Denise Martin leading way forward for GAA performance analysis community
ON-PITCH GAA rivalries are intense but one of the most modern aspects of Gaelic games is drawing on a traditional strength – community.
Performance analysts are coming together and co-operating to drive up standards in their discipline, under the guidance of Tyrone native Denise Martin.
Their work is just one strand in an ambitious over-reaching project by the Gaelic Games Sports Science Working Group, chaired by Dr Aoife Lane, which aims to 'generate a framework for the delivery of sports science in Gaelic games, for men and women, across all stages of the player pathway.'
The elements involved are: Athletic Development; Physiotherapy and Rehabilitation; Nutrition; Performance Analysis; Psychology and Wellbeing; and Skill Acquisition and Biomechanics.
Martin, originally from Carrickmore but now living in Donegal, works as a Lecturer in Sports Performance Analysis at the Technological University, Dublin, and explains the need for better regulations and guidance:
"Sports science in the GAA has been very ad hoc, largely on the basis of who happened to be in which place at which time. We've some brilliant leaders in the field but it's been haphazard.
"This is the first attempt to put a bigger, broader strategy in place for sports science provision in Gaelic games.
"We want to support the idea of healthy and holistic player development, the player's journey, by empowering coaches, parents, and the whole environment by providing solid evidence-based information. We want sports science to be used appropriately and integrated, still within the values of the game…
"We're not saying that every club is going to need a nutritionist and everything else but we want to give the clubs the tools to give sensible in-house nutritional advice to their U14s, say.
"But then, if they want a nutritionist for their senior team and they wonder 'Would a sports science student do?', have guidelines in place so that they know they actually need someone who's accredited. Be able to tell them 'This is the person' – not the quack."
Martin has been working for almost two decades in performance analysis, including stints with the Derry footballers, Dublin hurlers, Ireland rugby, and athletics.
Yet she accepts that much progress still has to be made: "Take my discipline, performance analysis. We're now only getting to the point of putting an accreditation system into place. That will take time before we can stand over everybody, that they're accredited."
She has been spearheading the GAA's Quality Assurance Accreditation programme for performance analysts since 2017, facilitated by the Association's then Director of Games Development & Research, Pat Daly, whom she credits for "his work and foresight.
"Up until now it's been difficult to determine what is 'good practice'. So you've had people who've been all about numbers and stuff which is completely not what coaches and managers need.
"In terms of physio, you can't get on the pitch unless you're a chartered physio, which is really brilliant, but what do you do in the sciences which aren't as well regulated? Psychology?
"The same with an analyst: is it anyone with a pen and paper? What is an analyst?"
Befitting her success over the years, she provides answers herself: "Our role is, very clearly, to support coaches to provide learning experiences for players.
"For example, if I'm just giving a coach a load of statistics, there's nobody learning anything there. How can we engage with the data?
"We have to be about player development. If I'm looking at a corner-forward, the focus has to be on his game – stick a camera purely on him to watch his runs during a game. Then, how do I facilitate his learning from that?"
Performance analysis is always evolving – "the tech obviously has changed dramatically" – but the human side has seen the greatest alteration, believes Martin: "The biggest change for analysts, over the past five years, is that we have a community of practice – a lot of us actually talk to each other.
"The accreditation process was probably the catalyst for that. We meet once a year down in Carlow and people said 'We're measuring this' or 'We're looking at that' and realised we're all measuring the same stuff, it's about the skill of the coach.
"We're getting more research, it's much more evidence-based, more open. That's been the big change, that people are sharing the basics of what's going on, sharing know-how.
"One of the key things for this committee is to set up a 'guide for practice', because it doesn't exist. There's a clear guide for practice in physio, but we're lone rangers."
In terms of making progress for performance analysts, Denise stresses that collective, community effort she has witnessed in recent years, what she labels "the power of the community of practice, the value of supporting each other and learning and being able to share.
"That's unique to the sports science disciplines, there's no other discipline doing that. It's also probably unique in sport, it doesn't exist like this elsewhere. We have enough people doing this to be able to pull it together.
"Literally now if one team are going to play another, the analysts will be in touch beforehand and they'll agree to set up a camera each and share the footage after. Initially there was quite a bit of resistance from coaches but now they're all buying in because they all see the benefit of it."
In terms of the benefit they can bring to clubs and counties, "the other aspect we're trying to put together is 'role descriptors', getting the right person put in a job. As a lecturer I get inquiries, 'Have you a student to do this?' – from a senior inter-county team. That would be grossly unfair…
"It's fair enough to use a student with an U16 team, let them get their experience, but with a senior inter-county team or even a senior club team you don't want to be taking in someone who's never done this before. That's why we need the accreditation.
"It's very hard for club administrators, or even county board administrators, to know the bluffer from the person who's done it."
The talent is definitely out there, though, and accreditation will confirm that, Martin concludes: "A lot of our analysts are self-taught, so it's not about someone with a Master's degree, it's someone with the right experience, the right philosophy, the right level of knowledge – and the right personality fit, that's also really important.
"We'll help people on committees know what questions to ask when they're putting someone in place, empower them to make better decisions, better appointments."