A FRIDAY night in January and Colm Crowley is heading into his weekly session with the Cork U17 football squad out in Tyco gym in CIT.
The strength and conditioning coach, who is part of the fitnessworx gym, has the players for two hours every week from October to March for this part of the programme, that section of the training regime that’s trying to make Cork footballers able to compete at a physical level.
There’s little time to waste in a tough environment down here in Munster, playing catch-up with this Kerry minor monster and trying to build a real platform for these Cork footballers in an area that’s not always had that focus.
He outlines how this all comes together: “We’d start in October with testing, basic weight and body fat, movement, speed test, yo-yo (bleep) test, just to get a picture of the overall level as a group and individually. We’ve got a six-lane track out here then so we do a lot of speed and agility, changing direction, some strength work but no heavy lifting really.
“It’s not about building massive bulky footballers. It’s just about making them a little stronger, a little more athletic, a little faster and maintaining that level then throughout their season. We’d do a lot of specific speed work and movement work.
“The U15s and U16s would be given a starter programme to do on their own or with their coaches in their areas, just to introduce them to the ideas and techniques. But you wouldn’t believe the difference even in these six months for the players we have, it’s phenomenal really how much they can come on in that time, in every aspect.”
Learnings and tweaks have been made as this has developed.
Crowley’s been working with the minors for four years now. In the first year of the programme all the information on training and games for the group were input and tracked manually.
Now the players have the smartabase app on their phone which tracks their workload, basically a training diary where each individual player logs in every night what activity (training, gym, game) they’d taken part in, rates it on scale of toughness, assesses their general energy levels, their sleep quality, hydration and so on.
If a player is doing too much it’ll be spotted immediately and communication with the player and other coaches will follow and generally it’s building up an overall database of information on each player involved with Cork at underage level. The small details have helped. The group has had very few overuse injuries this past year especially, a result Crowley puts down to better monitoring of players.
Most of the time is it about trying to stop young lads mad for road doing too much?
“Absolutely, that’s a big challenge,” Crowley admits. “Especially at this age, these young players are mad keen on learning and this year, in particular, has a group of very driven fellas who are ambitious and want to make themselves as good as they can be.
“Sometimes you have to rein them in a bit. But it’s about education then, about making them aware of why they’re doing what they’re doing and just the lifestyle that goes with being an athlete at this level, what needs to be done to play for Cork.
“We have parents in this weekend as well for an information meeting, as they’re vital at this age especially for the right foods these lads need to be eating when training so much, on nutrition, on sleep and conditions that make all this work.”
Individual weaknesses can be worked on and amended. A midfielder recently approached looking for information on how to develop strength to compete for dirty ball in that zone; Crowley recognised the potential benefits of adding a little bulk to the frame of a tall rangy footballer who needed to win aerial battles against big men.
Let’s say a defender who comes looking to get faster, how would that be done? Crowley explains: “Ok, so first we’d look at his timing on say the 10-20m speed test. Then we’d try and narrow down the reason for why the player isn’t running as quickly as he could be.
“So it might be a reactive thing, where he’s slow off the mark and we’d introduce some extra strength work in the legs to try and improve that explosiveness. Or if it’s the top end that’s the problem, it might be some plyometric work needed.
“Maybe it’s turning speed and maybe then it’s technique work needed on the arm movement. You wouldn’t see a huge leap in time but if you can make a small difference, say turning a three-second test result at that distance into a 2.9 or 2.8, that could be the difference between a corner-back getting a hand on a ball to disrupt it from a forward or not getting there.”
Still, it’s not an easy or quick fix to change a person’s running technique at the age of 17. Crowley will argue that the earlier they can get players the better. This is why there’s been a striking difference between the kids who came into the minor grade in the first year of this programmes and the kids who’ve come through two or three years of training before they reach the U17 age.
He references a few players who’ve come into the group who were noticeably better technical runners than everyone else — it turned out they were athletes from Leevale and that natural running ability stood out. The players buy into it though and motivate themselves.
Everyone wants to win the speed tests and be the fastest or everyone wants to catch the fella in front. The minor group this year have had better results on the yo-yo test than some Cork senior footballers, which says a lot about the quality of athlete and training levels we’re talking here.
Of all the challenges, the perception from clubs and people outside these development squads of the work being done has had to be addressed.
Worries that these programmes would produce a batch of bulked-up robots have drifted over time as the reality sank in that the education and a certain lifestyle being developed helps everybody.
The consistency of access to a strength and conditioning programme through the entire road from U14 to senior is a frustration. Crowley references the Cork U17 group that lost by a point to All-Ireland champs Kerry early last May so were completely lost to any kind of collective programme until they find their way back (if they do) into the system but there could be two or three years missed in the meantime.
He mentions the first minor team he helped out a few years back where only Mark White had gone onto the senior panel by last summer, though a few more have been called on now.
The plan has gaps to fill but there’s work being done in making sure Cork footballers can catch up on the strength and conditioning side of things.