Finding the Balance

As clubs and squads clamber to prepare for the return of competitive GAA, both coaches and managers need to be very cognisant of the risk of non-contact injuries in the coming weeks. As we have seen from the return of German Football, where the injury rate in the first week of the Bundesliga went from 0.27 to a considerable 0.88 per game, which equate to a 225% increase in injuries per game, coaches needs to proceed with caution. What can we as Strength and Conditioning coaches learn from such a study? Were the causes of such injuries as a result of lack of preparedness for competitive football or were they as a result of over training the players in the lead up to the resumption of the Bundesliga? Either way, it is exceedingly difficult to find a proper balance between both and this is an issue that all Strength and Conditioning coaches and skills coaches within the GAA will have to mull over the next number of weeks.

Building Up to Competitive Intensity

As the GAA have recently announced, full contact training can commence on the 20th of July. Whilst allowing players in smaller groups of non-contact training on the 29th of June, (I understand many high profile ex-players and coaches are seeking an earlier return) the jump from non-contact to full training is quite sizeable, and I feel that coaches and mangers should proceed with caution. Coaches must resist the temptation of blindly jumping into minutes upon minutes of full contact training. This, I feel, would result in a spike in soft tissue injuries which may cause players to miss out on playing time over the autumn. Like all elements of training, a gradual progression should be adhered to, with a slow build up to full competitive intensity.

Now, that is all fine if there was sufficient time between the resumption of full training and the commencement of competitive championships games, but as the GAA have announced that competitive games can commerce from the 31st of July, in essence that may leave only 11 days between return to full training and competition. Obviously, some county boards will provide a longer lead in time, but others may want to complete these competitions as soon as possible. Wexford County Board have announced that the County Hurling final will take place on the 23rd of August, therefore this championship will last little over three weeks in duration, whilst the Waterford County Board have proposed a similar roadmap with a date of a week later for their hurling county final.

Managing the Different Training Periods

What is more important from a Strength and Conditioning point of view is what you do with your squad of players once training is permitted from the end of June, to the time that full training is approved and onto the first round of the championship. For what it is worth, my opinion would be with respect to the first block of non-contact training. The Strength and Conditioning coach has a relatively small three week window to prepare his/her players for the rigors that will lie ahead. Therefore, it is important that they be given the time to invest with the players; specific conditioning work such as progressive accelerations and a plyometric exercise programme, along with skill drills and large sided games where contact could be minimised, would be appropriate training content.

With respect to the following period where full contact is permitted, I would be of the opinion that very little pure conditioning take place during that period. Even if you are provided the time to do so by the manager or head coach, which I would argue would be at a premium, we should be incredibly careful in what we complete. One should allow the execution of the skills of the game and competitive game based training to take precedent, we can still achieve substantial specific game based conditioning during this type of training if it is executed correctly and at a high enough intensity. The Strength and Conditioning coach should work together with the skills coach on the intensity and duration of these skills drills and more importantly conditioned games, in order to get the best bang for the training buck.

The gradual progression of both intensity and duration should be strongly adhered to, start off mid-medium intensity and longer duration of these conditioned games and move towards higher intensity whilst descending duration. The slow introduction of high intensity and high fatiguing exercises, drills and games would be best advised. Again time may be against you, so it is very much a case of risk versus reward and I personally would always err on the side of caution.

“Train fast and explosively, play fast and explosively”

The big outlier here is what the players have completed during the lockdown. Have players invested time in resistance training routines and individual conditioning programmes? While I would guess that many have, there are obviously those that have not. The other major factor is what was the players’ training content during the lockdown? I recently have had players ask my advice, saying that they have been programmed long aerobic style runs. While this might have been apt in the earlier days of this hiatus, it has been proven in academic research that continuous aerobic training blunts the development of speed and power, e.g. Ronnestad et al 2011 and Rhea et al 2008. Speed and power are two very important components of both hurling and Gaelic Football, therefore interference is a basic principle of training that needs to be taken into consideration. You would also like to assume that there has been some element of plyometric and explosive movements contained within the resistance training programme that the players have been prescribed over the past three months, in order to prepare them for the dynamic nature of the games. An old adage I have often used is “you train slow, you play slow. You train fast and explosively, you play fast and explosively”.

Over the coming weeks the big mistake would be that coaches and managers attempt to make up for lost time, and programme so much into the preparation weeks that players begin to break down. This rapid increase in training intensity, I believe, will see a similar spike in injury rate in both hurling and Gaelic Football similar to that in the Bundesliga.

Avoiding Injury

Another very important element of the role of the Strength and Conditioning coach is ensuring that a proper prehabiliitation programme is completed by all players. There will be no more appropriate time for the strict compliance of this prehabilitation programme of mobility, activation, stability and flexibility than in the first few weeks of full contact training and competition. Everything humanly possible should be completed in order to reduce the risk of injury to players. Be that prehabilitation work or recovery strategies that will accelerate the normal 48 hour recovery process and the readiness to train and play. These recovery strategies may include strategies such as ice baths, compression garments, cryotherapy or active recovery or a combination of same. Now I know that the jury is out on a number of these recovery strategies in that the current research is somewhat conflicting. However, in my experience, I have found many of them have had the desired effect especially the ice and cold contrasts methods, be that even a placebo effect.

There are also various forms of tracking training content that coaches can utilise ranging from simple rate of perceived exertion forms to the far more expensive use of GPS systems extensively used at inter county level, of the various training sessions and games that each player participates in. While RPE is not an exact science, the establishment of basic evaluating and monitoring of raining load systems is of the utmost importance.

The Inter-County Perspective

From an inter county perspective, as I have stated previously I believe the leadership of the GAA have taken a measured and proper approach in scheduling club games prior to completion of the intercounty competitions as it will provide the intercounty player more time to return to peak readiness and match fitness. However the big worry from a County Strength and Conditioning point of view is that you have 36 or so players completing different club training session some very sensible and valuable whilst others maybe detrimental to the players’ overall and long term fitness and readiness to play. It will be interesting to see if the GAA authorities will enforce their guidelines that intercounty teams cannot return to collectively training until the 14th of September. What about the county players whose club exit the club championship in mid-August, do they sit on their laurels until mid-September? I will not comment on my own personal view but whatever the case may be, one would like to think it would be the same for each county in that it be a level playing field for all.

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