The Force is strong in them!
By: Paul Clarke
Invariably when we distil on-field performances to determine the best field sport players we see that the best players are also the best movers. They tend to have wonderfully developed acceleration, deceleration, agility, balance, co-ordination and are generally excellent bilaterally. More than this they are expert at expressing these skills under pressure whilst performing the skills of the game. We marvel at players such as Colm Cooper and his ability to weave magic and perform the skills of the game seemingly effortlessly. But every great player has a lifespan; who will take his place? But probably the more important question is “how” they will be developed into the player they need to be.
Movement literacy, or the ability to access a broad range of movement skills, is on the wane amongst our youth. Recent Physical Competence Screening I conducted amongst 50 county-level U-16 players shows, for example, that 80%+ have less than adequate mobility about the hips and ankles. The cause factors aren’t really a surprise; lack of structured PE time in school, the absence of actual physical education, less and less free play and an increasingly competitive emphasis to organised youth sport are amongst the key contributors towards a youth player base who simply cannot move as well as players of even 10-15 years ago. For example, Donnelly (2004) suggested that Irish children do not get adequate physical activity outside of school hours and Smyth (2005) showed that Irish children don’t have mature functional movement skills. These are the movement skills that are so vital in terms of skill development later in life. Indeed, Jess (2004) shows us that “failure to develop mature patterns of fundamental movements will limit children and players in acquiring specialised sports skills later in their lifespan through adolescence and adulthood.
When dealing with and developing youth players we need to be conscious of the end point we are aiming at; essentially we need to develop them cognisant of what demands await them at an advanced level rather than developing them to win the next blitz or challenge tournament. More and more as part of this equation, strength and conditioning work and time in the gym is seen as the panacea to developing the players we want in the future. Now, to be clear, I am not being hypocritical here. The world of S&C and Physical Performance is where I ply my trade. What I do think, however, is that there is a real need to re-examine the player’s development continuum. We know that they haven’t got a really well developed movement skill-set that is efficient and resilient, so why then are we putting them under the bar, so to speak. Getting stronger, in field-player terms, is not just about the ability to create and sustain increased force; it is about developing strong, balanced, controlled movements that can be performed under pressure, at speed, in a competitive environment. If you look up quickly images on Colm Cooper you will see his action shots have something in common. Namely, he is on one leg and in a body position that you rarely see mirrored in the gym setting. To see him, or somebody like Brian O’Driscoll, on the field of play is to see somebody execute the game skills with “style, precision and grace” (V.Gambetta). So how then do we strike a balance between developing excellent movement and also in developing the strength and power required to flourish at the top level. How strong do we need to be?
Let’s take a staple gym exercise and one to be found in some variant in most development programs; the squat, an excellent exercise and a very fundamental sports movement to train. However, the exercise performed in the gym involves moving in a very predictable and prescribed fashion. Again, the exercise has its place. However we also need to precede this with sound movement skill training and to also supplement it with the development of a functional strength. This is a much used buzz-term but essentially it is a strength we can use on the field of play. In short, we need to train the squat pattern in unpredictable, uncommon ways. We need to give the players “movement puzzles” to figure out where and how their newly acquired strength can be applied with balance, precision and co-ordination. These puzzles will have many layers of complexity. Effectively for these exercises players are using their own bodyweight as the resistance; they are encountering the force within. These practical movements take single leg proficiency, core control, balance, co-ordination, bilateral ability, neural development, and multi-plane, multi-directional movement to a whole new level and they emphasise function over appearance; top quality movement is the objective. Best of all is that the player is gaining proficiency and strength/power of movement that they are likely to encounter on the field of play.
These movements still have squatting, lunging, pushing, pulling, bracing, rotating etc at their very core but the fact that you are challenging the neural pathways, opposing forces and/or performing a skill make things even more difficult. What you develop is a player who is bullet-proof in terms of movement efficiency and who will develop a strong level of resilience to those chaotic and unpredictable movements they encounter in training and on the pitch. Now you are truly in the realms of physical performance development of tomorrows player...one eye on giving them the tools to enhance performance and the other on injury prevention (or certainly reducing the chances of) through focus on integrated, whole-body exercises.