All these years and the message still hasn’t sunk in.
Ten years ago the GAA coaching conference also focused on burnout, just like last weekend’s one investigated it as well. At the outset of the discussion, Eugene Young from Ulster GAA had an illustrated slide of a faceless player running on a treadmill with seven bubbles hovering around him. Each bubble represented a team he was playing with. Young asked delegates to think of a player like that which they knew — very possibly in their own club — and to bear them in mind throughout the rest of the evening and the years.
The other thing he asked delegates to note was where the player was in the slide. Young had deliberately placed him in the centre. A player-centred approach should govern everything a coach or administrator did. Nobody owned the player.
One of the next speakers reiterated the point. Donal O’Grady was only a few months after coaching Cork to the All-Ireland hurling title. Pivotal to that success, he claimed, was Brian Corcoran coming out of retirement. Corcoran had packed in the game three years earlier, at just 28, disillusioned, burned out. Little wonder; at one stage he had 13 bubbles hovering around him, squeezing him dry.
The Corcoran experience had been a cautionary tale for O’Grady and would inform much of his dealings with younger players. There were occasions when some students like John Gardiner in the middle of the Fitzgibbon and Sigerson Cups would show up at Cork training and O’Grady would tell them to head home. Even veterans would sit out certain parts of training. As Corcoran would put it; “There’s no need for me playing the position I do to be as fit as Seán Óg [Ó hAilpín]. In the past, you’d need an excuse not to train. Now you nearly needed one to train.”
The story of both Corcoran’s successful second stint and his initial, premature, retirement was such a classic case study in GAA burnout that in 2007 as his ghostwriter as well as qualified sport psychologist, I made a presentation to the GAA burnout task force committee.
Paraic Duffy would have been there that night; at the time, he was GAA player welfare officer. Other top hitters like Colm O’Rourke, Dr Niall Moyna, Dr Pat O’Neill and Pat Daly sat on the task force too, as did the aforementioned Eugene Young.
Last Saturday, I bumped into Eugene again at the latest Coaching GAA conference. Conversation soon turned to the demands on players and just what had been the legacy of that 2007 burnout task force by the time Congress was done with it. All we could come up with was that at least now players in college couldn’t play both Sigerson/Fitzgibbon and freshers in the one season.
Joe Brolly has done a sterling service for the GAA by flagging the seriousness and urgency of the issue. However on many subtler points we would disagree.
Some things he would perceive to be part of the problem are actually the best hope of a solution.
You take excessive, inappropriate training. Twenty-five years ago the sports scientist John Silva wrote, “Far too many coaches, through improper reinforcement and motivational techniques, make sport into drudgery and work. Athletes become bored, stale or burned out. ‘No gain without pain’ is a myth.”
There were a lot of coaches like that back in the 90s when Brolly and Corcoran were playing. Corcoran better than anyone has articulated the insane regime Cork underwent to play just one championship game in 1997. Up north, the likes of Derry were in an arms race with rivals like Tyrone; they’re training four times collectively a week, that means we must go five. Vomit was the best gauge of your toughness and desire. Fear and ignorance ruled, the same outcome-oriented mentality that Joe thinks is only pervasive now.
The depressing thing is these factors are still at play, even if they are cloaked in more sophisticated terms. Brolly has attributed this to “importing professional practices into an amateur sport”. But sport science here can be the friend, not the enemy. If an S&C coach does not adequately factor in that the players are amateur, then he is being unprofessional. It is less a matter of what’s professional practice as what’s good practice. The best managers and management teams understand this. That every now and then the players do need a drink. That fun has to be an essential part of the process. The sport psychologist Jim Loehr once defined mental toughness as the capacity to appropriately manage energy. If you flog players, their energy will be spent. The team will be prematurely gone from the championship and in a few years’ time, the player will be gone prematurely too.
If anything, we need more sports scientists and medical staff involved with teams. And assertive ones. Who will stand up to managers that need to be suitably and further educated themselves so that they become more player-centred?
Some fíor Gaels scoff at the English Premier League but last week Roberto Martinez articulated and exemplified this approach that in the GAA we need much more of. He wasn’t rushing James McCarthy back to help squeeze out a win that his club so desperately needs. Instead it was about what was best for McCarthy in the long term. Didn’t matter if in two years time Martinez was still at Everton, or McCarthy either. At the centre of it all was the player.
The other big problem is how competitions are structured. It is one we’ll return to after Liam O’Neill and his fixtures workgroup put proposals to Central Council next Saturday. There’s so much administrators can do to help so the player at the centre of Young’s slide does not have so many masters to serve.
Players can help themselves. The research shows that players who are most assertive and independent-thinking play longer. A month out from the 2003 championship, Graham Canty informed the Cork management he would not be playing their first-round game because he had his final engineering exams. Larry Tompkins totally respected and admired that decision. Cork lost but Tompkins never held it against Canty. No one did. By him giving up that game they could see why he went on to win and captain an All-Ireland.
The challenge for clubs and teams and managers is to create an environment where a Canty can emerge and stand up for himself. Brian Cody for all his caricatured persona has spoken about allowing Noel Hickey off for two weeks training during the harvest to let the man farm.
By putting the player’s welfare first, your team is more likely to come first. That’s the secret and paradox of it all.