This is the time of year when inter-county players invariably become rather more acquainted with one particular element of training – weights.
Dual bonus: Down playmaker Martin Clarke is among the leading Ulster players who can merge |physical power with subtle skills to the benefit of his team
It would not be an exaggeration to state that there is now more emphasis placed on strength and conditioning – or ‘bulking up’ as it is popularly referred to – within the GAA than on any other aspect of training and preparation for matches.
Upper body strength is deemed as an absolute essential if players are to survive in the intensity of county championship matches in particular and minimise their chances of incurring injury.
Yet there is a danger that skills are being sacrificed on the altar of conditioning. Indeed, in some counties, building up muscle-power and stamina now clearly take priority in training programmes.
While there is undoubtedly a place for this, I believe it is even more important that players are encouraged to hone their individual skills and that team patterns of play are developed with everyone sure of the role they will have in the overall strategy.
Former IRFU conditioning coach Mike McGurn, who is now part of the Armagh management team, is among those who suggest that county teams are putting “way too much emphasis” on fitness and conditioning and not enough on the basic skills.
And McGurn makes the point that he feels while many players are striving hard to bulk up they are actually doing the wrong kind of weight-training anyway.
This should surely serve as food for thought for those county managers and trainers who have already furnished their squad members with individual training programmes to follow during the close season while collective training is banned.
And when McGurn decries the skills of some of the leading players as “shocking” his comments must be taken on board.
Indeed, I have always held the opinion that because someone can run fast, prove elusive and perhaps is imbued with considerable flair, this will not help to make him a better footballer.
Natural skills must be honed and perfected and then applied effectively within a team concept. It is not by accident that the best players in various codes and not just in gaelic football produce consistently high skill levels.
Players like David Beckham, Jonny Wilkinson, Peter Canavan and others spent many long hours on their own on the training ground brushing up on their free-taking skills and other elements of their respective games before becoming iconic figures within their respective sports.
It may not be everyone’s cup of tea to maybe put 15 footballs - of whatever shape - into a bag and then spend lonely hours kicking them in the direction of posts but patience and perseverance has certainly paid off for these three players and for others.
Colm Cooper, Bernard Brogan, Martin Clarke, Stephen O’Neill, Daniel Goulding, Johnny Doyle and Joe Sheridan are among some of the most accomplished gaelic footballers in the country yet none of these players would suggest that he is the finished article.
The top players never cease to practice – they know that, like all other players, they are only as good as their last game irrespective of what they have achieved up until then.
Different players are masters of different facets of play – in past years Anthony Tohill’s high fielding was a joy to watch, Enda McNulty was a tenacious man-marker and Mickey Linden had pace to burn.
In today’s game, where the intensity is much greater and the deployment of a full raft of substitutes is the rule rather than the exception, managers will look to the range of gifts that individual players will bring to the table.
The recent International Rules series underlined some of the shortcomings of our top players – their poor foot-passing, their inability to move the ball quickly when under pressure, their erractic shot options.
And if our leading lights are guilty of such shortcomings, then it seems reasonable to conclude that this malaise could be endemic in gaelic football.
While weight-training certainly has its place over the course of the winter, I firmly believe that much more time should be spent inculcating the virtues of accurate passing, safe handling and respecting the team ethic into players.
It’s recognised more than ever than only a combined effort on the park by all players will help to take a county team to success.