Posted by Ciarán Whelan

The intensity of training games on a Saturday morning can be far more effective in giving a squad the edge than less competitive challenge matches

2012 Donegal

With the Olympics ending the next few weeks will be dominated by GAA coverage. Most players and managers will try to avoid the media but, much as you try, sometimes it’s difficult to keep away from it.

You can get caught up with it and it can begin to play on your mind. As players develop and get more mature they learn to deal with the hype and the blanket coverage. Certainly in the second half of my career it became water off a duck’s back.

You ignore it and focus on the thing that matters, which is the game. A lot depends on the older lads on the panel showing leadership and taking on the responsibility of showing the way forward. It’s important for them to integrate the younger players into the build-up for an All-Ireland semi-final.

The four teams now are facing a number of weeks before the semi-finals and, from a manager’s perspective, it is during the weekends that there is most danger for distraction. You have your normal working week from Monday to Friday but you’ll find that some teams will try to get away to a training camp this weekend or next weekend.

Dublin have a four-week gap so they will be looking to get away and that gives teams the opportunity to bond and to work on their weaknesses. It will also give the manager the chance to have them under the one roof and go through the gameplan.

So it’s a big challenge getting through weekends. Three weeks is the ideal length of time between matches but four is just a little bit too long.  When it gets to the week of the match, though, that’s when you’re really switched on and the real mental preparation starts for the players.

The managers would have experience of that themselves but another problem that they don’t have as much control over is the social media that the players have access to. But three or four days out from the game players need to leave all that and focus solely on the opposition.

The players of the fringes of the team will also want to lay down markers so there will be a certain intensity in training from now on in. It’s a different psyche because you have those players desperate to get in against those determined to protect their position in the team as well as trying to avoid injury and protect their bodies to a certain degree.

What tends to happen then is you see the A team beating the B team but that’s a big advantage that the likes of Dublin, Kerry and Kilkenny in the hurling have over most other sides. They have thirty-odd quality players and that means the quality of training is maintained at a high level.

I know myself over the years that some of the games we had in training on a Saturday morning were more competitive than some of the Leinster championship games we had at Croke Park. You were up against a guy who really wanted your jersey so you had to be up for those games.

Those games are crucial because every weekend players will get the chance to lay down a marker, either to cement your place in the side or make a case for inclusion. It was said last year after Dublin won the All-Ireland that the B team pushed the A side to their limits and I know that will be happening in the Dublin camp again this year.

But I’m sure that’s what’s happening in the three other squads, too. It’s vital that you get to play those full seventy-minute games at the weekends because you can’t get challenge games at this time of year. And I always felt challenge games lacked the intensity. I certainly hated going around the country opening up pitches and I always thought we got much more out of a quality training game.

As well as that, and away from the training pitch, the management will spend a lot of time looking at the opposition and at their various strengths. They’ll identify where they are strong or vulnerable in some detail but they may not necessarily share that information with their entire squad. They will hold back a lot of those details.

There will be training sessions set aside to deal with counteracting the strengths of the opposition and where they can be got at. After that they will know what they have to deal with and carry on concentrating on their own gameplan. So, with regard to the players, there’s limited enough analysis of the opposition with the manager taking care of that side of the preparations.

Managers have to be open and flexible and be able to listen. There are times during the year when some of the senior guys go to the man in charge and point out one or two things that they feel are not being done right. It might be a case that they feel certain guys aren’t pulling their weight or giving it full commitment.

Sometimes the messages from players to other players are just as important as anything the manager has to say. And ultimately what a lot of managers look for is a bit of leadership in the group. There are always little things that the manager or selectors might not see or there might be things senior players have heard within the camp that they feel need to be put right.

Most managers are open to that sort of approach and Pat Gilroy would be close enough to a lot of the senior players as I’m sure would the managers of the other counties left in the competition. So all in all it’s a crucial time of the season and the four teams will be doing their utmost to ensure that the quality and commitment in training remains at the highest possible standard.