Strength and Conditioning Training for Gaelic Football
I’ve been working with an underage Gaelic Football team now for the past 2 months with excellent results so far. This is approximately the 12th GAA team I’ve taken for an extended period. I thought I’d write a bit about the experience of coaching youth teams (which is what I mainly like to do) and clear up some of the common misconceptions about firstly training youths, and secondly training sports teams.
Firstly when the guys arrived to me they were a bunch of fit-ish kids with extreme variations in strength, mobility, general conditioning and so on. In other words they were like every cross section of society you’re likely to meet. Ask the customers in your local shop at any one moment to go through a battery of tests and you will find the same variance. This variance is problematic for a number of reasons. Firstly, how to we design a training session that strengthens the weaker kids, but challenges the stronger ones? We must tread the physical line between having exercises too difficult for the weaker kids and not difficult enough for the stronger ones. Secondly, we must also tread another psychological line between discouraging the weaker kids and boring the stronger ones. There are many strong kids on teams that have been made weaker by a bad pre-season, and many weak kids who have progressed not one bit for the same reason. In many pogrammes, the strong get stronger and the weak stay the same. when I see a new group, I want the individual to improve, but I also want to see a team improve generally or I’m just a personal trainer for the strong guys. I’m also using strength as an example of the several physical attributes we’re looking to improve such as mobility, flexibility, balance, agility and so on. It’s tricky.
But let’s start with age groups. I much prefer to work with youth groups, it’s why I got into coaching in the first place. So when a team of 15 year olds is brought to me who have energy and enthusiasm I’m a happy man. The training of youths is a funny subject with one end of the scale saying “get them lifting early” and another saying “don’t touch a weight til you’re 18”. I’m of the opinion that at 15, we’re starting to deal with kids as individuals, so any answer might be correct depending on the kid we’re dealing with. In Ireland, we have a limited history of weight training so the first option of get them lifting now is rarely, in my experience, the case. That being said, more and more of the kids I’m coaching are members of gyms already, though the quality of what they’re doing in there is questionable.
It’s not that kids aren’t strong enough to deal with weights, it’s that they’re not mobile or stable enough from head to toe, and giving them an all encompassing “cookie cutter” programme for every kid on the team can be damaging. case in point, in this particular group I have a kid who can’t bodyweight squat to even 1/4 depth, but who can give me 10 full hang pull ups and 50 push ups in a minute. He’s also able to complete almost every conditioning task I give him as long as it doesn’t involve bending his knees. To give him for example a bench press and squat programme would be idiotic. Assuming he survived the squats, at the end of it he’d probably have better upper body strength (which was already his strong point) and we could only speculate as to whether his lower body would improve or explode. Likewise with youth groups, there are kids who would simply not be able to put the bar on their back, or bend their knees without their feet looking like Charlie Chaplin’s, or do one high quality push up.
So you must cater for all of them as a group, while catering for them as individuals. I use two methods for this. Firstly in our first 4 weeks we focused on bodyweight. This is their ability to lift and move themselves around. I’ve italicised the word move because I want to emphasise the use of movements as a vital cog in my thinking with large groups. For example, everyone knows that push ups are a good bodyweight exercise, so we do push ups. However since our group can either do zero push ups or 50 depending on who you look at in the room, we have to have an exercise that everyone can do but that challenges them too. For this reason I’m fond of bear crawls, wheelbarrows, handstands and so on. Anything that has a kid on his hands for extended periods of time is going to help with the shoulders and back, assist in stabilisation, and yes, help with strength. Don’t get me wrong, we’re going to do the push ups too, we’re just going to do them in conjunction with movement. Now the strong kid has done his 50 push ups, but he’s also done some dynamic stablisation work by walking on his hand while his partner holds his feet. The weaker kid has done what he can but now gets an additional strength exercise (for him, wheebarrow walks are a strength exercise). Not only this, but vitally, every kid can do the wheelbarrows, and when we’re having fun we’re also wheelbarrow racing as a group exercise. We can switch this example to lunges and have the same thing with scorpion walks, or squats with fireman’s carries or jockey-backs.
By and large, you can make youth groups stronger, fitter, and a better unit by just playing games and setting challenges. In fact you could probably extend that to senior groups too. Getting kids doing basic gymnastics and wrestling games alongside good strength and conditioning practices has always yielded results for me and managers have also spoken about the enthusiasm and bonding effect of the sessions- whether that means coming through a tough one together or just enjoying the training with their teammates.
Here’s a sample session I ran last night.
Wolves and Sheep (2 wolves out attacking, anyone tagged joins the wolfpack)
Stampede(like bulldog but you must crawl to the other end, attackers have to turn you to your back)
20 push ups
20 Sit Ups
Generally we do a mobility/stability warm up but last night I wanted them doing something simple to chart their progress. On day 1 the strength portion of the session was push ups/bodyweight squats. I wanted to point out their progress that what they used to call “workout” is now “warm up”.
We then did this:
This is 15 minutes of partner work.
1A) Wheelbarrow Walk
1C) Fireman’s Carry or Jockey Back
1D) Step back and Row
One partner does all 4 exercises the length of the mat and then they swap. Continue for 15.
We then did 10 minutes of rope climbs. On day 1 barely half the class could climb the 2 metre rope. Now there are only 4 left and these can do it with light assistance. This is a great strength exercise, but this was in the 10 week programme not just for it’s strength benefits, but as a progress marker for them. Getting to the top of a 2 metre rope can feel like climbing Everest if on day 1 all you did was hang from it.
Lastly, I want to touch on the notion of Strength and Conditioning for football, soccer or hurling generally. I think there has been huge progress made in mindset since I’ve been involved in S&C for teams (I took my first team about 6 years ago now). Everyone always tells me that Gaelic Football coaches are “set in their ways”, and that they’re generally intransigent regarding changing training styles. This actually hasn’t been my experience. Managers have a natural scepticism about a new regime, after all a bad pre-season is a season wasted, or worse still, a bad Strength and Conditioning coach can injure a key player. The notion that GAA managers don’t want their side to improve is nonsense. In fact I’ve met with far more player resistance than managerial. If I were a manager, I’d be sceptical too. There are guys doing weekend TRX courses taking on teams a week afterwards claiming to run “strength and conditioning classes”. It’s a murky world. Not that there aren’t good unqualified coaches out there.
If you’re a manager and you’re not sure what you’re hiring, here’s a good question you can ask the guy:
“Can you run a training session for an hour every Tuesday that improves the ATP, PC, and Glycolitic Systems?”
You can PM me or ask a good coach for the correct answer(s). Call it a litmus test for someone who has a basic clue what he’s doing.
well there you have it, I started out to write 500 words on training for GAA and ended up with 1500. I suppose I’ll be needing an editor soon!