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Joe Kernan: Need to take away strain for county players

A team manager is regarded as the ultimate authority within any club or county in relation to the composition of squads, selection of actual line-ups, team tactics and motivational strategy.

Yet there is an increasing belief that the post of strength and conditioning coach, particularly in the context of a county team, is becoming much more important.

Indeed, the notion that all counties could have a full-time strength and conditioning coach in the very near future has gained in substance following the appointment of Mike McGurn to this role by the Armagh County Board.

While McGurn brings vast experience to the Orchard County table having worked closely with the Ireland rugby squad in the recent past, several other counties have already begun to place strong emphasis on strength and conditioning procedures, especially in the important pre-season period.

It is absolutely imperative that inter-county players in particular are afforded every opportunity to prepare properly for the new season. I would suggest that the busiest group of people in sport right now are the various county physiotherapists who are dealing with the myriad of injuries which have been sustained during the course of the opening two rounds of the National Football League.

Many of these injuries were as a consequence of players having been denied the chance to fine-tune their conditioning because of the close season ban on collective training.

It seems somewhat incongruous that teams should actually welcome a breather after just two rounds of any competition but that is very much the case. For the most part, it’s because of early seasons while other teams are secretly delighted that period suspensions will mean offending players will miss fewer games.

In any sport, proper preparation is essential. That’s why it is disappointing to note that a number of players, including several high-profile competitors, are currently sidelined by pulled hamstrings, strains and muscle problems that might well have been avoided had they been permitted to hone in on conditioning during December.

Perhaps a team that reaches the semi-finals and/or the final of the All Ireland Football Championship and whose players may be subsequently involved in deferred club action might carry over a residue of fitness that would to some extent compensate for the absence of intense pre-season conditioning.

But what about the team that perhaps exited the All Ireland Championship in July? Such a side would, as things stand, be expected to step out in their January provincial competition with perhaps just one or two squad sessions under their belts. And of course that is not nearly enough in terms of preparation, even for the traditionally low-key January action.

I know that the issue of burn-out was a major factor in the GAA’s decision to make the months of November and December the close season. But it is worth pointing out that burn-out, when it does surface, invariably only tends to affect players in the 18-21 age group who are usually striving to serve as many as five managers — club bosses at under-21 and senior level, county managers at the same levels and their university coach into the bargain.

Burn-out is seldom an issue with the more mature players and, this being the case, they should be given the chance to prepare properly for the new season by undergoing rigorous conditioning and physical strengthening.

It is interesting to note that managers and coaches now refer to players as having “bulked up” — in other words, they have applied themselves diligently to their conditioning programmes. As a consequence, they will have greater stamina, be more capable of absorbing tackles and will be less susceptible to injuries. There is nothing more frustrating for managers than to find themselves stripped of players because of injuries that could have been avoided in the first instance.

Maybe the Armagh model of making the role of strength and conditioning coach a full-time post will be copied by other counties. I believe that this is a route the GAA will go down sooner rather than later.

In all other sports, great emphasis is put on pre-season programmes and particularly in contact sports such as soccer, rugby, ice-hockey, etc.

Gaelic football and hurling, by their very nature, are among the most physical of sports that now, because of the increased tempo and intensity of inter-county games in particular, require an inordinately high level of fitness. The GAA, while it cherishes its amateur ethos, is markedly professional in many areas of its administration.

We have now truly reached the stage where this professionalism should come much more to the surface in caring for the physical well-being of our most prized asset — the players themselves.

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