IN THE last issue of the ‘Apunts Sports Medicine’ Journal, 10 Spanish academics published a paper on the impact of the lockdown on sports team activity during Covid-19.
With regular and large group training discontinued for most athletes and teams over large periods of the last year, so many elongated breaks inevitably damage the quality and quantity of training, while also distancing the athlete from their daily routines in regular sports facilities.
The paper presented the results of a worldwide survey computed from 230 coaches from 26 different countries, representing the activity of more than 4,500 athletes. The aim was to know more about teams’ activity during a cessation period last May.
Coaches and trainers were surveyed about their strategies to organize practices during the lockdown and the implementation of technical, tactical, and physical activities in their players’ schedules.
The technical contents most periodised by the teams during the lockdowns were drills aimed at honing ball and no-ball skills. The tactical contents preferred by the coaches worked around affecting full squads based on individual and position-specific concepts.
Along with physical condition maintenance and injury prevention, those technical and tactical components have largely governed management and coaching teams’ principles when trying to remotely prepare their squads over the last year, both prior to last year’s championship (and the concluding rounds of the 2020 football league) and this year’s leagues and championships.
Players have been able to take advantage of online platforms to try and be more tactically creative but there have been other clear benefits to those practises too. Finding ways to virtually work together as a group during the pandemic has helped to develop a sense of identity and community for teammates. Doing it together can often be as important as trying to find the right answers to a tactical question.
Squads have also had to be imaginative in trying to strengthen more meaningful relationships with teammates when they are so physically disconnected. That has even been more important when studies have shown how being separated from teammates can have long-term impacts on team culture and both mental and physical health.
The challenge for every squad, both club and inter-county, around the country has been to stoke that feeling of togetherness and brotherhood that the absence of a shared dressing room removed. That obstacle has been all the harder again for inter-county players to surmount when so many of them have been geographically isolated from their teammates since last winter.
Balance has been a key word for inter-county players over the last year because they’ve consistently had to try and find it.
During the early stages of the first lockdown in 2020, many players realised that having the foot pressed to the accelerator the whole time was pointless. More importantly, it was unsustainable, especially in trying to maintain physical and mental freshness.
The difficulty back then was there were no guarantees there even would be a GAA season, let alone inter-county championships. That was even more challenging when the lives of inter-county players are usually dictated by concrete dates ring-fenced in the calendar months in advance.
Players have still been extremely busy trying to prepare for the upcoming season but, similar to everyone else over the last year, they’ve also had more time to think. And they’ve had to adapt.
Inter-county players are creatures of habit and routine. When many retire, the sudden loss of that routine often presents huge psychological challenges in trying to make that adjustment. A lack of group training structure or defined training schedules has been difficult over most of the last 13 months, but it has also allowed players to tweak those habits and routines to suit themselves more constructively.
Players often hardly have time to think during a frenetic season. That helter-skelter environment will return from next week when teams are trying to play catch up on the field after being away from it for so long. Yet the last few months have also fostered the scope for deliberately incorporating acts of self-care, especially around mindfulness, into their lives, which, will hopefully allow players to re-establish greater feelings of control and comfort when the pressure will come on during big games in the coming months.
Psychological detachment and investing more mental effort on self-care strategies is something players may never have done during a hectic training and playing season in the past. The increased time on the sidelines has also allowed players the opportunity to spend more time in self-reflection.
Maintaining social connectivity to team-mates and management teams has also been instructional in how much of a key psychological resource that social connectivity is for team culture. Those virtual connections may have been done through Zoom calls or other online platforms, but it has at least allowed players to feel part of something which, under nearly four months of Level 5 Lockdown, often felt so far away.
Although the calendar has kept shifting in 2021, every team has at least known since the outset of this season that they had a plan to hang on 2021. The start of that inter-county season may have taken longer to begin than everyone had hoped for — especially the players — but that day will finally arrive now on Monday.
The inter-county training fields will be open again. League games will take place within three-four weeks. Supporters will soon be able to watch their counties play again on TV. And players have never been as mad for road.
The longest wait is almost over.