Former Sligo footballer, David Kelly, is a Lecturer in Sport Science in the Department of Sport and Health in Athlone IT.
Former Sligo footballer, David Kelly, is a Lecturer in Sport Science in the Department of Sport and Health in Athlone IT. 

David Kelly busy making sport science accessible to all


By John Harrington

Former Sligo footballer, David Kelly, is a Lecturer in Sport Science in the Department of Sport and Health in Athlone IT where he teaches across the Sport Science, Athletic Therapy, and Physical Activity programs, specifically in the area of human physiology and performance testing.

He’s also a member of the Athletic Development sub-group of the Gaelic Games Sports Science Working Group which this year produced the highly regarded Be Ready to Play programme among other initiatives.

Kelly spoke to GAA.ie about his involvement with the Working Group, what they hope to achieve in the coming months and years, why he's still in love with Gaelic Football, and passionate about helping young athletes fulfil their potential.

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Q: David, you played Gaelic Football at the highest level. Presumably you drew on your own experiences during your studies and continue to do so now as a Sports Science Lecturer?

David Kelly: Without a doubt. When I started with Sligo in 2005 the change from then even over a five-year period was dramatic, and even since then again.

But there was a five-year period there when it went from 10 mph to 50mph. It just jumped up a level in terms of preparation, support staff and level of expertise coming into the game.

I was always interested in trying to make myself better and you'd always be questioning why you were doing certain things at certain times and obviously wondering would it be the right thing to be doing.

The way Gaelic Football teams were being trained at the time, through my postgraduate area of research, I really wanted to investigate was there another way of training, maybe a better way or maybe a more efficient way.

And, yeah of course, I would continue to use myself as a test dummy and it's often by your own experience and trial and error that you really figure out what works, what doesn't work and what is actually practical.

David Kelly in full flight for the Sligo footballers in 2015.
David Kelly in full flight for the Sligo footballers in 2015.

Q: Has the approach to coaching in Gaelic Games changed dramatically in the last 10 years?

David Kelly: Yes, it has. As the game has progressed, coaching has had to adapt as well. There are always going to be transition periods and in my opinion we need to patient with these periods and allow the game to evolve without interfering too much. I fully believe having more individuals from sports science backgrounds within Gaelic Games and within team environments to help inform coaches and inform best practice will improve this approach.

When people look at Sports Science they often think that Sports Science is just for the elite athletes or Sports Science means you have to increase your volume of training or amount of sessions. Really, what Sports Science and specifically athletic development, is about doing things the correct way. It's about doing the right things at the right time. It's about getting the most out of what you're doing and being efficient with your time.

That might mean doing less sessions but doing them better, with a specific plan. So, if you can only do two sessions a week, then what's the best way of doing those sessions to get the most out of your players.

Q: What would you regard as the key objectives of the Gaelic Games Sports Science Working Group?

DK: For me, one of the main objectives is to reduce the drop-out rate of men and women playing Gaelic Games and encourage more people to engage with the Games. We can do this by influencing coaches, educating coaches, and establishing best practice and providing a framework for them to work within.

Right now there is so much information out there for coaches that it is hard to know what is right, it can be easy to believe there are these magic silver bullets, the latest trend on social media. One of our goals is to inform coaches and help educate them to be critical of this info so ultimately they provide a better experience for the player.

If players are having a better experience and they're progressing, then they're more likely to keep participating and I think that's the big thing. It's about improving training standards and coaching standards and giving coaches the key information without bogging them down in too much nonsense.

It's about providing that information in a really digestible manner and allowing them then to make sense of it and implement it with their own group whether that's U-8, U-12, senior, whether it's men, women, football, hurling, or camogie.

Des Ryan, Head of Sport Medicine and Athletic Development, Arsenal FC Academy, speaking at the 2020 GAA Games Development Conference, in partnership with Sky Sports.
Des Ryan, Head of Sport Medicine and Athletic Development, Arsenal FC Academy, speaking at the 2020 GAA Games Development Conference, in partnership with Sky Sports.

Q: You're part of the Athletic Development sub-group with people like Des Ryan, Niall Moyna, Bryan Cullen, and Louise Keane. People who are best in class. Is it enjoyable being part of a group like that and sharing ideas?

DK: Absolutely. You think of the calibre of the people you've mentioned there and Des has brought in a number of other individuals from the UK including Rhodri Llyod, Sean Cummings. Martina McCarthy from the Institute of Sport is another fantastic S&C coach involved as well.

Some of the group I was familiar with and some of them not, so its been great to meet all. For me, it's a great initiative. I've a vested interest in Gaelic Games. I've played my whole life, I'm still involved with my club, it's my sport I suppose.

These people who are coming in to give up their free time, most of them are involved in GAA but some of them are not, and they want to improve standards and it's fantastic to see that. Working with them has been great, there are some brilliant people in all the groups.

Aoife Lane deserves a lot of credit for bringing such a high calibre of individuals together to work on this. It's great to have the opportunity to work on a framework that will help coaches and players throughout the country, rural and urban, from your biggest clubs to the smallest.

Q: There has been a great reaction to the Be Ready to Play resources which are helping coaches and players in real-time. Will the group also be producing some more resources and literature that will of help to clubs and coaches in the long-term?

DK: At the moment we're putting together a body of work that covers a variety of areas. The Sports Science Working Group is a broad group and we're looking at areas such as the health benefits of our sport, the drop-out rate in Gaelic Games, athletic development, maturation through the age-groups into early adulthood, periodisation and planning and how you should set up your season.

Our Athletic Development sub-group want to produce two documents. One that might be a more technical document and one that's really easy to read, a practical document for coaches that's easily digestible and that they can implement straight away with practical examples of the types of things we're talking about.

When you're working with club teams you have a limited amount of time with those teams. You need to maximise that contact time with your team. The big thing from our working group is how can we give this information to coaches that they should be working on the right things at the right time.

You don't need to be doing a three-month pre-season, often it is very possible to do it in four to six weeks. We want to help people understand what they should be concentrating on at a particular time in the season, or even more importantly sometimes, what they shouldn’t be doing. Volunteer coaches are giving up their time to do their best, and it's up to groups like us to provide information to allow them to do this better.

Gaelic Games is unique, it's amateur, and people do have a life outside of it, so we do need to maximise our time with our players so they enjoy it and want to keep playing it.

What this will hopefully do is influence clubs in a positive way by providing a framework. The club then can take it and manipulate it for their own demands and playing population. What we produce will be for every single club and every single member, whether that's men, women, children or across football, hurling or camogie.

Every club can take this framework up and use it.

Athlone IT have a state of the art sports campus. 
Athlone IT have a state of the art sports campus. 

Q: You're involved with the SHE Research Group in Athlone IT which promotes gender equality in Sports Science and I know that's also a focus of this Sports Science Working Group?

DK: It's something we set up in the last couple of years, the SHE Research Group, and it focuses on the female athlete and bridging that gender data gap between men and women. The vast majority of research in Sports Science is completed on men.

Much like we cannot take all the advice from rugby and soccer or other team sports and simply apply it to Gaelic Football, we can't take data from men and apply it to women. Women aren't just smaller men, they have a different physiological make-up and we need to carry out more work on the female athlete to continue to drive the standards of the sport.

There is a huge need for more information for female athletes and coaches and our group aims to contribute to this gap in the research and continue to promote female sport to the masses. We understand that this won't be done overnight, but we've highlighted it as a priority moving forward.

Q: Are you still playing club football yourself with Tubbercurry? Do you still love football as much as ever?

DK: Playing might be an overstatement, I'm still jogging around the pitch anyway! I've played football all my life and I'm getting to the stage where a lot of my friends are stopping but I still love it. I've played with Tubbercurry continuously, travelling back from wherever I have been living to play with them and I’ll do it as long as I can. It’s a fantastic club led by the brilliant Dermot Gannon at the moment and my family is heavily involved as well.

I still enjoy it, I still love going back and meeting the lads and playing away. We've been lucky and unlucky at different times but very appreciative of the county title I did win. I still love playing the game, and for me it's also about meeting up with friends and meeting up with younger lads and trying to help them along and just see the talent coming through.

I still get a great buzz off that, especially in the last year. We returned to training a few weeks ago and the first session was like letting cows onto a field, there was great giddiness and excitement. Even though we're a town club we wouldn't have huge numbers, but a lot of guys have returned to playing which is great. People are coming back to team sport in their droves which is fantastic.

Q: Did you ever technically retire from the Sligo panel? I don't remember a statement to that effect...

DK: When I pulled out of the panel initially it was an extremely hard decision. The travelling was a big thing for me, I wasn't living in Sligo, and the travelling really took it out of me. I wanted to put my time into other things. I was very selfish with my time for my own performance for a long period and eventually you have to think how long you can sustain that. It was a hugely difficult decision, an emotional decision actually, but once I made it I probably knew I wasn't going to go back. I did end up going back for one season, but that was me done.

I didn't release a statement or anything, I just felt it was better to leave it be and let the next group come along because Sligo were in transition. They have some really young, fantastic talent there and it's great to see it develop. Hopefully we can start getting performances and results over the next year or two and some of those young lads come through really well.

David Kelly celebrates with team-mates after victory in the 2010 Connacht SFC Final. 
David Kelly celebrates with team-mates after victory in the 2010 Connacht SFC Final. 

Q: You were involved with a great group of players with Sligo, you must have some very fond memories of that time?

DK: It was amazing, I loved every minute of it. I did not see it as a sacrifice or a chore, I absolutely loved it. From my first year in 2005/06 when I was doing my Leaving Cert all the way up to 2017, it was a brilliant experience and I made some brilliant friends. 

I was lucky to win a Connacht medal in 2007, and it was amazing, the first time in 32 years. I was a young whippersnapper and probably didn't really realise what I had done. I remember people saying to me at the time that you don't realise what you've done. 

When I came into panel that time it was a different game. I came in and I was a child really, and came into a really mature, older panel and learned a huge amount. We lost three other Connacht Finals and 2010 and 2012 are two of the ones that you'd look back on and think maybe you could have won them. 

Overall, I've great memories. Sligo will always be one of the smaller counties and you're always going to be trying to punch above your weight, but we loved that challenge and I was lucky to be part of a great group.

Q: Is it enjoyable to still be involved in that world of sport through your day-job?

DK: I'm very lucky, extremely lucky. Led by Aoife Lane in Athlone IT, we have a fantastic, young ambitious group that is a great collective working together on various projects. Working with enthusiastic young people every year who want to get better is really rewarding too. 

We have students coming in who are actively involved in Gaelic Games and other team sports, Olympic sports, martial arts etc. and it's super to see people coming in with enthusiasm and trying to make themselves and other people better. 

That constant flow of students and young people through AIT is brilliant, and I love working in that environment. I have a number of post-grad students working mainly on Gaelic games projects, trying to improve standards, and seeing them develop and go through those processes as well is very rewarding. 

I understand I am very lucky to work in an area I'm so passionate about.