Selector Tony Smith, manager Shane Ronayne and coach Alan O'Connor pictured celebrating Tipperary's 2017 All-Ireland intermediate ladies football success at Croke Park, Dublin.
S&C coaches can make a huge impact on a team. Strength and conditioning does not represent a marginal gain. Get your training, your recovery and your nutrition right and S&C can help a hurling team to do extraordinary things. Indeed, strength and conditioning, as a discipline, is here to stay - you get with it or get left behind. And, who better to talk S&C with than one of the most outstanding coaches in the country: Alan O’Connor.
Success leaves plenty of clues if you are prepared to look for them.
In 2003 Cahir won the county senior football title for the first time ever. In 2011 Arravale Rovers claimed the West senior football crown for the first time in eighteen years; that same year the Tipperary minor football team was, famously, crowned provincial and All-Ireland champions (the squad successfully defended the provincial title the following season).
In 2016 Cahir earned county, Munster and All-Ireland intermediate Camogie honours while the Tipperary ladies football team completed the 2017 season undefeated and helped themselves to the division three league, Munster championship and All-Ireland titles in the process. The Tipp ladies added the division two league title this season while the Tipperary minor hurlers won the 2018 Munster championship and Cashel King Cormacs battled their way back into the Premier County’s senior hurling ranks thanks to a thrilling intermediate championship campaign.
And, it is absolutely extraordinary to note that one man represents the common denominator in this series of success stories: Alan O’Connor. Indeed, the Cahir strength and conditioning coach was a key influence on each and every team.
O’Connor worked as the lead S&C coach with the Tipperary (2013) and Wexford (2015-16) senior football teams and Alan, of course, also propelled Loughmore-Castleiney to an historic county senior hurling and football double in 2013. Under O’Connor Loughmore-Castleiney won the county senior football title once more in 2014 while suffering a hurling final defeat at the hands of Thurles Sarsfields that season. And, just for the craic O’Connor returned to win Mid Tipperary senior hurling and football title doubles with Loughmore-Castleiney in 2016-17 while also adding another county football title (2016).
You get the sense, however, that winning an All-Ireland Camogie title with Cahir, his hometown, was extra special.
“They were a super talented bunch. And, they gave one of the best displays of skill, hard work and composure on that day of the final against Eyrecourt from Galway and won the All-Ireland intermediate club Camogie title. It was a wonderful day for the town and the locality,” Alan O’Connor explained to the Tipperary Star before praising manager Shane Ronayne for presenting with him with the opportunity to work with the Premier County ladies football team in 2017.
“I was approached by Shane Ronayne to become a selector, coach and strength and conditioning coach with the Tipperary intermediate ladies football team. I have worked with excellent coaches and Shane was no different. The team went unbeaten all year. It was a fantastic achievement by a hugely committed bunch,” Alan O’Connor added.
Click here to read an article where Alan O’Connor encourages the Tipperary County Board to follow the example set by Kerry and appoint a director of athletic performance while he also discusses the key influences on his coaching career.
Sharp Minds: Alan O'Connor pictured alongside Tommy Dunne (Toomevara) on their graduation day from Setanta College in 2013.
S&C SHOULD NOT BE NEGLECTED
Alan O’Connor worked alongside manager Tommy Dunne with the Tipperary minor hurlers in 2018 and will do so once more under new manager Paul Collins ahead of the 2019 campaign. Indeed, it is absolutely essential that S&C is not neglected, whether that is on the club or inter-county scene.
Now is the time of the year when GAA clubs the length and breadth of the county are going through the process of making coaching appointments. And, while most clubs may concentrate their efforts on identifying a hurling coach the strength and conditioning element also needs to be addressed - it is not about affordability, the question is can you afford not to invest in S&C?
S&C coaches can make a huge impact on a team. Strength and conditioning does not represent a marginal gain. Get your training, your recovery and your nutrition right and S&C can help a hurling team to do extraordinary things. Indeed, strength and conditioning, as a discipline, is here to stay - you get with it or get left behind.
Strength and conditioning does not primarily concern itself with building big players - it concerns itself with strengthening tendons, ligaments and muscles in order to reduce injury and to increase the players’ ability to actually play the game.
A study carried out by Professor John Murphy at UCD, for example, indicated that 25% of all injuries to GAA players are recurring in nature and that 67% of all injuries are non-contact. Therefore effective management of injured players and the development of a training plan which aims to avoid injury can make a telling difference.
A central goal of S&C is player availability. The best treatment for injury is never having it in the first place. It makes sense to be proactive instead of reactive. Stronger players break down less and recover faster - increased strength = decreased injuries.
GOSPEL OF THE SLOG
And, S&C coaches like Alan O’Connor challenge the gospel of the slog.
The long-held belief within the GAA community was that unless players were falling over with exhaustion they were not training nearly hard enough. But, in fact, the opposite is true - that by training smarter, with less volume, is just as effective, if not more so. Indeed, the research shows that old-style training methods are counter-productive while the shorter and sharper approach is more beneficial in the long run.
Remember: any fool can make someone tired. More training does not mean better training; over-training is as bad as not training at all; as Vern Gambetta said: “more is not better, it is just more”. Running twenty laps of a pitch will give a player physical fitness to some degree, but it will not be the specialized fitness required to compete at an elite level - if you train slow, you will be slow. A team cannot out-perform its preparation.
There is a big difference between work and smart work. Good quality training should not be equated with hard training. You train a dog, but you coach a team.
Just consider the detailed thought that Alan O’Connor put into preparing the Cashel King Cormacs intermediate hurling team this season.
“There were games in April and then a break until September. So, effectively there were two seasons and I approached it that way. After April we took a break and then went two nights a week; leaving the weekend free for players. We then cranked it up for pre-season number two at the start of August. Cashel ended up reaching the county intermediate final before losing to a very good Thurles Sarsfields team. Cashel King Cormacs are back in the senior ranks of Tipp hurling and going in the right direction,” Alan O’Connor explained.
“I also did sessions with all of the (Cashel King Cormacs) underage squads to educate the coaches underage on the importance of warm ups, speed, cool downs and the duration of the session - shorter high-intensity sessions are better,” O’Connor revealed.
One of the most popular conditioning methods being used by S&C coaches is interval training. This involves alternating between periods of high intensity exercise and slower, recovery periods - interval training is more applicable to the demands placed on hurlers.
Clubs and counties the length and breadth of the country would benefit from a more informed approach to strength and conditioning. Because GAA teams are not professional the focus of training should be concerned with maximizing 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.
Interval training is a more time-efficient means of preparing a team physically while also freeing up more time to spend on skills. Interval training allows you the room to take your team to the next level. Indeed, a sophisticated coach like Alan O’Connor manages to combine S&C work with the playing of the game.
“My coaching has changed a lot, especially the stamina work which is mostly done with the ball now. This is why I wanted to learn to coach - so that I could do my fitness work while also coaching the skills when the player is tired,” Alan O’Connor revealed.
A proper recovery strategy is the cornerstone of any successful training programme. Essentially, the body breaks down in training and needs time to build back up and adapt to what it has been asked to do - the body develops while at rest. Therefore you must rest as hard as you train.
Over-training occurs when an imbalance between training and recovery is allowed to develop. During a concentrated training block, for example, players will often get sick because their body is running on empty and all of an athlete’s dietary energy is directed toward locomotion (how the athlete moves around).
So, a big factor in the process of achieving a higher level of fitness is having the time to rest. You will become a better athlete when you decide that rest is as important as exercise.
The body recovers much more efficiently from activity while at rest.
“The strength and conditioning coach with a proper recovery programme should help to reduce the number of injuries. This is very important,” advised Alan O’Connor who learned most about recovery and helping players to peak through his experience working with Loughmore-Castleiney.
“They are a wonderful club both on and off the pitch,” Alan O’Connor said.
“Rest and recovery was massive to them. To this day it is my main mantra that the most important part of training is rest. My motto always is that less is more. I was questioned on a number of occasions during my career whether I was training the team hard enough, but you need to stick to what you believe in and trust your knowledge,” Alan added.
Alan O’Connor pictured where he is at his happiest - on the training field.
THE LEARNING IS THE DRUG
Alan O’Connor is well on his way to realizing his potential as a coach. And, the determination to develop himself personally has been the key driver for his career; every challenge faced along the way has been regarded as an opportunity to learn. The learning is the drug of choice for this Cahir man who was first introduced to coaching by Jerry Tarrant.
“I started coaching in 2001 at the age of twenty-seven when my athletics career was cut short due to an accident. I was asked to coach the Cahir under-21 footballers by a local man, Jerry Tarrant. I was always very interested in training and fitness, mainly from my athletics background when I represented Tipperary and Munster. I also played football and hurling up to adult level for Cahir. I was average at both, but the fitness side always intrigued me.”
And, Alan O’Connor admits that it took him some time to “form my own identity as a coach”.
“At the start of my career I was trying to do everything exactly by the book, but I soon found that you need to find your own way as a coach. One size does not fit all and this is so important when dealing with players. Each player has different individual requirements - both mentally and physically,” Alan O’Connor explained.
O’Connor now describes his style of coaching as “player-centered”. Indeed, Alan highlights a 2016 experience for the distinct impact it had on his career.
“I went back to coaching at under-6 and under-8 level in my local ladies football and Camogie club. I found this of huge benefit. I was going from coaching a senior inter-county team on a Tuesday night to coaching an under-8 Camogie or ladies football team on a Wednesday; it was the best move that I made when teaching the basics and breaking the game down. I get a huge buzz out of seeing a player develop, particularly the weaker player. I think I have an understanding of the player that the skills don’t come more natural to because I was that player.
“I love to see players develop as a person as well as a player. This is very important as a coach. It is important to always appreciate and make every player feel part of the team. One wrong word from a coach to a young player could destroy a player,” O’Connor said before explaining how a call from Tommy Dunne helped him to add the final string to his bow - working with the Tipp minors this season has helped to confirm Alan as an accomplished hurling coach. The man can do it all.
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