GAA coaches and players have upskilled in lockdown but nothing beats real action on the pitch

Uncertainty remains about the start of the club season but many have used their downtime wisely
GAA coaches and players have upskilled in lockdown but nothing beats real action on the pitch

Duhallow's Neil Flahive going past UCC's Mark Coleman in last year's club championship. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

WHEN the GAA launched their Coaching and Sports Science programme ‘Be Ready to Play’ in mid-February, Des Ryan, one of the main drivers behind the concept, said club players that take part in the programme “will have the best management team in Gaelic Games available online”.

Designed as a holistic coaching and performance plan delivered via webinars, website programmes, instructional videos and live online sessions, its ultimate aims are to help all players return to training post-Covid in a way that will hopefully increase enjoyment, performance, and participation, while simultaneously reducing the risk of injury.

Some of the areas covered include games-based coaching, athletic development, psychology and wellbeing, nutrition, performance analysis, skill acquisition and biomechanics, physiotherapy, and injury prevention.

Delivered by some of the most renowned leaders in the field of coaching and performance, it is being rolled out through fortnightly Athletic Development programmes, monthly Coach education webinars, and monthly Sport Science support webinars.

“There is nothing being done on the scale of this anywhere else in the world that is so multi-disciplined,” said Mr Ryan, who is head of sport medicine and athletic development at Arsenal FC, and athletic development lead with the Gaelic Games Sports Science Working Group.

The GAA certainly haven’t stood still while the pitches have been silent. Numerous counties have run their own series of coaching webinars to upskill coaches and map out an evidence-informed plan of returning to training and returning to play. The upshot is that club players and coaches now have access to, and are being educated on sports science concepts that were often deemed alien, or even unnecessary for the club game.

Modern players want to be challenged and stimulated but striking the right balance is still the key, especially when everyone’s — especially players — attention spans are naturally decreasing through so much extra screen time.

Having begun early last month, the ‘Be Ready to Play’ programme was initially tailored to help people be active in lockdown, then progress towards a development phase and a prepare to play phase before culminating in a prepare to perform phase which will help players be at their peak for important matches.

The obvious difficulty is trying to be right when nobody knows when those club matches will take place. Club players were consistently faced with those challenges in the past when they were at the mercy of the inter-county game, and their particular county team. 

But with the ‘split season’ concept not happening this year, and with the go-ahead for the club season seemingly dependent on the effective roll-out of the vaccination programme, nobody knows when that green light will be granted.

When the GAA unveiled their roadmap last June to reopen its properties and return to games, their to-do list was extensive, ranging from an education programme, the appointment of a Covid-19 officer for every team, player health questionnaires, temperature checks, guidelines on training, to restrictions on social distancing and use of facilities.

With all of those protocols now firmly in place, clubs and counties have had more than enough preparatory time to fine-tune those protocols before there is any return to action.

DELAY

There won’t be any county finals anytime soon, which will naturally quell the heightened emotion which spilled over last autumn, and which ultimately led to the cancellation of the club season. On the other hand, clubs now firmly know that certain standards must be maintained at all times going forward.

Others have set standards as an example to follow. With the fear of an outbreak of Covid derailing their season, Limerick revealed after last year’s All-Ireland final how they had conducted over 2,000 temperature checks over a 12-week period during the 2020 championship.

In the face of an ongoing pandemic, flexibility and adaptability remain dominant themes for the GAA.

When the GAA’s Central Competitions Control Committee began teasing out a master fixture schedule for the club and inter-county championships last June, they knew they had to accommodate the traffic jam of a football league, a potential knockout football championship, tiered hurling championships and underage competitions in both codes, with the likelihood of some championships not being finished up until February 2021.

Some of those championships, at club and underage inter-county, still haven’t concluded but no one envisaged those championships extending nearly a full year — especially with the underage competitions — beyond their original conclusion dates.

The CCCC have always had to remain extremely flexible in their long and short-term planning. A number of contingency plans were initially drawn up, a plethora of which have already been binned.

The CCCC’s planned schedules, and how they manage them, will be known next week but even greater levels of flexibility again are already being suggested with possible mid-week inter-county league games.

With intercounty training beginning in two weeks, there is at least certainty, and legitimate hope, that fixtures can start in mid-May.

The last few months have shown how any best-laid plans or strategies are at the constant mercy of a deadly virus. Nothing is bulletproof but the biggest difference this time around is that all GAA units – club and inter-county – aren’t shooting in the dark like they were at the outset of last year’s campaigns.

And, despite the constant frustration and the seemingly never-ending waiting game, that time has also enabled players, coaches and managers to upskill on a whole new level, where they might never had the time, or the chance, when the season was a perennial blur of training and games.

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