With sport and training making its highly anticipated return, all involved in sport will be eager to hit the ground running. Coaches will find themselves in unfamiliar territory as teams and athletes return from a lengthy period of relative inactivity. Below, Setanta College’s Dr. Liam Hennessy, Des Ryan, and Professor Ian Jeffreys provide some practical tips and advice on the return to play.

Dr. Liam Hennessy – President, Setanta College

This is perhaps a time when we as coaches must be most careful as the country seeks to open up and allow sports teams back to collective training. From conversations with several coaches at both professional and amateur levels across a range of team sports and who have been through this return to collective training over the last few months and indeed last year, a note of caution is important to share.


Be careful and don’t be over-eager to work your players hard.


It is likely that for some sports there will be a limited period for preparing the team for competition. The temptation and natural tendency for the coach is to get straight into it, to load up on the volume of game-specific training. But be careful, a number of coaches have stated that a sudden return to kicking practice, a sudden rise in game-related workload, and a sudden increase in physical contact has resulted in a rise in soft tissue injuries. Given as well that it is typical to see a relatively high incidence of injuries at the start of a regular season, the Covid restrictions in collective training are now likely to add to this injury risk. So given these exceptional circumstances what can we recommend?


Firstly, create a simple workload spreadsheet and chart the previous weeks (non-collective training period) workload of each player. Then when planning collective training, calculate the intended collective team workload for a session and the week ahead. Add this to the workload previously completed by players in n0n-collective training. Is the overall total workload now greater than an additional 20% of the previous (non-collective) workload? If so reduce it at least for week one of collective training. Then slowly increase it over the next 3 weeks.


Note a simple workload system is to record a player’s session rating score out of 10. This is then multiplied by the session duration. For example, a score of 7 out of 10 in terms of perceived exertion rate by the player (known as RPE) for a 40-minute training session gives a session workload of 280 units. Finally, the simple guideline of ‘Hasten Slowly’ is now so important to apply. 

Des Ryan – Director of Coaching and Performance, Setanta College

We were delighted to be involved in two return to training and play projects recently, with World Rugby and the GAA. Future Director of Coaching and Performance with Setanta College, Des Ryan, was a leading figure in both and provides an insight into these guidelines below.

  1. World Rugby’s Competition-Ready Guidelines: This guidance document is aimed at improving the return-to-play after long lay-offs from the sport. This means, first and foremost, managing the return of your players to full match-play with minimal risk of injury and maximal enjoyment. The document focuses on appropriately managing session duration, field size, numbers, intensity, workload, non-contact components, and contact components. It also leads onto looking at activities in more detail like training preparation, running, skills- individual, skills – unit, skills – team, small-sided games, strength training, agility, sprinting, kicking, and contact. The full document can be found here: https://dev.playerwelfare.worldrugby.org/?documentid=239
  2. GAA – Be Ready to Play: The second document is the GAA’s Return to Training Advice for club players youths and adults (Male & Female). This is part of the Be Ready to Play programme. Setanta College is delighted is support this programme. This document is shorter and more player, coach, parent, and guardian friendly as it is a tip-based and signposted resource. The key phrase in this document is – “Leave the players wanting more in the first few weeks.” PDF: https://learning.gaa.ie/sites/default/files/Return%20to%20Training%20Advice.pdf . There is a webinar to accompany this document with Setanta College Graduate Mick Dempsey and Des Ryan.  This can be found at the below website –https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nVAr4714pAE

The 10 tips are in the GAA guidelines are –

  • Complete the GAA 15 in your warm-ups.
  • Build up gradually to games over 4 weeks or more
  • Go from small areas to large areas
  • Gradually introduce Speed (Silhouette of a player jogging to sprinting.
  • Gradually introduce kicking.
  • Gradually increase intensity (RPE scale).
  • Gradually increase contact.
  • Know your players.
  • Keep a close eye on youth players who have gone through a rapid growth spurt.
  • Maximise recovery.

The larger Be Ready to Play programme with monthly coaching webinars, monthly sport science webinars and fortnightly athletic development programmes for the youth, adult and advanced adult (Male and Female) can be found on the below link.


Professor Ian Jeffreys – Academic Director, Setanta College

As society opens up and the opportunity for groups to practice together similarly emerges, the clamour to get back to formal training and practice will be paramount in our thought processes. Whilst this may be a first step towards “normality” and something we have long hoped for, it will bring with it certain challenges which we must be aware of if we are to optimise the process.

Now I use the term “normality” in the above paragraph deliberately, as the return to practice after such a long layoff is something that is far from normal. Whereas each season sees us start afresh after a lay-off from formal training, the current situation is quite different with the layoff having been far longer than is normal, and even this layoff was in many cases preceded by a curtailed practice and playing season. Additionally, the opportunities for individual training have been restricted and so players will be returning after a period of inactivity, unlike anything we have experienced before. As a result, we have few precedents as to how best to undertake our return to practice. Similarly, there will be little formal evidence as to the best approach and ultimately decisions made must be made on a contextual basis. Consequently, any decisions we make will incorporate a degree of educated guesswork and we have to be comfortable with this, but through careful consideration of multiple factors we can increase the probability of successful interventions

Managing Training Loads

Now as we manage this return, our focus will naturally shift onto managing overall training loads, rebuilding capacity, and the slow and steady progression of training load and intensity. Much of this will be built around a predominantly physical approach, yet something that we should also consider is that regression will not have simply occurred in terms of fitness capacities, but will also have occurred in more subtle and less obvious areas, especially those relating to skill and co-ordination. So, when undertaking our sessions, our athletes will not just have a reduced physical capacity, but their skilled performance will also have been reduced. As a result, our practices will not be “the same” as before, and we cannot presume that their effect on the players will be equivalent. Changes in factors such as co-ordination, proprioception, and kinaesthesia may make previously effective activities potentially higher risk for a short time, where for example a moderately intense plyometric exercise such as 24-inch hurdle jumps may be higher risk as some of the protective prestrike contraction and co-contraction capacities may have been blunted. Similarly, games type activities with sharp changes of direction may impose a potentially injury-inducing load even if the overall volume is low. As a result, as well as considering total workload in our calculations we need to consider “quality” and may need to implement a period of “re-education” in the initial sessions of practice, where we regress activities to reintroduce them and then progress these as the capacities return.

Now, this brings us to an interesting consideration. Many textbooks will tell us that the first thing we need to do in order to plan our programme will be to assess our players’ current capacities, compare these to where they need to be, and plan accordingly. This initial assessment often takes the form of a fitness testing day (always something the players love!). Now, this may be appropriate, but if you were asked the question of whether you would ask players to sprint maximally, to lift maximal loads, to change direction at top speed in the first session back, my guess is the answer would be no – interesting and something to keep in mind, especially after such a long lay off.

Small-Sided Games

One key tool that will likely be used to control workload is the incorporation of physical capacities within team practice through the use for example of small-sided games. Whilst this has many potential benefits the changes to skills should also be considered. So, for example in a soccer practice, a reduction in first touch control capacities will potentially result in far greater numbers of physical contacts, something that may inadvertently add to potential injury risks. So, these types of activities are not without their potential risks, and being aware of these can help us to deploy them more judiciously.

In reality, there will be no single best answer, as the optimal solution will depend upon so many factors. To make matters worse these factors don’t act alone but interact and so observation of the session and the individual athlete responses will be critical. Indeed, perhaps the biggest challenge we will face will be to curb the enthusiasm of the players and ourselves – indeed this enthusiasm may be the one thing that didn’t regress during lockdown. We will all soon be off the leash, and the inherent danger looms large. We will naturally aim to show our players everything we’ve learned from all the webinars we’ve watched during lockdown, and our sessions may become soap operas in themselves. The players in turn will want to make up for lost time and play with child-like enthusiasm until it gets too dark!

Ultimately there will be no perfect answer, all we can do is act with caution, consider the benefits and risks of all of our activities, and make a progressive plan that accounts for as many of these as possible. Our decision-making will be complex, educated guesswork will be needed, but the biggest safety mechanism will be effective observation and coaching – and a willingness to adapt.

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