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The Irish U-18 girls face into the fifth to eighth place playoffs this weekend, the culmination of two years building toward this classification weekend for coach Richie Malone, his coaching and management team along with a large number of players.
The aim is to provide the players with the tools to be able to transition into the Irish senior team in the smoothest manner possible. To this end, the likes of former Irish goalkeeper Mary Goode – the current assistant coach – and strength and conditioning coach Gerry Heaney have attempted to recreate the atmosphere of the senior setup.
Malone explains that “people don’t realise what it takes behind the scenes. It’s all the little things. You try and make sure you cover everything.”
“The level of detail, the atmosphere we are trying to create, is to take the pressure away from the girls.”
As a recent international, Goode is particularly well placed to assess the development of the junior age group programmers. She played at Irish U-16 level in the mid-90s but says that there is no comparison to the manner in which the U-18s prepare now.
“To me its completely different,” she told The Hook. “What we have now is like the national programme but just a little softer around the edges. We are obviously more conscious of their age and emotions but it is definitely a lot more serious.
“We did a lot of running and training but the strength and conditioning is completely different. All we did was running laps; now we have a lot more focus on the specifics and there is a lot more prep toward going into the senior team.”
Goode has been part of Irish underage setups now for three years, also in a goalkeeper coach capacity. In recent times, she and Malone have seen the likes of Katie Mullan, Nicola Gray, Deirdre Duke and Emily Beatty move on to the senior team.
“From a personal level, I’m much more aware of the support you need to give people to get to where they want to go. I’m much more conscious that this should be enjoyable for players.
“It’s not for us to squeeze every last ounce of them but it is for us to make them better hockey players and make them want to be the best they can be.”
From a strength and conditioning perspective, Heaney came on board in the last couple of years. His background is primarily in soccer and Gaelic games but has developed a strong interest in hockey with Salerno and Galway hockey club.
He studied with Setanta College, a course run by Dr Liam Hennessy – the fitness director of the IRFU – using those tools to aid the side’s progress with recovery key.
“We are a lot more professional in what we are doing, asking a lot more of the girls and would like to think we are preparing them to make the next step to into Darren Smith’s programme.”
His plans have been ongoing for the months leading up to the competition. During the Europeans, he oversees the players recovery.
“At the tournament, my job from a strength and conditioning perspective is done. The girls are tapered from the work they have been doing to the last two weeks.
“We have strategies to manage that recovery and it is something the girls have been doing on an ongoing basis themselves after training sessions. For example, we do foam rolling sessions; after the games we’re into contrast methods – ice baths, contrast showers.
“The next morning we do our pool recovery session. The work we have done is done from a strength and conditioning perspective is done but what will make a massive amount of difference is our recovery.
“Also what they eat and the fluids they take in [is really important], because of the nature of the game – which has been a real wake-up call for me in the last two years – playing five games in seven days, doesn’t happen in other sports.
“To condition the girls, recovery becomes hugely important in a tournament setting. We need to educate them all the time for hydration and proper foods at the right times.”
Coming from outside the sport originally, Heaney says that hockey’s scheduling is something that provides a unique challenge for someone in his position.
This week, all the U-18 sides will play five games in seven days.
“The main difference is you would not be asked to play that amount of games in such a short space of time. Honestly, I think its mad.
“When I interviewed for the job, I met Des Ryan – he’s now head of the sports medicine side of the academy for Arsenal – to get a few pointers for putting together a plan. He looks at me and says this is mad. How do you physically prepare a side to do that and the recovery?”
He has been working with this group of players for a long time and can see the developments but believes more can be done at a younger level.
“It’s been a two-year programme. The girls who have been with us for two years would be on a different programme to those who have joined this year.
“You can see the difference between them physically. That is the hardest part of my job to get them to play that many games over that period of time.”
“From my perspective, there is very little done at the provincial level. That’s a huge area that Irish hockey needs to look at from a long-term player pathway.
“You need to get strength and conditioning coaches at the development age groups of 13 or 14. By the time, they come to U-18 level, they are learning stuff that they really should have been doing at U-16 level. So then I can progress them on to George [who has just taken over the senior S&C] after they have done four years and are ready for the senior programme.”
Malone, meanwhile, has been keen to welcome new voices to help his side. Mary Logue has run a couple of sessions while Jenny Burke took a goalscoring session.
“We have so much talent in Irish hockey but sometimes we don’t maximize the people that are within the hockey family. There is a lot of knowledge and talent there but it is not always readily available because people have different commitments.
“Some can’t commit to do two years with a team but they can do a two-hour session on goalscoring – that was Jenny Burke’s gig, one of the best we have had in the country.
“To have her do a session, for them and for us was a great experience. Similarly, the interaction we have had with Darren Smith has been more than we’ve had with the national coach than anytime in the four years I’ve been here.”
He concludes, though, that all of these developments will always need the support from the families of the players involved.
“It’s really important to acknowledge the support parents are giving. It’s not just financial contributions.
“We have players from around the country so people are home-hosting, providing transport to train and buses; whatever need to be done. It’s not just about the team on the pitch but also about the team behind the scenes, all the support structures.”
Saturday fixtures (all at Belfield)
Semi-finals: France vs Germany, 2pm; Netherlands vs England, 4pm
Pool C (relegation pool): Wales vs Russia, 10am; Ireland vs Belgium, 12pm
Pool C: Wales vs Belgium, 9am; Ireland vs Russia, 11am