Conditioning Leitrim for success now and in the future - Enda aims for a bright future

John Connolly sits down with strength & conditioning coach Enda Lyons and finds a man determined to lay solid foundations for the future of Leitrim GAA county teams

Conditioning Leitrim for success now and in the future - Enda aims for a bright future

Enda Lyons pictured with Leitrim Games Manager Thomas Keenan, Ryan O'Rourke and county board chairman Terence Boyle at the launch of the Sky Go Games Academy Picture: Willie Donnellan

"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."

George Bernard Shaw’s famous quote might seem like a strange jumping off point for an interview with Leitrim’s strength & conditioning coach Enda Lyons but after more than 90 minutes chatting with the Carrigallen native, it seems like the perfect spot.

For the reasonable man will look at Leitrim’s population, playing numbers and history and think 'what’s the point, we’re never going to match the Galways or Mayos'. But the unreasonable man, the most famous of whom was the late Tony McGowan who talked of Connacht titles at a time when Leitrim were mired in Division 4, believe Leitrim can defy all that is stacked against them and not only compete with the best but compete and win.

You can call them dreamers but spend any time with the former Leitrim keeper and the description of “Dreaming with his eyes wide open” might be more apt for Enda Lyons is a man who stresses that he doesn’t have all the answers but is only too willing to talk and share ideas.

Even his take on his own role within the Leitrim set-up is revealing: “S&C is only a very small part of the grand scheme of things. If players can’t kick the ball over the bar, there is no point in being able to run all day.

“It has to be a breakdown of a third, a third and a third - you need to be physically fit, you need to have very good skills and you need to be tactically astute and if you don’t have that combination of skills, you’re not going to win matches and that is the bottom line.

“Strength and conditioning is kind of the buzz word now but my job is to try and get the best performance from the guys on the pitch full-stop. So my role is very, very simple - to have the boys in peak physical condition and if I do that, everybody is happy.”

For a man tasked with having Leitrim’s players in peak physical condition, Enda preaches skills as much physical fitness: “There was a study done between Division 1 players, Division 2 players, Division 3 and 4 players and actually Division 1 and 2 players runs less - why?

“Their skills acquisition are better - the ball is being hit into spaces where they can run and get the ball rather than taking contact or making unnecessary runs. Less is more and that comes down to your skills base but don’t get me wrong, Dublin can get around the pitch, they are probably the best conditioned team at the moment.

“Teams are starting to catch up on them but it is that execution of skills that is the difference in Dublin winning All-Irelands and that is the bottom line.”

So the image of gym rats, players with bulging biceps lifting enormous weights is a thing of the past? “That is the way it was for years in regard to how gym sessions were done, it was basically absolute strength, putting on as much muscle as you could, getting as big as you could but that has all changed now.

“It is all velocity based training now - it is about moving weight as quickly as possible so what you’re looking to do is relevant body weight strength exercises. If you look at where we are going in terms of development, you look at Dublin and every one of them is a lean, running machine.

“There is nobody carrying extra-bulk around the pitch, they are able to give and take hits. You see the Dublin injury rate and I would say you are looking at maybe 95% of their players available to play every game.

“Armagh’s philosophy was they wanted to be as big and as strong as they could be and that worked, they won an All-Ireland but Dublin have brought that to where they want big, powerful, mobile athletes and that is where it has gone now and everyone is trying to follow.”

Running and Recovery

Roscommon loom large on the immediate horizon for Leitrim but Enda is also looking to lay down foundations that will lead Leitrim to success in the years ahead and, in his role as a Games Development Administrator, he is at the heart of a plan to bring long and lasting changes to Leitrim football.

Along with his GDA colleagues Sean Gallagher and Stephen Gallagher and Games Manager Thomas Keenan, Enda talks of introducing a player development pathway for all young footballers in Leitrim to bring them through from U14 to senior, introducing a structure that will serve the interests of the players first and foremost.

“What we’re not trying to do is flog them when they come to us. They have set nights they go to the gym and we’ve set up three centres in the county where the lads can have supervised sessions one night a week, through their testing results that we are now doing in Annaduff.

“It means that as players move through the academies, there is a structure there and that their gym programmes are running through.”

Enda preaches that there is no secret weapon other than hard work and patience but when asked to pinpoint a few keys areas for future football development in young players, the answers may be surprising.

With a more sedentary lifestyle in Irish life nowadays, Enda stresses the importance of being able to run correctly and points out that Irish children just aren’t as active as they used to be: “Technology is taking over, we are not moving as much and that is why, with younger people, we need to just get them running, just as in moving properly, all those small little things to reduce the injury rate.

“For young people, from the age of 12, 13, 14, 15, the ability to move correctly is the most important thing they can do. That means being able to do push ups, being able to do squats properly, being able to do exercises really, really well and being able to run properly.

“That is probably the biggest thing we’ve noted with a lot of squads, that our running technique is not great. If we can fix that, that will reduce injuries, it will reduce hamstring injuries, knee injuries, ACL injuries.”

Sleep and recovery is next on the list as Enda stresses that active footballers need at least eight to nine hours sleep a night and strongly advocates 20 minute power naps to aid recovery! “Sleep is the most important aspect of recovery, I know it is very difficult but it has been shown, especially around exam time, that athletes who are doing exams have a tendency to get more injured and sick and the feedback that comes from that is sleep.

“Never mind about the physical strain on the body, people have to look at where they are psychologically as well.

“If you are coming to training and in bad form and not really yourself, you are going to get injured because your focus isn’t on the training, your sleep isn’t right, your recovery isn’t right and who gets blamed.”

Wishing he was still playing

If the life of an inter-county footballer all sounds like hard work, Enda only wishes he could still be lining out with both Leitrim and Carrigallen.

“I’d love to be a footballer now. The opportunities our young footballers have now is absolutely enormous - they get talks on nutrition, they get talks on recovery, they get supervised S&C, they’re getting to play against the best players.

“With the knowledge that we have now compared to where we were when I was a minor, Leitrim could be so far ahead of where we are now. Especially with that team of 1998 compared to Mark Plunkett’s team, if we had that opportunity back in 1998, God knows where Leitrim could be right now.”

His own playing career saw him win a Connacht minor title in 1998 and play under some very different managers and while training today is very different, Enda learned valuable lessons from each of his managers.

“If we look back to what used to happen say when I started back in senior inter-county football in the early 2000s, we did nights in Loughan House and it was torture.

“We trained twice a week and we got soup and sandwiches after the session and we played a game at the weekend.

“I would have huge respect for Dessie Dolan and what he did. Dessie had a group of players where he thought their work ethic was the most important thing they had to do. If players weren't willing to put the work in, you didn’t play with Dessie, that was just the way it worked.

“The fittest I ever was in my career as a goalkeeper was with Dessie but I didn’t mind doing it because Dessie spoke of what we had to do and it was a great pleasure working with him.

“When John Morrison and Mickey Moran came in, they changed the whole thing. They brought such a professional manner and really the first structured S&C programme with Ollie Cummins, a programme you had to do all the time.

“John was a mentor of mine from when he left Leitrim, I would have been talking with John probably on a monthly basis, an unbelievable coach. Mickey the same, look at what he has done with Slaughtneil and I believe he is back in Derry football again.”

Morrison, who recently passed away, was so far ahead of his time even if his penchant for sound bites seemed to aggravate fans: “Well, John probably did talk too much, there is no point in saying otherwise,” laughed Enda, “but he was talking for the right reasons. These were people that we didn’t realise how lucky we were when we had them.

“He tried to bring his philosophy to our county. The Dublin County Board saw that 20 years ago when he implemented what Dublin have now. He was the one who put a GPO in every club in Dublin - that’s the benefits of vision.”

And it is a lesson that has stayed with Enda: “Just because you are doing something different doesn’t mean it is wrong and it is very much the same as the S&C industry.”

Setting sights on the Dubs

Dublin are named checked regularly by Enda and it is obvious the admiration the Leitrim man has for the job Bryan Cullen is doing with the Dubs but Enda is setting his sights on emulating their reputation.

“Every county should have a development manager for all their squads. The fact that every manager comes into a club or a county, the S&C man changes is a disaster because every county is looking for a quick win. But if there is one person who is looking over everything, they are able to say this man here has this problem, this man here has this problem and this is how these have to train and the manager says fine, they can see the process.

“It will probably change now in the next five or six years and hopefully Leitrim will lead that with what we are trying to do now here at the minute. But we have to be very much aware just because it is different doesn’t mean it is wrong, that would be the big thing I would take from it.”

Certainly heads are already being turned as Leitrim's fitness was a key factor in the march to the Division 4 Final. But as with his work as a GDA, Enda sees his job as a team effort.

“We were very lucky this year, we had every single player on the squad available in Croke Park this year and injury free. That is my job and Shane’s and Alan’s job as coach, physio and doctor, Terry had a full house to pick from. We had a few injuries going into the game but you have that, everyone gets niggles but Terry had a full squad to pick from and that makes a huge difference to Terry as a manager.”

Even with those plaudits, Enda believes there is room for improvement and he sets himself some very high targets: “We are behind, there has been lots of work done but structured S&C with the senior team has only been going for 18 months.

“We want to get to the point where the young players coming through now, the players that are coming through our player development pathways, that they are running the distances at 17 what the seniors are running now.

“If we can do that, that’s my job done.”

Please Ask

As our chat comes to an end, the one thing that sticks out is Enda's willingness to share ideas, to talk and give advice. But Enda's enthusiasm to spread the gospel comes with a warning: “Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of people claiming they are experts and they are not.

“Just because you get a degree or a certification over the weekend in gym, it doesn’t mean you are a strength and conditioning coach, people have to be very aware of that.

“You have to balance everything but what I would say is please come and ask me. I’m not the big bad ogre that is going to keep secrets, my job is to make Leitrim football as good as it can be, the same for Stephen and Sean, so if people want to ask questions, please pick up the phone and ask.

“The process, and it is a process, you cannot skip a part of it and if you miss one of those aspects of the curve, injuries are going to happen. There is no reason why some clubs cannot do it if they ask for the help - that’s the key thing.

“It is not a weakness to ask for help. I’m always cherry picking stuff or going to people I know in the industry. You are trying to learn and bring it back into the county so please ask, that is why I’m here.

“But please ask - there is no rocket science to it but unless you are doing it properly, it can be very damaging to young people and it can very damaging to players who are injured so just be very careful with what you are doing and don’t be afraid to ask questions. I don’t have all the answers but I can certainly help as best I can.

“The best coaches are the best magpies who are pinching stuff from people who they are working with. If clubs come and ask, I can help and I will be more than delighted to help.”

“We’re here to help - I include Stephen and Sean and Thomas in this, we’re here to help, we’re not here to say you are doing it wrong, we are trying to make every club coach and every club better, we are trying to drive standards and if we can do that by parting with information and people come in and look at sessions, please do, it is not rocket science.

“It might just be putting a slightly different structure and if people realise that is what we’re trying to do, we will go in the right direction with the people in the county at the moment trying to do the job.”

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