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Doctor’s orders: what GAA clubs can learn from the experience of Irish rugby

Doctor’s orders: what GAA clubs can learn from the experience of Irish rugby

Liam Hennessy - the director of Setanta College.

Anyone who does not feel humble in the presence of Dr Liam Hennessy is no judge of a man - his whisper is worth more than most people’s shout. This week the director of Setanta College spoke in depth to the Tipperary Star about training, madness, strength, conditioning, pathways and what GAA clubs can learn from the experience of Irish rugby.

Madness is the word used by Dr Liam Hennessy to describe the prevailing culture governing how GAA teams are trained. Indeed, the director of Setanta College argues that GAA clubs across the country can learn from the experience of Irish rugby.

In 1991 Liam Hennessy featured on a Tipperary management team which famously won an All-Ireland title thanks to victories over Cork, Galway and Kilkenny. The manager, Michael Keating, was intrigued as to what Hennessy could bring to his talented inter-county squad.

During the preamble, however, to the first round clash with Limerick Keating got a little edgy. The rumour mill suggested that the Shannonsiders had notched up 120 training sessions in comparison to Tipperary's 59. And, Keating found himself wondering whether his team were adequately prepared? Liam Hennessy, however, knew the players had quality work done, preached calm and Tipp won pulling up (2-18 to 0-10).

Then, as now, a more-is-better training culture was/is a problem - a culture persists within the GAA that unless players are falling over with exhaustion they are not training nearly hard enough.

“There is madness to training. When we did 59 sessions to win that first round the work was very measured. Literally, there was double the amount done by the opponent, but we beat them well. So, less was more,” Liam Hennessy explained.

“Somewhere along the line since then the few teams that have been capable of winning have played around with huge volumes of more. So, there has been less method and more madness in preparation. And, at this time of the year the madness is at its zenith. The madness appears in the form of making players work hard and suffer. Any eejit can make a player suffer and make them tired. You have these mad practices that go on, but, if the truth be known, it is the same teams, regardless of the mad practice, that still go on and win the All-Ireland,” Liam Hennessy said before explaining that such misguided practices actually come from individuals who mean well.

“It comes from a good source where people say that we must work harder (in order to succeed). That’s admirable, but you need to change the word harder to smarter.”


The key to good physical preparation is quality over quantity while proper recovery remains the cornerstone of any successful programme.

There is a big difference between hard work and smart work. Indeed, clubs and counties the length and breadth of the country would benefit from a more informed approach to strength and conditioning.

The players are the product of the training environment. And, if we prepare teams in a more considered and informed way teams will improve. A team cannot out-perform its preparation.

At the very least physical training should be related to the vision of the game that you wish to play - train for what you want the players to be able to do. A proper programme will prepare players for the demands made by the game. Training should be directly related to that governing principle - there is a big difference between building muscle for show and building appropriate muscle which will improve the capacity of a player to perform.

In a presentation (entitled ‘The Ergonomics of Hurling’) to the GAA Development Conference in January 2014, for example, Kieran Collins argued that coaches and trainers needed to embrace what the game was actually telling them.

According to Kieran Collins in hurling a player gets to where he wants to go in five steps 50% of the time and within ten steps 73% of the time. Collins revealed that such actions needed to be repeated anywhere between 60 and 90 times by individual players during a game.

So, what players need in terms of physical preparation is a quickness over the first three steps, the capacity to sustain a burst over 25 metres, the agility to turn sharply, the ability to sprint, recover and then sprint again.

The traditional belief within the GAA is that unless players are falling over with exhaustion then they are not training nearly hard enough. But, in fact, the opposite would appear to be true - training smarter is just as effective.

And, because GAA teams are not professional the focus of training should be concerned with maximising the time available - you cannot afford to do unnecessary training.

Reducing the amount of time you spend doing physical training is not the key issue - the key issue is that you only enjoy a limited amount of time with your players. So, if you can reduce the amount of time that you need to spend on physical training you, in turn, free up time which can be spent on skills, mental preparation, tactics and/or team building.

Liam Hennessy, the director of Setanta College, pictured alongside lecturer Michael Fennelly.


Look at Kilkenny. Michael Dempsey leads the strength and conditioning programme for manager Brian Cody. The players are not flogged. Instead, the players are prepared, via quality sessions which focus on speed and power, to play the type of game required to win All-Ireland hurling titles.

“They (Kilkenny) have a great approach and that’s my point. They have a consistent approach, a consistent methodology and it works. It brings benefits and they are reaping the rewards,” agreed Liam Hennessy.

“Michael (Dempsey) is wonderful. Michael has, for years, been a very quiet, behind-the-scenes guide and steady hand. Michael’s methodology is ideal and fits hurling very nicely. All I am saying is, and by the way I am not putting Tipp in this category, there are a few teams who have not got that patient stability and a methodology worked out. They haven’t and I know they have not. You hear crazy stories of early morning training sessions just to get players up early and just to work them hard.

“There is a bit of madness going on - it used to always go on and it is still going on. And, that is most surprising given what we know; given the advances that sports science has presented us with. Madness was fine 15 years ago, but not now. And, the worst thing is if that is transferred to youth practices - now that is irresponsibility,” Liam Hennessy added.

“These are the concerns that I would have and that’s why I would say: stand back and be patient whether it is with a club or a county. Put your development pathway the first thing on the agenda. Get the right people involved and get a CPD programme together.

“I am not saying that they should come to me or Setanta (College) for CPD. It’s to get a continued progression in place in terms of the development of the coach, review the coach regularly and have the coach answerable in terms of what is being done. Ask yourself: does his work sync in with the plan that was agreed, with the plan that is reviewed and modified based on learnings. All of that should be primed, up front, top of the agenda and now you have people taking responsibility for what is really, really important for the development of your players,” Liam Hennessy advised.


Speaking at the ‘Developing & Maximising Youth Potential’ conference hosted by the SportsLab on the LIT Thurles campus in 2014 Galway native Des Ryan argued that every single GAA club in the country should invest in a professional strength and conditioning coach - Des Ryan is the Head of Sports Medicine & Athletic Development at Arsenal FC.

It is a sentiment which Liam Hennessy agrees with. The director of Setanta College believes that at this time of year, when every club in the country is on the look-out for the coach who could transform their fortunes, clubs should be investigating the possibility of appointing a qualified strength and conditioning expert.

“Yes, absolutely,” Liam Hennessy said.

“You can’t say it’s mandatory because there are a lot of cost issues involved, but for children to develop you need qualified and educated coaches working with them. I am not running down by any means the individual or the adult who has had a role themselves as a player and then takes over as a coach, but that is a flawed concept. It works in some cases because of the great person that they are and because of the understanding that they have.

“Look, there are qualified people now who have an understanding of the pathway - the importance of lifestyle factors, the importance of all those underpinning blocks like sleep, recovery, balance and being able to shape that into simple guidelines. Then, on top of that, that coach can give them the movement skills, the ability to be able to function better and then build the capacity to perform on top of that. It’s a very progressive way of developing the player,” Liam Hennessy explained.

Indeed, Hennessy suggested a potential structure which a County Board like Tipperary’s could adopt - such a structure would feature an overseeing director of strength and conditioning who would guide the work of a team of qualified coaches who could, in turn, work with individual clubs in order to develop an understanding of the area and train coaches to implement a programme of work.

“Well, that would be world leading, but it’s not pie in the sky. It’s something that I think we should be striving for because we have the educated people. Tipperary GAA should be looking at that and every GAA county should be looking at that,” Liam Hennessy told the Tipperary Star. Indeed, given the experience of Liam Hennessy GAA clubs could learn from Irish rugby.

Liam Hennessy - the director of Setanta College.


Following a disastrous 1999 World Cup campaign the IRFU made the leap and decided to embrace sports science. Ireland needed to transform the body shape and physical capacity of their players and appointed Liam Hennessy as the IRFU director of fitness in order to do so. For almost a decade Hennessy worked to transform Irish rugby into a world leader in the field of strength and conditioning.

The appointment of Hennessy materialised at a time when Irish rugby was struggling to adjust to the professional era. Indeed, Ireland had fallen well behind market leaders like England. Hennessy, however, got to work and led a team of experts, which featured fitness coach Mike McGurn, who were determined to turn Irish rugby upside down and an emerging generation of players inside out.

It took four years of work before Ireland beat England in the 2004 6 Nations - the transition from playing catch up to a truly elite organisation was complete, but Liam Hennessy had to dig deep foundations before the results could be seen. When once reviewing the experience Liam Hennessy used a specific analogy - Hennessy explained that Irish rugby, before the transition, was attempting to launch rockets from a canoe, but by 2004 Ireland were launching rockets from a battleship.

“I remember coming into rugby. In terms of strength, conditioning and fitness there was nothing. Our philosophy was: bottom up, top down,” Liam Hennessy explained to the Tipperary Star.

Hennessy focused his energy on the physical development of an emerging generation of Irish players which featured teenagers like Brian O’Driscoll.

“It was 15 years since we had won a triple crown and other teams were racing away from us. We had to start at the teenage level. My job was to train the professional coaches in terms of strength and conditioning and work with them to develop players with better movement skills, better lifestyle habits and we were working at that through the academy at that time,” Liam Hennessy said.

“That’s not far removed from where a county can very often be - where it puts all of its resources into the top end and does not commit to the patient progression involved in its child-youth pathway. But to succeed it must be a patient progression.

“Every sport, for example, is guilty of the relative age effect. Our practices are biased toward looking at children who are well developed for their age and neglecting others. We did the opposite. Brian O’Driscoll, Peter Stringer and Ronan O’Gara were the smallest guys representing their college teams at that stage, but they had the movement ability. They were in the academy and nobody knew who they were, but they grew through that process and they became household names,” Liam Hennessy explained.

“Along the way there are huge challenges, but that is one of the lessons from my experience - be very patient; put in good people and look after them, really look after them.

“There is a great reluctance to pay for services in sport. Everybody thinks that you should just get involved for the love of the sport and be a volunteer. So, when this debate about professionalism in the GAA comes up I say hold on. The first layer of professionalism should be the support staff that are put in place and if that is professional you will get great service and you will get great development for your players. I believe that if you make the investment you will reap the rewards, massively.”

Good development, Liam Hennessy agrees, is not the result of winning; winning is the result of good development.

“Yes, that is the equation,” Liam Hennessy said.

“Good development will, eventually, result in winning. But wining should not be the goal, it should be good development. The drivers along the way are people; good people who are patient and, above all else, want good development. And, when that kind of system is in place great things start to happen. If you can put players through that pathway when players get to their 20s it becomes a very easy job because all of the ground work has been done. We prize the coach at the top end when, in fact, it should be the inverse.”

One final question: what is the one piece of advice Liam Hennessy, given his experience, would give to the chairman of every GAA club in the country?

“The first thing I would say is: do not leave who is going to be in charge of the under-12s, under-14s or under-16s until the last item on the AGM agenda. That should be your first item - you should be addressing it and you should be putting together a CPD (continuous personal development) programme for those coaches who are going to be involved. You have got to invest in your coaching. Invest in that, draw up a plan, review the plan regularly and do not get impatient if you do not have success.”


Following the interview with Dr Liam Hennessy the Tipperary Star website features three distinct pieces with the Cappawhite coaching guru of world renown. Click here for 'Doctor’s orders: what GAA clubs can learn from the experience of Irish rugby'. Visit this section of the website for Liam Hennessy's reflections on Pádraig Harrington and drugs in sport and, finally, see here for news on all the latest developments at Setanta College.

If you would like to learn more about Setanta College and the courses on offer at the institution please click here. You can also follow @SetantaCollege on Twitter or like Setantasportscollege on Facebook.

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