The Christy O'Connor: GAA success in hurling and football increasingly hinges on the need for speed

The Christy O'Connor: GAA success in hurling and football increasingly hinges on the need for speed
Shane Kingston, Douglas, in a race with Cian Kiely, Ballincollig. Picture: Jim Coughlan.

AT VARIOUS stages of last month’s drawn Kerry-Dublin All-Ireland final, Kerry had three banks of four lined up as far as midfield for Stephen Cluxton’s kick-outs.

Kerry had pushed so many defenders into the press that there was sometimes just one defender inside their own 45. On the Dublin kick-out before Jack McCaffrey’s goal, Paul Manion and Con O’Callaghan were being marked by goalkeeper Shane Ryan.

The Kerry press was 8 v 6 inside the Dublin 65 metre line but Brian Howard’s incredible catch near the sideline allowed Dublin to create a 5 v 4 advantage going forward. And the goal was inevitable once McCaffrey was able to exploit that space.

From the moment Cluxton kicked out the ball, the score took just 16 seconds to execute. After Howard caught the kick-out, Ciarán Kilkenny and Niall Scully necklaced the move together before McCaffrey finished it after a devastating burst from deep. From the moment McCaffrey started his run, he covered 84 metres and got off the shot inside ten seconds.

McCaffrey’s pace sets him apart but speed is becoming increasingly important in modern sport, especially in GAA.

“The key to success is speed,” said Pep Guardiola a few years back. “If you want to win in sport you need to be just a little faster than all the rest. It’s not so much about strength and power. It’s about speed.” 

Speed has different connotations in soccer, football and hurling than in, say athletics, but the term always seemed less relevant to hurling, primarily because the ball could always travel faster than any player.

That will always be the case but in a possession dominated game now, where the tactics of denying possession are dominating how the game is largely evolving, speed is now a key skill.

The average inter-county player will run 20 metres from a standing start in 3.09 seconds. The average top running speed of many elite GAA squads now is around 9.2 metres per second.

That pace is off the charts, especially when Usain Bolt’s top running speed for his 100 metres world record is 12.75 metres per second. Maintaining a top running speed of around nine metres per second is unsustainable, and unrequired, for GAA players when most of the distance covered is in short bursts.

One of the most well-worn phrases in sport is that ‘you can’t coach speed’. It is difficult but that doesn’t mean it can’t be developed. 

When Jackie Tyrrell was in his early 20s, he wasn’t rated in Kilkenny because he was deemed too slow. Seánie McMahon had the same accusation levelled against him as an underage player in Clare but, like Tyrrell, he worked extremely hard on developing his speed. Their class and intelligence may have compensated against faster players but both McMahon and Tyrrell were two of the greatest defenders of any era.

The increasing speed from GAA players is coming from the strength and explosive power training players are doing now, and doing more often, and with greater expertise.

Part of that equation, by default, is that players are becoming faster, independent of technique.

The biggest shift in GAA Strength and Conditioning coaching over the last five years is on how that role has expanded.

S&C coaches are now expected to deliver acceleration and sprint training at a highly advanced level. Speed is mostly an innate quality, but it is also a skill that can be learned and developed. 

Linear speed is often hidden in the shade of the qualities like agility and change of direction but players everywhere, in every team sport, are getting faster through a greater focus on the area.

A recent study in the English Premier League over seven seasons identified the increase in speed during that time; a 50% increase in high-intensity running actions; a 35% increase in sprint distance; an 85% increase in the number of sprints; a 15% increase in the proportion of explosive sprints.

Soccer is different to Gaelic football. Other contact games like rugby and American football have very specific positional and speed demands. 

Because of so many other requirements, speed is only one component of Gaelic football and GAA teams need to base their style of play on the players they have, on their ability, and athletic ability. Yet Gaelic football’s fluidity and intensity demands speed everywhere now.

When Kerry won the 2004 All-Ireland, Pat Flanagan broke down the players running technique to make them faster and more efficient in their stride. Flanagan’s approach was considered ahead of its time back then but the increasing culture of sports science in GAA had led to increasingly better training and coaching methods, and methodologies. Most of the recent research seems to be shifting more towards acceleration and change of direction being independent skills, as opposed to gym work leading to players getting faster.

And yet, in a recent interview in the Irish Times, Martin Bennett, a sprint coached, spoke of how coaching speed is not being done enough, or done properly, in the GAA at inter-county level.

“What I’ve found is modern players know they can get faster, but it’s not being catered for,” said Bennett. “They’re starting to realise that there’s more to it than getting from cone A to B 10 times and you’ll be faster. 

"It’s way more in-depth than that. There’s learning in it, there’s processing. There’s skill, there’s creating habits. It has to become a habit, or we’re not getting faster. We need to practise the skill of speed, the same as you would a shooting drill.” 

Bennett revealed how he has worked with Cork dual player Aidan Walsh, and hurlers Damien Cahalane, Shane Kingston and Seán O’Donoghue.

Bennett said that Kingston was the fastest player he had encountered, with Kingston able to run 60 metres in 6.66 seconds.

Few players have Kingston’s electric pace but speed is still a skill that can be coached much more than it actually is.

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