Kilkenny don’t do tactics, right?

Brian Cody (Kilkenny)

Kilkenny don’t do tactics, right?

Kilkenny were good yesterday. That second-half performance was top drawer, played at an intensity Galway just couldn’t handle. Who can live with that pace – we’ll have to wait until September to see if anyone can. Galway didn’t handle it well, and that game was there for the taking for them.

All my life I’ve been watching games with my Dad. Even though nowadays I live in Dublin and he lives back home in Wexford, we still, sort of, watch them together. The match will be on in both our houses. Most days we’ll have a chat before to see who’ll win, a chat at half-time to see what changes each of us would make, and a chat after briefly about what actually happened.

Yesterday, we had a chat at half-time just. It’s always easy to say “I told you so”, but yesterday I was in actually prophetic form. Continue reading

Brawn again

The Sunday Times
Brawn again
Fiona McBennett
June 19 2016

Bodybuilding is not for the faint of heart, whether you are taking part or watching. When it comes to pursuing the sport competitively, an important mental attribute is a love of deprivation and misery, according to Loughlin Gannon, one of Ireland’s best-known competitors. “It’s a bizarre sport in every sense,” he says. “I’ve come to believe bodybuilders are not normal in any context.”

Gannon, 31, has won countless competitions since he was 16, including Mr Ireland two years ago. The Wexford man now has his sights on Mr World — the ultimate title for a bodybuilder. Preparation for competitions is arduous, with months of “bulking” through weightlifting and frequent meals, followed by weeks of “cutting” via intense cardio training on a strict diet. In the days leading to a competition, even water intake is restricted to help sculpt the perfect stage body. “Pre-contest bodybuilding is not healthy — it’s a massive level of stress,” admits Gannon. “It’s hard to understand why you keep doing it, but something keeps dragging you back. You have to be a bit warped to put yourself through it.”

Muscle man competitions date from 1891 but did not enter popular culture until the 1960s, when future Terminator star Arnold Schwarzenegger swaggered on to the Mr Universe stage in tiny briefs, flexing his supersized muscles.
For a long time bodybuilding was considered a freakish fringe activity or the choice activity of steroid abusers, but in recent years it has gone mainstream. Social media is saturated with posts of toned abs, macronutrient diet plans and personal bests. Gannon is sceptical, saying the “Instagramification” of his sport diminishes its true spirit. “I hate what the industry has evolved into. I love seeing someone lose a few pounds or reach a goal in the gym, but these things have become grossly diluted among the ‘smoke and mirrors’ type of pictures on social media today. It seems more about ‘likes’ than sticking it out and making real progress.”

However, bodybuilder Rachel Lawlor reckons social media has led to growth in the sport’s female community. “When I did my first competition there were 12 women in my category; last year there were 17. It’s popular now for women to lift weights and be strong,” she says. Dubliner Lawlor, 34, fits her training regime around her job as a PA and says colleagues are used to her training schedule. “They have been really supportive and don’t mind me eating at odd times,” she says. “They bought me a bunch of flowers and a black coffee for my birthday last year, as I was preparing for a competition and couldn’t have cake.”

Not surprisingly, the life of a bodybuilder can seem restrictive to those on the outside, but according to Chris Traynor, a Dublin-based sport psychologist and performance analyst, the sense of discipline and structure it requires is one of the main reasons people are drawn to it.

“It’s empowering for bodybuilders to feel in control of their lifestyle, to have the willpower and discipline to eat and train in line with their plans,” he says. “By setting and completing goals on a daily basis, bodybuilders improve self-efficacy and self-confidence, which in turn increases their motivation to persist in training.”
Competitions take priority for bodybuilding couple Vinny Gough and Fionnula McHale. Gough, 30, was male fitness model world champion at the World Beauty Fitness and Fashion (WBFF) show in Las Vegas last year. McHale, 32, a two-time European powerlifting champion, came first in her category at the International Fitness Championships in London last year. “Second place is never going to be good enough — that’s just the way we are,” says McHale. “When you have that mindset, you’re going to do 100% of what’s required of you, and we do that.”

Lifting weights became a focus for Gough after he was injured in his final year in Castleknock College, ending a promising rugby career. He opened a gym in Dublin, worked as a fitness model, and is now a personal trainer at Fitness First on Baker Street in London. Preparing for last year’s WBFF show was physically and mentally draining.
“I weighed 95kg and had to get down to 83.8kg for the competition, so I had to eat very little and spend two hours on the bike doing cardio every day just to burn off muscle,” he says. “I was lethargic and my mood dropped. But to be on top of your game, everything else in life must take second place.”

McHale, a Galway native who works in London and Dublin in functional medicine, misses the preparation once a show is over. “It’s a bit of an anticlimax after a competition because you’re so used to every hour and every gramme of food and fluid being measured to the extreme,” she says. “You’re checking your weight every day — sometimes twice a day — and it takes time to get used to not doing that any more.”

Professor Carel le Roux, co-director of the metabolic medicine group at the Diabetes Complications Research Centre in University College Dublin, says bodybuilders have some of the best diets of all athletes because they are so conscious of the nutritional content of everything they eat. However he doubts the value of muscle-building shakes and drinks. “Sportspeople often use protein supplements to help with the recovery after exercise, because they often can’t eat enough to give them the protein they require,” he says. “Many bodybuilders take creatine [an amino acid] to enhance recovery so that the muscle-building process is faster. However, the scientific evidence to say that it really makes a difference is weak.”

When it comes to reactions to her lifestyle, McHale gets mainly positive comments. “Most people think it’s great, but some girls on social media will say it’s too masculine or not attractive,” she says. “For me, this is what I enjoy, and there are women who feel it’s inspiring to see me lifting heavier weights than most men. It’s empowering, and I’m not going to change. I love what I do.”

Mistakes in Irish rugby?


Mistakes in Irish rugby?

Two words I’ve noticed take prominence in the interviews of players and coaches from Leinster, Munster and the Irish national team are “mistakes” and “experience”. In general, there seems to be a belief among the players and coaching staff that games are won by the teams making the fewest “mistakes” and by the teams with the most “experience”. Is this true? Common sense suggests that these guys are correct, but when you scratch the surface and think about it a little more deeply, the logic is flawed.

In any learning environment, mistakes are to be encouraged, not eliminated. Continue reading

NFL Division 4 2016


NFL Division 4 2016

This Spring I spent my Sundays travelling around Ireland watching mainly Division 4 football. I’m a Performance Analyst and worked for some teams in Division 4, scouting and preparing reports on their upcoming opponents. It was a most enjoyable experience I must say, made most enjoyable by the quality of football played. I would guess I may be the only person in the country who saw each team play, most teams more than once, apart from supporters who loyally followed their own team throughout the league.Continue reading




Every team in every competition in every sport wants to win. That’s what they’d say if you asked them. They go out to play their best, play hard, play well and get the result at the end of the game. Show me a player who walks out onto a field, court or gym and doesn’t do their best. Genuinely, show me, because I don’t know any.

Motivation is easy once you’re out there togged out and the whistle goes. It’s natural. You’re already on the battlefield, it’s sink or swim time. Motivation to prepare to your best ability to give you and your team the best chance of winning, well that’s a bit more difficult.Continue reading

Happiness on a Cold January Sunday


*Chosen by as one of the week’s best pieces of sportswriting

Happiness on a Cold January Sunday

After just over an hour’s drive, I roll down the window and shout to a fella that looks like a GAA man: “Are ya parkin’ there for the match?”. Yes he says in a thick accent. I follow his lead and park halfway across a footpath facing the right way for home. A 5 minute walk and I’m inside the ground, a tenner in but a free programme so I take two. More space for writing notes. I find myself a good seat, roughly on the halfway line under the stand, a low concrete wall with a length of timber nailed to it and painted in the county colours. It’s about 3 degrees, mid January and little at stake between two counties neither of which I’m from. But this feels like home.Continue reading

What’s that ref meant to be doing anyway?!


What’s that ref meant to be doing anyway?!

Whatever the game we watch and whatever the result, what we can be certain of is that we will hear on television, in the newspaper or from the coaches themselves about the performance of the referee in that game. The position of referee must be, in some ways at least, the most stressful position on the field in rugby, soccer, gaelic football and rugby. The concentration levels, attention to detail, decision making and the communication skills needed by a referee are enormous. The referees  interpretations of the rules can alter how teams can play, and their decisions can change the outcome of a game. It is essential that they have these mental skills, and are free to be neutral and as pressure-free as possible in order to make the best decisions on the field.

Something which has concerned me for a number of years now is the role many former professionals and coaches believe the referee should play. When we hear of coaches asking for the referee to “let the game flow”, or that the referee “ruined the game as a spectacle”, I believe we are in very difficult and dangerous territory. Continue reading

Talent Development – from New Zealand to Kilkenny

Talent Development- from New Zealand to Kilkenny

Isa Nacewa recently wrote an article about the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team before the Rugby World Cup final against Australia. Mental edge sets All Blacks apart from the rest. In the article he talks about several of the mental characteristics which distinguish the All Blacks as the world’s most dominant team. The one area which I’m going to talk about is the age at which several All Blacks finished their career. In the article, Nacewa points out that Christian Cullen played his last game for New Zealand when he was 26. Joe Rokocoko was 27, Josh Kronfeld and Dougie Howlett were 29. To many, especially here in Ireland, that sounds a little amazing. In Ireland we hold onto quality players for as long as they are fit and able. On first reading, one would imagine that the reason New Zealand were able to dispense with these players is down to the sheer numbers of excellent players their rugby system produces. For example, Josh Kronfeld was edged out of the New Zealand team by the emergence of one Richie McCaw. I believe that it is a combination of producing quality players, but even more so, the decision to dispense with players in their late 20’s rather than mid 30’s is down to an understanding of talent development by those within the All Black selection structure.

The “Zone of Proximal Development” (ZPD) is a term which refers to the optimal learning environment for an individual.Continue reading