Aaron Kernan: Players need to know when to switch off

As Owen Mulligan recounts in his autobiography, the Tyrone squad drowned their sorrows following their 2005 Ulster final loss to Armagh. The Red Hands went on to win the All-Ireland that year 
Cross & Passion with Aaron Kernan

THIS year more than most, there seems to have been a greater emphasis placed by all counties on the Dr McKenna Cup.

New managers were finding their feet. Some set about implementing different tactics than those used in 2015. Most gave their youth a fling while also easing back some of their more established seasoned campaigners. All of them will have kept a close eye on their students lining out for their colleges to monitor their progression.

The McKenna Cup has developed into much more than a fixture-fulfilling exercise. It has often been described as an unnecessary burden on players, forcing them onto poor pitches in bad conditions so soon into the new year. But the reality is that, in order to generate much-needed gametime prior to the commencement of the National League and Sigerson Cup, all counties and universities would be trawling the country playing each other in challenge games at this stage anyway.

Counties and universities are now gaining valuable benefits from the tournament’s fixed date in the calendar, they can also tailor their pre-season program to build towards the first round of the National League.

The general perception is players are being run into the ground night after night, while also enduring torturous weights session. The reality is very different. Yes, the fitness work is tough and monotonous, but what field sport can you get fit for without suffering some pain along the way?

There is no easy way to get fit. If there were, we’d all be world-class athletes. Gym sessions are much more detailed than they get credit for. Yes, there is heavy lifting in November and December, but that is only to build strength.

As the season progresses, the games come more regularly and the ground begins to harden, the gym sessions taper down and the focus switches to developing speed and power to complement the skills/tactical sessions. But above all, the main purpose of the gym sessions are for injury prevention, they help to develop your body to withstand a long season with both club and county.

The professional levels of preparation which have become the norm in county and, increasingly, club squads allow management teams to carefully monitor their players in a pragmatic manner. Depending on their position, age profile and injury history, managers and their backroom team can now operate on a player-specific program instead of the one size fits all approach that used to be the norm.

The majority of players enjoy this level of preparation as it allows them to maximise their potential. For some, this approach is too much. However, the one area I feel is being neglected most is the social aspect of our sport.

We train and prepare like professionals, our players have never been better conditioned, but even paid professionals who play 40-50 games per season enjoy better social lives than most GAA players. You wouldn’t need to remove your shoes to count how many times players enjoy nights out with family, friends and team-mates during the season. Everything is planned for, except a social life.

A small bit of forward thinking by management teams and senior players would help change this as there are always certain windows of opportunity throughout the year when team social nights can be arranged to allow players to switch off from the game for a few hours.

For me, the benefit of this far outweighs the negatives. It gives players something to look forward to, it helps lighten the mood and develop camaraderie and friendships within the squad. It also gives long-suffering wives and partners the opportunity to enjoy a brief break from your single-minded lifestyle.

As a parent, and even while managing me at club and county level, my father Joe would always have encouraged me to socialise when the time was right. I haven’t always heeded his advice; there have been numerous occasions following a success that I chose not to enjoy, thinking my next opponent would gain an edge on me had I went out for the night.

Our 2005 Ulster final win over Tyrone was one of those nights. I choose to sit in and watch a re-run of the game, dissecting it from start-to-finish. It was unnecessary as our next game against Laois was three weeks’ away.

Having read Owen Mulligan’s book, I now know the entire Tyrone team washed down the disappointment in Dublin that night before returning to Croke Park seven days later to beat Monaghan in the All-Ireland Qualifiers. I don’t need reminding who went on to win the All-Ireland that year.

I was recently involved in a discussion on this topic in the company of a recently-retired Cork footballer and he has similar regrets from his own career. Following their impressive 2009 All-Ireland semi-final win over Tyrone, they decided as a squad that there would be no social outings at all until after the All-Ireland final, which was four weeks away.

Looking back now, he feels it was the wrong thing to do, he felt everything had become too intense, anxiety levels went through the roof in anticipation of the big day and they became caught up in the hype. There’s no guarantee the outcome would have changed but, for one night, they could have switched off, relaxed and savoured the win like they normally would have before turning their attention to their final opponents Kerry.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve tried to follow my dad’s advice, I’ve even tried to pass it onto the younger lads joining my club team. The benefits to be gained from team sports are endless; both on and off the field the opportunity is there for us to better ourselves as players and people.

Ultimately, we play this sport for enjoyment. All too often, we forget that.

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