Physical demands on Irish students not sustainable says Arsenal’s Galway-native head of athletic development

Des Ryan

Des Ryan

The head of athletic development at Arsenal’s youth academy has said that physical demands on many young Irish players are not sustainable. 

Speaking at the weekend ‘Developing and Maximising Youth Potential’ conference Des Ryan, who is Head of Sport Medicine & Athletic Development at the academy said that every single club, GAA or otherwise, in the country should appoint a Strength & Conditioning coach to address the ‘workload issue’. 

And also addressing the same conference, the leading Strength & Conditioning coach at US high-schools said that the Irish student workload described to him was “shocking”.

The critiques were made as background evidence - outlined at the conference held at the LIT/Setanta College Sportslab in Thurles on Saturday and today - suggests that second level students, at a sensitive stage of their physical development, could be playing three times the amount of games that fully formed adults are playing in any given year. 

Mr Ryan, who is a former Strength and Conditioning coach with Connacht Rugby and a native of Ballinasloe said that between school, club and, in some young GAA players’ cases, county, the workload for many players is not sustainable as every manager wants 100 per cent. But if there’s a consolation, it is that people are beginning to know it’s not right. 

“Eventually, through the principal of long-term player development, system alignment and integration, proper planning will be put in place that is player-centric and not centred ono the individual needs or desires of each manager that the young player is working under. 

“This will ensure that these young players are not over-played, they will stay longer in sport and there will be less chance of getting injured.”

Ryan, under whose programmes the amount of muscle injuries picked up by players at the Arsenal academy have been cut in half over the last three years, said that parents have a key role to play in managing player workload. 

“Given that young players here will be play for so many different teams and two or more codes, then parents have a key role to play in their son or daughter’s wellbeing.   Every coach will want 100 per cent involvement but there’s no way this can happen or else burn out is an inevitability.  That’s where the parents have stepped in. 

Every club should invest in a strength and conditioner and he should have a meeting with the player and outline what’s good and what’s not.  The player, together with his parents and coaches, then can make an informed decision based on what he or she can do, not what is wanted of him or her.” 

Gary Schofield, a US expert in youth athletic development who is current National Strength & Conditioning Association High-school Coach of the Year, said he was shocked when he learned of the workload. 

“That’s horrific.  The reality is the coach keeps his job by winning and he wants to have the player at the best of their ability.  From my perspective, I don’t want the athlete to be as good as he or she can be.  It’s not how great you are at 15 because that can result in the body being abused.  What we want is allow our athletes to progress.  Success at this age group should be based on the development of that athlete. Coaches need to be reviewed on the development of the athlete rather than wins and losses. 

“There was a recent article in in England in which they asked why England youth players are injured at a higher rate. The simple reason was they are playing way too much and based on the figures I am hearing about Ireland the same might be the case here. The youth athlete doesn’t have the body to handle the physical loads we are putting on them.”

Schofield also revealed some of the key injury influences on young players at development stage, with research showing that if young athletes get less than 7.5 hours sleep at night it increases the likelihood of injury by 1.7times, while the injury rate during the high academic period is 2.1 times the average rate. 

Conference organiser and founder of Setanta College, Liam Hennessy said, “It’s time we had this type of debate.  The workload on some young players is far too much and counterproductive.  They have to be put at the centre of any programme and not the coach’s needs.  There needs to be alignment, cooperation and compromise on the part of all the stakeholders and without that a lot of young players are never going to reach their potential and could even be lost to sport altogether.”

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