Cahair O'Kane: More games the only solution to training madness
THERE are few times in a footballer’s life more challenging than the ten minutes spent in the changing room before heading out for the first night of pre-season training.
It is a time for questioning your own sanity as you hear the rain beating off the window, with the chill still in your ears from the walk from the car to the clubhouse.
Nobody’s turned the heating on and the cold sticks to the walls. Despite the event being organised under the auspices of ‘football training’, nobody’s brought out the footballs. Nobody even knows where they are.
The new manager had no intention of finding out on the first Friday night of January. You know you’re going to run until you’re sick. It feels like the Christmas dinner and all those Quality Street have returned to the pit of your stomach.
But you rip the plaster off and you get through and 90 minutes later, you’re feeling better for the worst of it being over. It only ever gets easier from there.
It’s become less and less of an obstacle as the years have passed, though. Like most trends that form with inter-county teams, it comes from professional sport and a form of it passes fairly quickly into the club scene.
It’s usually a matter of weeks now between the club season ending and the inter-county panel reforming. As one newspaper revealed this week, one hurling squad trained 15 out of 16 days in December, and some of those days included both morning and evening sessions.
Another county has been training five times a week since November.
From the time they’re finished with their clubs, most will take a few weeks at most to themselves and then start hitting the gym again.
That’s filtered down to the clubs and while the trend of fellas keeping themselves in good shape is no bad habit to learn, it does mean that the longest pre-season for any sport in the world now has a pre-pre-season.
Most clubs don’t start their league campaigns until April and for a big chunk of them, their eyes will actually be on peaking in July or August for Championship time.
And while there are games to be played from April onwards (and a few challenge games beforehand), the balance of training sessions to games still never comes back to an even kilter.
Professional teams often load less than inter-county GAA teams do in pre-season. For instance, renowned coach Darren Burgess – now at Arsenal after spells with AFL club Port Adelaide and Liverpool FC – puts his players through 3 or 4 heavy sessions a week in pre-season.
When the season starts, they do just one heavy session a week. Based around a Saturday game, they do one heavy session on a Wednesday and taper the rest of the week around it.
A study he did compared the ratio of training sessions to matches for soccer and AFL clubs and found that professional soccer players, who had roughly 50 games across a 325-day training season, were averaging a game for roughly every three sessions, one of which was recovery.
In the AFL, the ratio was 4:1, with their number of games for the year coming in at around 30.
Philip Jordan revealed last summer that towards the end of his time with Tyrone, they were training over 200 times in a season, which worked out around 15 training sessions for every game.
Then you take the example of the number 26 on the inter-county GAA panel. The practice of barring county panellists from club football in most of the country has driven the ratio through the roof.
Even a starting county player will play two or three pre-season games, seven or eight National League games and ordinarily somewhere between two and eight Championship games. Take into account injuries or the like and your average player maybe plays 12 or 13 games for the value of eight months’ training.
And even the number of sessions at times doesn't do justice to the time being spent at it. All-day weekend sessions have become a norm.
There is no other word for it than crazy.
And there is no other solution than to increase the number of games.
Hoping that the problem will go away on its own is the standard GAA response that has been proven plenty of times over not to work.
The advent of double-sessions in a day is another step down a road that clubs will eventually follow on. Teams are finding ways to cram more and more training into a week in the hope of either getting an edge or simply keeping up.
The National League seems like it’s week-on-week but it still takes 12 weeks to play seven games, or just five in hurling.
And then the gap between the end of it and the start of Championship, while reduced this year, is still ludicrously long.
It effectively becomes a second pre-season, which is why no county manager is likely to accede to the idea of April being a club-only month.
If the players were permitted to play for their clubs through the whole season then it would increase the training-to-games ratio, but there is no chance of going back to that as things stand.
The only tangible solution is to pack the calendar, club and county, with more and more games. Why not make senior club leagues double round? Have 30 games instead of 15.
Players are committed to it for long enough in the year to play that number of games, but the current idea is based on the tradition of being out Tuesday-Thursday-Sunday.
Start club leagues in early February and run them right through, every weekend, and a second game midweek when it’s needed.
The inter-county calendar either needs more games itself or to have the window in which they’re played considerably shortened. The former would be good for the players but detrimental for the clubs. The latter would be the ideal solution, but is a non-runner from the commercial ends.
But more needs to be done to reward the men stepping out into the chill for the first time this week. April seems a long way away.