IN the modern GAA world, the strength and conditioning coach is more important than ever and Kildare are lucky enough to have one of the best in the business.
In his day job, Neil Welch is Head of Rebab at the Sports Surgery Clinic in Santry and he is now in his third year in his role with the Kildare footballers.
Born in Manchester, Welch only moved to Ireland five years ago but his family are Tyrrells from the Curragh so he spent plenty of time in Kildare during his childhood and plenty of time watching the Kildare footballers.
“My background would been coming over with my parents to see the family so I had plenty of trips to Croke Park while I was growing up so the game wasn’t completely alien to me,” he said.
Welch is charged with the responsibility of looking after Kildare’s gym sessions and the on pitch conditioning work and he is pleased to see the development of the players in the third year of his work with them.
“It’s been good over the last few years to see what we have been doing coming to fruition. A lot of the stuff we have been doing takes place over quite a long period of time and there are a number of factors we have been working quite hard on, some of the on pitch stuff in particular, like positioning for tackling in defensive aspects as well as running technique. That takes a long time to develop so it is nice to see it come to fruition. I think we are starting to build a really good set of athletes and hopefully you will see that in the summer when they line up next to other guys, you’ll see a set of guys there who move better than the guys they are up against,” said Welch.
Kildare’s injury record during Welch’s time is a testament to the work he has done and it’s not only luck that sees Cian O’Neill with a full strength squad to chose from this weekend. That’s not to say that it has all been plain sailing and Daniel Flynn and Neil Flynn are two examples of players who have had persistent recurring injuries and it has taken a lot of work for them to overcome their problems.
“Every injury is a chance to learn and change somethings. We’ve put different plans in place for the lads and tried different things with them specific to their injuries that we hope will keep them fit in the summer. For Daniel, this is probably the longest spell he’s had in Kildare jersey without an injury in a while. He’s a specimen, if we can get him on the run on the ball in the open spaces of Croke Park, he’ll do serious damage. I don’t think I’ve a seen a better athlete. He’s had a full league and hopefully a full Championship and we’ll see him hit the ground when he gets into the open spaces there. Neil has had a bit of bad luck but each time we’ve tried to change something and I’d be expecting him to have a solid run throughout the summer as well,” said Welch.
In order to improve the players as athletes, Welch strips everything back to its most basic level and has done a lot of work with the players on their running technique during his time working with the group.
“It’s the same with any skillset, some lads are just better at it. Maybe some lads have done some athletics growing up and have more exposure and more coaching on it. It is a skill and it’s one that isn’t coached very often. You’ll see the game next week and you’ll the 30 guys on the pitch and they all move very differently. You will be able to pick out the guys who are good movers and the chances are that they have just had more coaching and more exposure to that kind of thing. Our aim is try and get a panel of 30 plus guys who are good movers and who are going to better than the guys they are up against. That way when they are moving around the pitch they moving more efficiently and expending less energy.
“It is a long process. The nature of the sport is that it is amateur so you only get a small amount of exposure with the guys plus it’s only a small part of the game, the biggest thing for us to get them good at football. We get small windows that we can work on it. Every warm up we do will involve some running technique work and multi-direction technique work. Because of that five or ten minutes over each session it accumulates and I’d like to think if we watched footage from year one and saw how the guys move now you would see some decent differences,” he said.
Strength and conditioning is something that has changed over the years and although Welch can’t really compare to previous trends in GAA due to his relatively short time in the country, he puts a lot more emphasis on mobility and agility than bulking up.
“I’m only in the country five years so I’m unsure of the developments from beforehand. Certainly there has been changing trends in S&C over the last few years. When I came over I heard about lads being too big for the sport, too big and too heavy. It’s unnecessary, the lads are going to be covering 10-12km a game, if you’re carrying around an extra three or four kilos for that then it becomes harder work. In light of trying to get a group of guys who are more efficient on the pitch than the guys they are playing against it’s unnecessary to put on lots of bulk. Now, with some of the youngers guys coming in it’s still necessary, they still have to compete against big physical guys who have been competing at that level for up to ten years so lads coming in at 18, 19 they’ll develop and bulk up but it’s not something that you would focus on, putting on a lot of mass in a short space of time. You’d let that develop over a period of time, we place a lot more emphasis on the quality of movement rather than the size,” he said.