these players to meet those demands of the game.

As Young recently shared some of his research findings, he began with a study completed by himself and three others – Marco Beato, Laurent Mourot and Guiseppe Coratella – titled ‘Match-Play Temporal and Position-Specific Physical and Physiological Demands of Senior Hurlers’, which appeared in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research last year.

That study examined the temporal differences in match-running performances and heart rate in elite senior hurlers between halfs of play and field positions. Global positioning systems and heart rate monitors were used to collect data from 48 players over 18 games in league and championship.

The variables investigated were; total distance; relative distance; distance at each speed; peak speed; number of sprints; mean length of sprint.

The results showed that over a 70-minute game, hurlers cover, on average, a total distance of 7, 800 metres. That figure is slightly lower than in Gaelic football and soccer but slightly higher than in rugby.

Averaged out over the 70 minutes, the relative distance was 109 metres every minute, with players reaching an average maximum speed of 8.4 metres per second.

In an overall context, the results showed that conditioning for hurlers should include players changing speeds frequently. Over the 70 minutes, players covered on average 415 metres sprinting, which is made up on average of 22 sprints over a mean length of 19 metres. On average, players perform 14 sprints under 20 metres and eight sprints over 20 metres.

Wexford powerhouse Lee Chin always covers huge ground as a modern roaming forward. Picture: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Wexford powerhouse Lee Chin always covers huge ground as a modern roaming forward. Picture: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

The figures also show how the most distance and high-speed running is covered by half-backs, midfielders and half-forwards. Yet as the intensity increases to sprinting, there was no differences across positions, which was also evident in the numbers of sprints.

Those numbers gave coaches excellent data to work on. Yet with the intermittent nature of match play, Young wanted to further describe the sprint demands of elite hurlers, which he examined in his PhD.

One of the standout statistics was that players only sprint up near their peak speed just three times per game. But with players needing to perform at various speeds during match day, coaches need to set up sprint practises that match those numbers, and match-day demands.

When the data was broken down into sprint direction, Young’s graphs showed how players are often involved in curved runs.

That data should inform how coaches set up their sessions, especially when considering the technical and tactical situations happening at different times in games.

“So, integrating those sprint practises into skill practises and small sided games are really necessary so that players get used to deciding when to sprint,” said Young. “With this data, we can design hurling activities which produce these numbers, where players can reach these maximal intestity periods.”

If coaches, for example, are setting up small-sided games where players are operating at low speeds, repeating those activities conditions players to getting used to living at that low pace.

It’s similar with sprinting. If coaches are recreating opportunities for sprinting, the size of the area will dramatically influence the players ability to sprint.

Since players need to reach 6.1 metres a second for a sprint to count, players will be limited in their ability to sprint and reach their top sprint speed if they are sprinting in a restricted area. In more of a match context, players need to think about where and when to sprint.

It certainly is a different game now. The technical ability of most inter-county players is at a different level to anything seen before.

And Young’s outstanding research shows how, and why, players are getting faster, fitter and more athletic all the time.

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