Needs Analysis, Physiological Response, and Program Guidelines for Gaelic Football : Strength & Conditioning Journal

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Needs Analysis, Physiological Response, and Program Guidelines for Gaelic Football

Brown, Justin MS1; Waller, Michael PhD2

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Strength and Conditioning Journal 36(2):p 73-81, April 2014. | DOI: 10.1519/SSC.0000000000000045
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Gaelic football is a popular sport in Ireland and is increasing in popularity throughout the world, including the United States and Canada (33). The origins of the game are not fully known, although a variation of the game reportedly existed during the Middle Ages (31). Similar variations of the game played in Europe are believed to have become the forebears of soccer and rugby and may have been introduced to Ireland, eventually becoming Gaelic football (31).

Gaelic football is played by both men and women and in many ways is similar to other codes of football, including rugby, soccer, and Australian rules football. Play is conducted on a field, also known as a pitch, which is 40% larger than a soccer field (length, 426.51–475.72 ft; width, 262.47–295.28 ft) (31,34). Two teams with 15 players per team occupy the field. Like soccer, each team has a goalkeeper, 2 rows of defensive backs (3 players per row), 2 midfielders, and 2 rows of forwards (3 players per row) (34). Located at each end line of the field is an H-shaped goal. The horizontal bar stands 8.2 ft above the ground, whereas the vertical bars are 21.33 ft apart. Players attempt to score a goal worth 3 points by kicking or striking the ball, which is similar to a soccer ball, below the crossbar of the goal and into the net or 1 point by kicking the ball over the crossbar between the vertical bars (34). A goal is not awarded if the ball is thrown or carried across the goal line. In addition, a Gaelic football match consists of two 30-minute halves, which has implications for the players' physical preparation.


Gaelic football is characterized as an intermittent high-intensity field sport, which is similar in nature to soccer, rugby, basketball, and Australian rules football (Figures 1 and 2). The movements associated with Gaelic football are similar in nature to the previously mentioned field sports, which require movements of the lower limbs and upper limbs. Specific movements include the punt kick, instep kick, inside kick, hand and fist pass, tackle, pick up, and solo run (34). Movements can be executed with either hand or foot, but for the purpose of this article, we describe movements using the right hand and foot.

Figure 1:
Offensive player in possession of the ball attempting to avoid the defensive player.
Figure 2:
Player executing a punt kick.

Punt kick

The punt kick in Gaelic football is similar in nature to the punt kick used in American football. The purpose of the punt kick is to move the ball over a long distance or to score a point over the crossbar and between the vertical bars (30). The punt kick has 6 phases in reference to the kicking foot with the approach (phase 1) occurring while the ball is held in both hands and the player is running forward. Near the end of the approach, the left hand is removed from the ball, and the arm is abducted, thereby providing balance (30). The backswing (phase 2) is initiated by concentric muscular actions of the hip extensor muscles of the kicking leg, moving it posteriorly while both feet are off the ground from a jump. A longer last step allows for greater hip extension and thigh range of motion and thereby increases foot speed and ultimately kick distance (2). The wind up (phase 3) is an anterior movement of the kicking leg (e.g., hip flexion) followed by a forward swing (phase 4), which occurs with the support leg regaining contact with the ground. The hip continues through flexion while the knee begins to quickly extend, coming into initial contact with the ball. The follow-through (phase 5) begins after initial contact with the ball and continues through maximum knee extension. The recovery (phase 6) is characterized by maximal knee extension and maximal hip flexion, and because of linear momentum, both feet are off the ground.

Instep kick and inside kick

The instep kick is used when shooting or passing over a long distance (4). The instep kick begins with the player approaching the ball pushing off with the right foot and becoming airborne. During the backswing, the player is airborne, and the right leg continues to move backwards. The left foot makes contact with the ground next to the ball, and the right leg approaches maximal hip extension cocking the leg back, which is noticeable by a 90° angle of the knee. The right hip flexors begin to contract, accelerating the thigh in a forward direction. When the thigh reaches a point almost directly below the hip, the knee extensors forcefully contract extending the lower leg. The foot rapidly moves in a forward direction, making contact with the ball. After ball contact, the hip continues forward with the leg moving through the mediolateral and longitudinal axes of the body (22). Although the instep kick is used for distance, the inside kick is a precision kick used for accurate short shots and passes (3,14). The inside kick is different from the instep kick because it requires ball contact with the medial portion of the midfoot, and the required range of motion of the hip is reduced (4,16). The approach, backswing, and leg cocking occur similarly as in the instep kick.

Hand pass and fist pass

The hand pass is another technique used for passing the ball over short distances or when attempting to score a point by striking the ball over the crossbar. The hand pass begins with the ball being held in front of the body with the nonstriking hand. It is important to keep the left hand still to send the ball in the desired direction. As the ball is steadied, the striking hand moves forward, making contact with the ball using the base of the hand near the wrist or with a closed fist. The striking hand should follow although in the direction of the pass. The fist pass is a variation of the hand pass. The movements are essentially the same with the fist pass concluding with a closed fist.

Tackle and pick up

The tackle is a defensive maneuver similar to guarding or shadowing an opponent in basketball and is different than the tackle associated with American football. The main objective of the tackle is to slow progression of the ball toward the goal and attempt to dislodge it from the opponent's grasp. This skill requires the tackler to swiftly move into the path of the ball carrier using their body to prevent a direct path toward the goal by the attacker. The tackler then moves within arm's reach of the ball carrier, trying to dislodge the ball from the grasp or push the ball away during an attempted pass, kick, or bounce. If the ball is dislodged from the opponent's grasp, the defensive player then needs to pick up the ball within Gaelic rules. In addition, players may use a shoulder-to-shoulder charge on an opposing player who is in possession of the ball, playing the ball, with the exception of a kick, or is trying to obtain possession of the ball (27). In Gaelic football, it is illegal to trip or hold an opposing player while performing a tackle.

Frequently, players gain possession of the ball while it is on the ground; however, in Gaelic football, it is illegal to lift the ball directly from the ground using the hands, and instead players need to use their feet to propel the ball upward (pick up). This skill is often completed while the player is running and occurs in 3 phases with the player approaching the ball (phase 1). During the approach, the supporting foot is placed alongside and slightly ahead of the ball with the arms reaching forward, cupping the hands just ahead of the ball. During the ball lift (phase 2), the foot lifting the ball moves forward making contact with the ball and lifting the ball in an upward and forward direction. During the catch (phase 3), the ball is caught with the hands, and the arms are used to protect the ball from being dislodged by opposing players. Once in possession of the ball, the player may elect to pass, begin the solo run, or attempt to score a goal or point.

Solo run

The solo run is a skill unique to Gaelic football, which requires concentration, balance, and a correct foot strike to the ball. A player in possession of the ball who elects not to pass or shoot must solo the ball, which is similar to dribbling a basketball. While in possession of the ball, the player is permitted to run with it, as long as the ball is bounced or dropped onto the foot and kicked back into the hands. However, the player is permitted to bounce the ball off the ground rather than the foot during the solo run, similar to dribbling in basketball. A player who carries the ball and neglects to perform the solo run is assessed a penalty. The solo run sets up the catch by a teammate because the ball may be passed using a kick or hand pass. Hulton et al. (15) examined the energy cost of the solo run and found that the solo run elicited a larger heart rate (HR) compared with running at the same speed (181 versus 160 beats per minute). Furthermore, the solo run required a 7% increase in oxygen consumption secondary to the increased energy cost, which may have players experiencing increased levels of fatigue when performing the solo run.


Anthropometric characteristics

A review of studies, which examined the anthropometric characteristics of Gaelic footballers revealed a height between 1.76 and 1.86 m, a body mass between 70.7 and 81.9 kg, a body fat percentage between 12.2 and 15%, and a BMI between 24.28 and 25.34 kg/m2 (11,25,26,36,39,41). Anthropometric measures vary by players' position. Forwards, backs, and goalkeepers tend to be taller, whereas smaller players are located on the wings (9,34). Researchers have shown goalkeepers having a higher body mass, possibly the result of a lower physiological demand associated with playing that position (1,9,37). In contrast, midfielders tend to perform higher amounts of high-intensity activity and are involved in many aspects of competition and have lower-body fat percentages (25,29). Little research exists regarding body composition changes during a competitive season; however, Young and Murphy (44) did report a decrease in body mass and estimated body fat between the off-season and preseason (81.2 ± 7.1 kg versus 80.7 ± 9.4 kg and 13.7 ± 3.3 % vs. 11.4 ± 2.4%). Few studies have examined the changes in body composition during a competitive season. In addition, little research exists regarding strength and conditioning (SC) and the influences on performance, as well as body composition in Gaelic footballers.

Aerobic capacity and match performance

Gaelic football requires vigorous efforts with peak HRs reaching 205 beats per minute (35) and an average HR reaching 80% of HRmax (11,34). In addition, athletes have been reported to have maximal oxygen consumption (V[Combining Dot Above]O2max) levels ranging from 47.6 ± 5.3 to 65.8 ± 5 mL/kg/min (3,18,21,26,39), which varies according to different positions (Table 1). Little existing research has documented changes in V[Combining Dot Above]O2max during a competitive season; however, Young and Murphy (44) reported a V[Combining Dot Above]O2max of 54.1 ± 4.6 during the off-season and 57.1 ± 4.6 during the preseason. It has been reported that the game is played at intensities of ∼72% of V[Combining Dot Above]O2max (11).

Table 1:
Differences in maximal oxygen consumption, distance covered, high-intensity activity, duration of high-intensity bouts, and work-to-rest ratios according to playing position

Gaelic footballers must possess high levels of physical conditioning to compete for the ball, tackle and perform high-intensity activity. Players cover ∼8,523–9,137 m per match (19,25) and engage in high-intensity activity for 10.7–19.8% of a match, which varies according to the position played (29) (Table 1). Furthermore, midfielders cover greater distances, perform greater amounts of high-intensity activity, and have shorter work-to-rest ratios (24) (Table 1). The existing research demonstrates the need for the development of both aerobic and anaerobic pathways to meet the physiological demands of the game. These energy demands should be considered when developing a SC plan.


Gaelic football is a fast-paced game with high levels of physical contact that may occur with other players, the ground, or the ball. Despite the amount of physical contact associated with the game, little protective gear is worn. Because of the vigorous efforts and physical nature of the game, players are at risk for injury (35). An examination of injuries by Cromwell et al. (6) showed 1.78 injuries per year for male players. In comparison, Wilson et al. (42) reported 2.20 injuries per player per year, and Newell et al. (28) reported 1.46 injuries per player per year. Female players have a similar number of injuries at 1.88 per injured player, with most occurring to the lower body (6). Because Gaelic football demands movements such as sprinting, running, jumping, twisting, pivoting, and turning, the lower body accounts for more than 70% of all injuries (6,25,40) (Table 2).

Table 2:
Reported sites of injury for Gaelic footballers

Further analyses of sport-specific injuries indicate that 59–64.4% of injuries occur during the second half of match play (27,42) and up to 35% occur during training (6,42). In addition, player-to-player contact accounts for 32.2% of injuries, followed by sprinting (26.8%), turning (12%), and landing (7.1%) (Table 3). The fingers have also been reported as the most frequent injury to the upper body, usually fractures (5,7). Other notable injuries include the shoulder, hand and finger, back and ribs, head, neck, and the face (6,28,42).

Table 3:
Reported mechanism of Gaelic football injury


Sprinting, strength, and anaerobic capacity are important characteristics in this sport, but it is up to the coaching staff to determine which tests will be used for assessment of the Gaelic footballers. Establishing testing dates, order of the tests, and how the information will be used needs to be thought through based on evidence-based practices. Watson (39) observed that vertical jumping abilities of Gaelic footballers were similar to soccer and American football players and most notable in Gaelic midfielders. Furthermore, they demonstrated the above average aerobic capacity (mean: 58.6 mL/kg/min), low body fat percent (mean: 15.0%) (39), and the changes of direction warrant the need to use performance-specific tests. For example, Gabbett and Domrow (12) demonstrated that the L-test (3-cone L-drill) as a measurement of agility had the fastest time in rugby players during the preseason but slowed as a rugby season progressed. Because there is a similarity between the sports of rugby and Gaelic football, the L-test would be a test that could be used throughout the year to monitor the changes in agility from training and competition. The L-test would be assessed following the format as described by Kielbaso (20), with consideration to assessing on grass, artificial turf, or wood surfaces. Furthermore, Wisløff et al. (43) demonstrated strong relationships between vertical jumps, 10-m sprints, 30-m sprints, and 10-m shuttle, with soccer player's maximal half-squat strength. The relationship of these movements suggests relevance to their inclusion of tests to ascertain physical capabilities. Muscular leg power, initial velocity, peak velocity, agility, and muscular leg strength would be the characteristics assessed, respectively. The anaerobic nature of the sport may also predicate the use of either 300-yd shuttle or Yo-Yo intermittent sprint test to assess anaerobic capacity. Testing protocols and how to evaluate the data may follow the recommendations by Epley (10) and Maud (23), as a method to establish test order, rest periods, reliability, validity, and staffing needs. The interpretation of the results may then lead to an effective sport skill and SC plans (Table 4).

Table 4:
Performance test data for male and female Gaelic football players


The development of a SC plan for Gaelic football requires the review of general guidelines along with the literature that discusses rugby, American football, and soccer SC planning. Since the aforementioned sports are seasonal, the overall layout should use off-season, preseason, in-season, and postseason phases. Instead of going through each phase, the time at the end of the off-season will be used as a method to set the foundation for sport specificity that may be inferred to other phases, both earlier in the off-season and subsequent phases (Tables 5 and 6). The volume and intensity are set to maximize the desired physiological adaptations during this phase. The reason aerobic and anaerobic endurance is only being conducted twice a week is the block of training before this one will have greater emphasis on these characteristics. The period of time in this phase is meant to maintain anaerobic and aerobic endurance, while increasing strength-speed, speed, agility, quickness (SAQ), and speed-strength (jumping).

Table 5:
End of off-season SC guidelines
Table 6:
Gaelic football SC macrocycle example with order of priority

Previous literature on rugby has suggested that HR may average 78% of maximal HR (MHR), with ∼44% (higher end) of playing time greater than 85% MHR (13). These HRs are at varying levels from amateur to semi-professional levels, thus, adjustments to a SC plan will need to be made based on skill level and training status. Elite Gaelic footballers demonstrated relative oxygen consumptions (V[Combining Dot Above]O2) between 56.8 and 65.8 mL/kg/min depending on position (25), which then could be related to a corresponding HR. Obtaining HR and respective V[Combining Dot Above]O2 intensity percentages would then provide coaches an ability to modify daily sport skill or SC plans to provide the most appropriate overload or recovery. The transition of different phases during a sport year warrants the need to have methods for monitoring daily and weekly capabilities. Coaches can ask open-ended questions, such as “How are you feeling today?” to more specific questions, such as “After the 10 repeated sprints, how do your legs feel?”

There needs to be cooperation between the objective and subjective tests, while not overwhelming the players with testing protocols. The subjective questions and visual observations during training will best be used during the daily and weekly monitoring. As Gaelic footballers progress through the sport year, there will be objective testing days to assess the SC plan effectiveness and recovery. These objective tests will provide data that coaches can visually see decreases, increases, or sustained athletic performances, with the last 2 being the most desirable. The physical and psychological stress that is imposed on an athlete's body during the course of a season may lead to decrements in performance if there is not adequate recovery. Gill et al. (14) observed positive recovery in rugby players after competition, which may be inferred to Gaelic footballers based on the similarities of the 2 sports. However, until further research is completed on Gaelic football, there is a gap of uncertainty on the effectiveness of similar recovery methods used by rugby players.

The paucity of information on the sport of Gaelic football currently requires SC practitioners to use information based on sports that are similar in nature. Sports such as rugby, American football, Australian rules football, and basketball may provide guidance for the development of SC plans, research outlines, and sport skill practices. If Gaelic football increases in participation and popularity, there will be a need for increased evidenced-based practices for coaches, sports medicine personnel, and players.


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    Gaelic football; field sport; Irish sport; performance; injury

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