TODAY I am trying something a bit different, so I’m speaking to well-known Tyrone physio Marty Loughran.
1) First of all Marty, tell our readers a bit about your own background.
I’m a physiotherapist by trade. I grew up playing football for Kildress, Wolfe Tones in Tyrone. I probably wasn’t quick enough to play at the level I’d have hoped to, so I always wanted to help players avoid injury and develop athletically to maximise their potential on the pitch.
I moved to England at 18 to study. While over there I was lucky to work in soccer with Huddersfield Town. I moved home and in 2009 I started working with UUJ and SINI in Belfast. I was lucky enough down there to be working with some of the best athletes in the country during the day and then some of the best Gaelic players in the country in the evenings.
In 2010 I started working with Tyrone, firstly in an athletic development role and then later as physio with the minors under Mickey Donnelly and then Feargal Logan and Peter Canavan with the u-21s.
In 2014 I was the physio with the Irish Triathlon team so that led me away from GAA for a few years because the triathlon season is a bit like F1, a different country or continent every fortnight and 100-plus days a year on the road so the football took a backseat until after Rio 2016.
Since then I’ve settled home and I’m back spending most of my time in GAA, split between physiotherapy and athletic development.
2) Tell us a bit about your business and what exactly you offer.
We have a physio and a performance gym in Cookstown. We have a great team of 16 physios and coaches there. The physio clinic would specialise in GAA injuries, we would regularly see players from across Ulster. We are fortunate to have a fair bit of experience in the sport so we look after players who are recovering from complex injuries like hip and groin pain or rehabbing ACLs as well as all the acute injuries.
Our gym would be slightly different to most gyms in that we have kids members rather than adult members. When not in lockdown, we have a thriving gymnastics club with kids as young as two, we have a Superhero program which provides athletic development classes for kids aged 6-11 and we have youth strength and conditioning from age 12 and upwards.
We have athletes in the gym like Russell White who’s trying to qualify for Tokyo and we have adult members right through to Ireland’s fastest over 70, the famous Patsy Forbes at 78. So we have a diverse membership working right across all age groups.
Fed up with the chaotic GAA fixture schedule, we made the call to move our GAA S&C program to a hybrid program of both online and face-to-face coaching in 2018. In hindsight this prepared us well for what was to come with Covid. We would work with up to 15 clubs across Ulster each year since then, splitting ourselves between face-to-face fitness testing and coaching in their own gym and online coaching via our app.
Since rolling our the program we have been fortunate to work with championship winning teams across all levels with Donegal ladies, Dungannon Clarke’s and Magherafelt O’Donovan, Rossa, Monaghan Harps and my own club Kildress.
3) The whole S&C thing started to come into our own preparation here in Donegal around 2006 when Brian McIver had Ryan Porter on his backroom team and Ryan drove it big time. When did you see that GAA teams were starting to take this as a serious tool that could benefit them?
It was interesting to read John Lynch’s piece last week about Tyrone doing strength and plyometrics under Art McRory. I think S&C has always been there in the sport but it was maybe at times due to the individual player or seen as a pre-season thing.
In our club, we installed a gym back in 1995 but like many clubs and even county teams, there wasn’t buy in until much later. I think the Armagh team of 2000s changed the game, Tyrone followed and did some good work under Willie Moore but to be honest we didn’t fully buy in until we got envious of the work Peter Donnelly was doing with Cavan.
I was trying to implement an athletic development pathway for our development squads, minors and u-21s back then and we had no central gym and probably less than half a dozen club gyms to train the players.
Ten years later it’s a different story and the majority of clubs across Ulster would have great set-ups now.
When Pete started getting the results with Cavan I think it changed the game across the province and every county knew they had to up their game and that has filtered down to club level now.
4) For me buy in is massive in terms of and S&C program for any team. Would you find that most teams are fully invested in that area now or would you still have some sceptics?
You still have sceptics in nearly every team. Fortunately we don’t hear the old myths of weights slowing you down or stunting your growth as often but you still get some push back in each team but it’s much less common that it was 10 years ago.
With our online program one of the things we monitor is player compliance so each player’s adherence to the gym program is scored as a percentage each week and then fed back to management and a quick look at that can tell you whether you’re working with a county team, senior club, intermediate or junior. The compliance rate goes up and you move up through the ranks and the scepticism goes down.
5) I would be a massive advocate for S&C but I have heard some people throw the usual digs like “I’ve yet to see any players kick a dumbbell over the bar” type stuff. What would you say to those people?
It just comes down to a lack of understanding about what strength and conditioning is. It’s not just about heavy squats and bench press or lifting weights to fill out a jersey. It’s first and foremost about improving player availability.
About 50 percent of recurrent injuries can be reduced by the implementation of an appropriate strength and conditioning program. So it mightn’t put the ball over the bar but it might help get you onto the pitch in the first place and help prevent you breaking down.
We’d spend a lot of time educating the coaches and the players we work with on exactly what we are doing in the program and why.
Our philosophy is to help keep the player on the pitch primarily, then help provide them with the strength so they can get round the pitch as fast and as efficiently as possible so they can put the ball over the bar.
6) When you take a team on can you give us a rundown of how and what you do for that team in order to improve them?
First thing we do is usually sit down with the management, committee and sometimes even a group of experienced players and make sure the program fits both them and us.
Our program would be fairly intensive. If we feel the club maybe isn’t ready for that type of commitment then we’d look at some sort of alternative for them until they are ready to work with us. If we feel we can help them and they’re bought in then we’d usually fitness test them.
At this stage we aren’t concerned with their 1RM bench or max rep chins, we’re focussed on what will affect the scoreboard come championship, speed, agility, jump performance, repeat sprint ability.
Once we have tested the players, we allocate them into groups depending on what they need athletically.
That maybe is strength and size for a younger player, speed and agility for a player who is already on top of the basics or more remedial work for an older player who wants to maximise their availability for the team.
We meet with the management and plan out the season and aim to have the team peaking when the manager wants them to. We have teams that are solely focussed on September/October and the business end of the season and other teams whose main goal is survival and need to peak for the start of the league.
When we can, we get down to coach the players in their own club gym through the season and we regularly retest the players so we can make sure each player is on the most appropriate program for their needs.
7) If you were to advise any club on what they should be doing to get the best out of their players what would you say?
Talk to them. 99 percent of players are desperate to improve. I’ve worked with a lot of players at every level and despite what a lot of managers and supporters would think I haven’t met many players who didn’t want to play or maximise their potential. So speak to the players, find out their thoughts on what’s lacking within the set up or the club and put a plan in place to address that.
We have a lot of good practitioners around the country now so if a club does need some help in putting structures in place then there’s plenty of help out there.
I would say though, a club should be looking to work with people who can develop the club coaches and the club for the long term, there’s no point in paying X pounds or euros out and in three years’ time the club has nothing to show for it. Develop the players but bring the club structures along with you.
8) What are the biggest S&C mistakes players or teams make?
It’s still viewing strength and conditioning as a pre-season event. Every year you can see teams who are in better physical shape for the first league game than they are for the championship. It shouldn’t be the case, not if the championship is your aim. Strength work must be done throughout the year. It’s a 12-month process.
The attributes we want to maximise, speed, strength, agility for the big championship match, deteriorate within 14 days if you stop training them so the pre-season gains will be long gone by championship time if you skip the in-season gym sessions.
9) What are the main differences of say and S&C program for GAA players and say a soccer player?
I would say there are a lot of similarities between a GAA gym program and a soccer program. Speed is king in both sports so programs should be designed to avoid any excess bulk. Hamstrings are the most commonly injured structure in both sports so there should be a strong emphasis in both programs on hamstring injury prevention.
Of course in the GAA we have more contact so we will have more upper body volume in our programs but I think this is changing too. If you look at the upper body strength of the Liverpool front three and how they use that strength to hold off opponents at high speed, you can see that soccer is embracing S&C more and more although culturally they’re probably still slightly behind us in terms of compliance and scepticism.
10) At What age do you think any aspiring young GAA player should start to look into S&C and start on programs, etc?
It depends on your view of what S&C is. In terms of youth training, the term ‘athletic development’ is much more commonly used, perhaps to help with buy-in from parents and coaches.
I see some teams get hammered on social media for doing athletic development work with primary school aged kids but we have gymnastics classes from two years of age and up, then what’s the difference?
We know that kids are not developing the way they used to 20-plus years ago, climbing trees, farming, playing outside, if they can’t get that naturally then there are lots of safe ways it can be coached by a qualified coach.
It needs to be fun though and for the younger age group there needs to be more emphasis on play, just like how we would coach them in terms of hurling or football at that age.
The sooner they develop the ability to master their own body weight then the sooner they can earn the right to progress to resistance training which is what we probably think of when we hear the term S&C. I would say in terms of maturity, 12 years of age, pre-puberty, is the best time to implement that so the kids can reap the rewards in the gym of hormonal development that comes with puberty.
So learn how to do fundamental movements such as squat, hinge, push, pull, brace jump and land pre puberty (u-12) then when they’ve mastered that and they have the maturity for more formal resistance training they can progress to dumbells, kettlebells, plates, bands from u-14s.
11) In relation to team preparations, what percentage would you give to S&C in terms of importance to team performance?
It’s impossible to say. Could a team win a senior championship without S&C? Very, very unlikely. Could they win it without having brilliant players and a good coaching set up? Definitely not.
It’s an integral part but it’s only there to support the technical and tactical preparation of the players. In terms of time commitments, for a younger player who has the time to invest in it, it probably needs to two to three sessions per week in the off season and pre-season then one to two sessions during the season.