'Coaches are often guilty of trying to solve too many questions at one time'

Experienced coach Kevin Mulcahy on why being focused on a specific area can reap a greater reward than trying to cover all bases 
'Coaches are often guilty of trying to solve too many questions at one time'

Manager Mickey Harte instructs his players a Louth senior football squad training at the Louth GAA Centre of Excellence. Picture: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

KEEP the most important thing, the most important thing.

One of the most obvious things to me from a number of years coaching and working with individuals in personal training, performance, and sports coaching are that really the most effective approach to any form of development is to concentrate on one thing at a time. With clients in the gym I use a 1+1 method, which is simple: 1=training + 1 other thing, be it sleep, nutrition, or whatever.

The training is the training and has multiple benefits that I don’t need to double down on here. But that +1 is the game-changer. And it has to be the ‘most important thing’.

The most important thing might not always be the most obvious thing. People will naturally lean towards nutrition very often and say ‘my diet is poor’.

But then you delve deeper into it and they read their phone in bed for an hour before sleep. Their sleep is totally distorted and their decision-making processes are disrupted by fatigue and nutrition is what goes out the window.

So sleep is the important thing here, whereas the standard Instagram approach to healthier living is to ‘cut calories’. This very often is exactly the wrong and opposite approach needed, and causes more fatigue and more issues and often then a ‘why do I even bother’ endless yo-yo cycle of start-stop and a poor relationship with exercise.

It’s essentially treating symptoms and not root causes. We are hitting two birds with one stone here as well for coaches while giving an analogy for more specifics below — the above situation with phones is arguably one of the most common modern performance killers across high-end professions, education and sports, so creating some awareness around it will help a lot.

FOCUSED

In sport, a similar approach is needed. The game itself is one. Focusing on one thing at a time is a sensible strategy, which many coaches figure out over time anyway as, myself included, we are often guilty of trying to solve too many questions at one time.

Coaches often ask me about broad subjects, like ‘how do we get them making better decisions Kevin?’ ‘Have you any games for better decision-making?’

I have loads, however, is that really the problem? Then you see the team and they are clearly de-conditioned. Then that’s the problem. And then that’s the most important thing. So you make that the most important thing.

That’s the thing about strength and conditioning as an example. It’s the most important thing until it’s not. If you cannot stay going for 60 or 70 or 90 minutes for the level you play at, then...

Everything suffers if you are not in that 10% range of peak fitness at all times. 

Little drops are perfectly normal and especially at amateur levels life fatigue and niggles can affect performance a little but I think most sensible people accept that. However, outside that performance will suffer.

The first thing to go is your head, and so skill.

Now the thing to remember though is: was the positive decision-making there previously? If it was then it’s highly likely conditioning is the deficit. However, if it wasn’t then that’s a bigger project and that’s where clever use of games and fitness comes in, so it’s important that coaches don’t take this as conditioning solving all issues either. Obviously, it can’t. However, my experience is it’s the missing link for most teams.

Why?

Because it takes time. It generally takes three years to reach a capacity across a squad. And there is often a lack of patience with coaches and/or clubs and they go back to a ‘go hard or go home’ approach and injuries and fatigue emerges and the inconsistent cycle emerges again.

The most important thing might be kicking in football, or playing out from the back in soccer. Whatever it is, lean everything towards that for periods of time, be it themed sessions or for a block in early pre-season. 

That’s not to say you do one small-sided game repeatedly, it’s that there are multiple methods being used with a lean on that particular subject, skill, or phase of play.

For instance, in the conditioning deficit scenario, we also have a kick-out problem. So while we can work on elements of straight-line running and so on to improve base conditioning, the games we use can have a kick-out focus (or maybe reward system) but have a conditioning element to them.

This is keeping the most important thing just that, but not abandoning everything else. Essentially if conditioning is the most important thing to work on, work on it... with everything you do.

AGE-APPROPRIATE

There are bigger broader questions for coaches to consider also in a larger sporting context. For instance, the only barometer I would use for the six- to the nine-year-old bracket is: is it fun? There are many heuristics I use for coaching and evaluating training sessions, but the one I always lean on with this age group is, can I hear the kids or can I hear the adults?

I’ll let ye consider which is more important yourselves. But fun and smiling faces are something I would look to dominate all decision-making processes in this group. The most important thing is fun, and it looks after so much at this age group.

Siblings Mia, Ben and Tom Mulconry at Avondale United. Picture: Larry Cummins
Siblings Mia, Ben and Tom Mulconry at Avondale United. Picture: Larry Cummins

With the 10-13 age bracket it should remain fun of course, but it’s a time of change and especially as they enter secondary school things change a lot. So it becomes more ‘are they coming back?’. It may need a bit more thought, a bit more challenge.

This however does adjust as you age. So a coaching group or club may need to hit a few different areas to maintain participation, both challenge and fun. 

Retention is the most important thing, so every decision you make is underpinned by that, even sacrificing winning games as one example.

After that from an abstract view, I would suggest it’s ‘are they involved?’

We have research to show data that it’s around 13 and after where most kids drop out. Much of the research suggests that not enjoying it anymore and feeling left out are the primary reasons for that dropout.

 Young Sarsfields hurlers Thomas Murphy and Liam Murphy with Tadhg Murphy, club chairman, having a puck in Riverstown.  Picture: Larry Cummins.
Young Sarsfields hurlers Thomas Murphy and Liam Murphy with Tadhg Murphy, club chairman, having a puck in Riverstown.  Picture: Larry Cummins.

And as suggested above, within the sessions themselves we can think about ‘the most important thing’ for a season, or a month or a training session.

But trying to do everything at once tends to leave us not doing anything that well at all, overwhelmed and not able to engage with the important ordinary relationship stuff which sustains people anyway. People are motivated to take action or stay involved by three main things: being involved in the decision-making process, feeling some level of competency at the tasks involved, and feeling part of the group.

By focusing on the main thing, everything improves.

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