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Peter Canavan
Peter Canavan

Practice makes perfect for Coach Canavan


By John Harrington

Peter Canavan’s performance for Tyrone against Dublin in 1995 will always be regarded as one of the best by a player on a losing team in an All-Ireland Football Final.

Tyrone lost by 1-10 to 0-12, but that was despite the best efforts of Canavan who scored all but one of his team’s points on the day.

10 of those were frees that the then 24-year-old Tyrone attacker kicked as confidently as if he was taking pot-shots on his local pitch with nobody watching.

And, in a way, he was. Far from the limelight, Canavan had dedicated countless hours honing his craft, so when the big day finally came he was mentally prepared for the challenge.

“The best training I did was down on our local pitch, more often than not on my own,” Canavan told GAA.ie.

“I was lucky in so far as there was a bit of a bank behind the goals. That was a God-send because I didn’t have to run too far to collect the balls after I’d kicked them over the bar.

“It helped too that there was a river running along the side of the pitch. If I kicked it wide at that side it was probably going into the river, so that was a very good reason not to kick it wide on that side.

“And when you practice skills like that, what you’re really doing is preparing yourself to execute them under pressure someday.

“When I played in my first All-Ireland against Dublin in 1995 I scored 10 or 11 points and kicked a number of frees into a chanting and cheering Hill 16.

“Someone said to me afterwards did I not find that experience daunting? Why didn’t it seem to shake me in any way?

“I told them because I’d been doing it for the past 15 or 16 years in my head. When I was down at that pitch I’d imagine I was Mikey Sheehy and that I was facing into Hill 16 and kicking it over the bar like I’d watched him do when I was a kid.

“Coaches will talk a lot now about mental rehearsal and visualisation, and even though I was probably doing it unaware, that’s exactly what I had being doing for years.

“So, when it came to that situation against Dublin in 1995 it all felt perfectly normal. It wasn’t off-putting or daunting in any way.

“That’s why it’s important to recreate likely situations in training. From a mental point of view, that type of training is invaluable.”

Peter Canavan is a study in concentration as he prepares to take a free against Dublin in the 1995 All-Ireland SFC Final.
Peter Canavan is a study in concentration as he prepares to take a free against Dublin in the 1995 All-Ireland SFC Final.

Best practice when it comes to coaching and training is something that Canavan is passionate about.

He’s a household name because of his exploits in his own playing days, but he has also built up an impressive CV as a coach at schools, club, and inter-county level.

As he says himself when you’re a PE teacher you don’t have much choice but to go down a coaching path because it’s something you have to do every day.

He’s fortunate then that it’s also something he loves doing.

On January 13th in Croke Park he’ll help give a key-note presentation at the 2018 GAA Games Development Conference in Croke Park along with former Armagh football Steven McDonnell and current Kerry minor football manager Peter Keane.

The subject of their discussion will be ‘The need for spontaneity and creativity vs team play’, which is a nicely topical debate at the moment.

In recent years gaelic football at all levels has become more tactical with teams placing a premium on defensive organisation.

With many coaches and teams this has come at the expense of skill development and encouraging players to take risks, something Canavan believes is a mistake.

“It’s not just those coaching underage teams, some coaches of senior club and county teams don’t believe in taking risks. It’s all about possession and stats," he said.

“I think if you’re going to break down blanket defences then you have to be able to take risks.

“From a coaching point of view all you can do is to prepare teams for what they can come up against.

“So if you know you’re coming up against a team that goes man for man in defence then in training you play six forwards against six backs and give them plenty of chances to take on their man and go for scores.

“Whereas if you’re coming up against a blanket defence then you plan for that scenario by playing four or five forwards against eight or nine defenders in training so they can figure out themselves what’s the best way to break that down.

“You’re encouraging players to think and to work together rather than simply telling them what they should be doing.

“A good coach will put them in that scenario and give them the opportunity to figure it out for themselves. They’ll soon come to realise what works and what doesn’t.”

Peter Canavan prepares to lift the Sam Maguire Cup as Tyrone captain after winning the 2003 All-Ireland SFC Final.
Peter Canavan prepares to lift the Sam Maguire Cup as Tyrone captain after winning the 2003 All-Ireland SFC Final.

Some coaches prefer to take a more prescriptive approach by laying out a blueprint for playing the game they demand their players stick to rigidly.

Canavan believes this method will only get you so far because scenarios will always arise in games that will require a player to use his own initiative to navigate successfully.

“You only have to look at Jose Mourinho,” said Canavan. “When things are going well he talks about the tactical moves that he made and takes the credit.

“But then when they conceded a last-gasp equaliser against Leicester recently he criticised his players for not being able to think on the spot.

“Chris Smalling was injured but played on in his position and couldn’t prevent the goal and Mourinho said afterwards there was nothing he could have done and it was the players who should have taken responsibility.

“But if you’re the sort of coach who is extremely prescriptive in your methods, then you’re not facilitating players to think for themselves and take responsibility.

“The best coaches will tell you that you should give your players as many opportunities as you can to figure things out for themselves.”

Gaelic Football and Hurling are no different to other ball-sports in so far as you’ve a much better chance of playing your way out of a tight spot if you have a high-skill set.

Be it shooting a point from a tight angle under pressure, the ability to kick off a ‘weaker’ foot, evade a tackle, or win an aerial ball in heavy traffic, a mastery of the basic skills is what it generally all boils down to.

I think the worst thing any manager or coach can do is to discourage kids from being creative

This year Peter Canavan, along with former Tyrone team-mate Joe McMahon, will help coach the U-16 footballers in the Tyrone Academy, and working on basic skills and creativity will form a big part of his coaching syllabus.

“I think the worst thing any manager or coach can do is to discourage kids from being creative because you always need an element of that,” he said.

“It helps them to think quickly on the spot and problem solve for themselves rather than simply expect to be told what to do.

“Skill training is so important for young players.

“Particularly so because I don’t think young lads are as inclined to go down and practice skills on their own or with a group of friends that perhaps previous generations were.

“There are so many distractions now for kids and what not, so that’s why it’s crucial to have skill-based training so they have an opportunity to perform the basic skills of the game.”

Canavan appreciates the importance of creativity and spontaneity in Gaelic Football but he sees those qualities as being compatible with team-play rather than opposite to it.

Skill is hugely important, but if you can’t marry flair with tactical astuteness then you’ll be found out in the modern game.

Peter Canavan managed the Fermanagh senior footballers in 2012 and 2013.
Peter Canavan managed the Fermanagh senior footballers in 2012 and 2013.

The challenge for a coach is to incorporate tactics and game-plans into a training session without making the experience a constraining or boring one for the players.

“In the space of five years it has moved on dramatically and we can thank Jim McGuinness for that because of the success he had with the style of play he brought to Donegal,” said Canavan.

“That opened up a lot of managers’ eyes in terms of what they could do with 15 players in terms of positioning and strategy, and it changed the landscape of how the game is being played.

“Tactics are now so important from a management point of view and from a coaching point of view too in terms of how you work on tactics and implementing a game-plan without making a session stop-start and monotonous.

“You have to make training fun for players, be they underage players or adults, because no matter what age you are you play football because you enjoy it.

“A big part of a coach’s job is to make sure the session is enjoyable so players, both underage and adults, will want to come back.

“You have so much to get into sessions nowadays and that’s why planning is so crucial.

“You have to sit down and decide what your aim is, what you want from the team, what style suits them best, and then go away and try to create a session that’s as enjoyable as possible and which will improve the group.”

A talented coach can make a massive difference with a group of players, but ultimately a player will only ever realise his full potential if he is driven to do so.

A general view of the audience at the GAA's 2017 Annual Games Development Conference.
A general view of the audience at the GAA's 2017 Annual Games Development Conference.

Canavan spent hours on his own kicking balls over the bar in his local field in order to become the all-time great he did, but not everyone has what it takes to give that sort of single-minded commitment.

That’s why he sees his current role with the Tyrone U-16 footballers as mentoring one as much as a coaching one.

“It’s not all about winning at that age, but you need to let them know what’s ahead of them and what’s expected of them,” said Canavan.

“The lifestyle of an inter-county football now is professional in so many ways, and not everyone is cut out for it. So it’s about giving them an idea of what’s ahead.

“You want to show them how to play as a team too and the quality of coaching they get at this age is very important in terms of showing them what it takes to be a player at the highest level and the sort of progression you have to make.

“I’d like to think by the time they’ve finished with us they’ll be the better for it.”

• The GAA Games Development Conference 2018 is being developed in partnership with Sky Sports and will take place on Friday and Saturday, January 12th and 13th 2018, in Croke Park.

Run as a partnership between all of the Gaelic Games Associations, the Conference will offer the 750 delegates attending an opportunity to access talks relating to key coaching issues in Hurling/Camogie, Gaelic football/Ladies Gaelic football, Handball and Rounders which are related to players across the entire player development pathway.

Tickets can be purchased HERE.

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