5. Train skills in an open and competitive environment.
Use Space wisely
Bigger space in Gaelic Football, Soccer, Hurling (less so) will automatically increase kicking/striking and more movement but also Aerobic Capacity (if properly loaded timewise with work:rest ratio).
In an ideal world we would have GPS with Heart Rate monitors but that’s simply not going to be the case for the vast majority of coaches and clubs.
When we open up the size of the area we are playing and we keep player numbers below what would be the normal game representation we automatically constrain the game to force more or longer runs than would normally take place. The benefits of this are largely for fitness but they can also be tactical. For instance I would use large areas (say half pitch) with 4v4/5v5 games in Gaelic Football to increasing the amount of kicking some. If you want your team to kick more you have to practice it, but a kicking drill will not transfer to match day. By constraining the environment you create a situation where kicking is the better and easier option. The ball moves further and faster when we kick it rather than hand pass. The fitness element needs to be constrained by time. Maybe in early season this could be 2 mins on, 2 mins active rest (core work, light jogging, mobility work etc).
You can then work up to 4 minute games with 2 minutes rest. What can work well here is mixing up the aerobic games with some tempo runs or moderately active technical work. Again depending on team, ability and time of season.
Something like this can work in Early season
The case for a mix of running & SSG’s
Please remember though that game based activities have a neuromuscular and metabolic price to play. Too many coaches have gone to a games only approach even to all forms of fitness and conditioning. This is flawed in our opinion and arguably at the root of underperformance and even an increase in certain injuries. For instance straight line tempo running has little neuromuscular fatigue when done well and can raise the Aerobic capacity of any athlete. It’s boring yes, but depending on the stage of career or experience or the season it is important to remember that sometimes this is better than small sided games alone. Another early season session to avoid is lots of SSG (particularly in small areas) and shuttle sprints or other exercises that involve a huge amount of change of direction. If players have been off or just in the gym then their lower body and hips and knees in particular will not be conditioned to high volumes of changes of direction.
Another classic mistake we have observed over the years is midweek training sessions having more or less the same neuromuscular drain as the game at the weekend. If it’s all game based and competitive and uncontrolled then very often the sessions fatigue and load will come close to mirroring the actual games. If the operating sporting body arranged 4 games in 8 days for your team it’s most likely you would refuse to play at least 1 of those games, but it’s quite possible coaches are doing this on a regular basis. I am aware of Senior Inter County teams training on tuesdays and thursdays for close to 2 hours (with over 1 hour gym sessions mon/wed) and AvB games on the weekends off from the National League. So effectively over 10 weeks their output was arguably well north of the equivilant of 30 games. Sounds bananas right? Thats being nice and not factoring gym sessions. Now people wondered outloud why this team was not performing consistantly and up to expected standards. What followed then was an extensive injury list and a well below par championship, players opting out of the squad and supporters wondering why players seem disinterested. Almost all of the time it is not that the players are disinterested as modern Elite players simply cannot be disinterested such is the commitment, its that they were over trained. There are numerous examples of this across many sports with Spurs in the EPL a recent neighbouring example. Having watched their patterns over 3 years and understanding their managers like for training very hard, alot, the patterns are hard to ignore. Of course on the outside we are always guessing to an extent, but they are pretty educated guesses at this point. Always follow the patterns.
Freshness is key. All things being even a game between 2 evenly matched sides will most likely be decided by the freshest team.
The loading of SSG’s
Knowing most gym programs which are more Bodybuilding than Field Sport appropriate then its not likely that the gym work is specifically dealing with deceleration and change of direction work. Overloading too early with loads of changes of direction is opening up players to potential injury as the neuromuscular prices for changing direction is more than straight line running. This is arguably one of the reasons that hamstring, ACL and groin injuries have not really decreased at all at most levels of sport, or if one is decreasing another is raising. And while coaches may think they are being clever with a games only approach they are being anything but and are often missing the point of what i call “General Conditioning” which is also critical to expanding our athletic windows. The bigger the athletic window, the more likely players will increase skill levels and also a consistency with that skill execution. Especially if in a run of games in-season. Our approach generally is a mix of the 2 as suggested above.
By keeping players on the field and not injuring them with too heavy training too fast you are making them athletically better. Every session missed is a decrease in health and fitness of that player, every game missed is double the loss in our opinion. Contact injuries can be unavoidable but we can make players more robust so as to withstand them better. Non-Contact injuries are 100% avoidable and are what keep S&C Coaches awake at night. Any decent S&C Coach hangs their hat on keeping these to the absolute minimum and really always aiming for zero non-contact injuries.
So by playing SSG’s on large areas you reduce the amount of changes of direction and they will not be as acute (sharp and repetitive). What you can slowly introduce is return runs, simply by making Tempo runs over 50M returns instead of a straight 100M. Another really good and useful closed COD/Aerobic circuit that can help layer up change of directions and get the body used to it as more changes of directions in a closed environment as well as teaching good mechanics is the circuit below;
There is 4 deliberate changes of direction in each run. The distances are short so nobody will get anywhere near top speed. Teaching the planting of foot outside center of mass, turning of body to face the direction to go is critical here. But this is an environment where 1 or 2 coaches can really hone in on technique while also getting a nice Aerobic Circuit. Generally the circuit will take 8-12 seconds and the walk built in and the waiting line at either side means a natural 17-23 second rest. This is perfect really. I generally start off with 2-3 minutes consecutively for early season and depending on the level with 6 minutes generally the max I would spend at this for anyone.
This circuit mixed in with large area SSG’s will prepare the athletes for more intense SSG’s as the season progresses.
Understanding the SSG’s you are using and why you are using them is vital.
Is it transferring to match day?
Does it prepare your team generally or specifically?
Does it fit with your teams profile?
Does it match your tactical approach?
Are they game representative?
Are they developing or avoiding the skills you want to improve?
Are the game constraints going to help create a game where the skills and play you want to develop will be encouraged?
Are they just games for the sake of games?
For early season fitness with the ball, big spaces and few constraints. Just play the game.