LARRY RYAN: Alarm bells ringing but women drowned out

Maybe this is the kind of thing Serena Williams was getting at.

We joined together this week in another sorrowful lament for the county man, after the ESRI finally provided an audit of The Sacrifices and The Demands. It turns out the county man is spending 31 hours every week playing hurling or football.

Interestingly, the 296-page report uses the term ‘mental health’ 42 times.

Its study “sought to assess the mental health and well-being of (male) inter-county players”, finding their mental well-being was “above the threshold level for being at risk of depression” but “lower than that of the population as a whole in Ireland and, in particular, for males and those of similar age”.

It listed damage to mental health among the “negatives of playing senior inter-county”. It found players “are under pressure to keep everyone happy”, that “there is a free-fall if a player is put into inter-county and doesn’t make the cut” and that “a new manager coming in can change everything”.

The response has been swift and unanimous, if largely similar to the response to other crises that present themselves; we have concluded that something has to be done and we’ll probably leave it at that.

But even those of us who might have been flippant about The Sacrifices and The Demands, who might have wondered why the county man wouldn’t take up a different hobby, if this one was so inconvenient, have had to acknowledge that it could easily get a lad down, all that effort, particularly if he wasn’t making the team.

Yet, and here is where Serena might take an interest; when the women at the centre of the Mayo ladies football row mentioned the ‘impact on mental health’ in explaining their departure from the county setup, they were scorned.

They have been accused of demeaning mental illness, of blurring lines, of being irresponsible and ignorant. For breaking down during this week’s media briefing, their captain was dismissed as over-wrought.

Billie-Jean King might as well retweet her own commentary on Serena’s US Open final shenanigans: “When a woman is emotional, she’s ‘hysterical’ and she’s penalised for it. When a man does the same, he’s ‘outspoken’ and there are no repercussions.”

There is a twist, of course, in the raging debate that has now swung against the Mayo 12. Serena Williams, at Flushing Meadows, seemed to be campaigning for a woman’s right to behave just as badly as men. Critics of the Mayo 12 insist women should have to put up with whatever men endure.

When Sarah Tierney or Fiona McHale point out where players felt intimidated or demeaned by Peter Leahy’s management style, it has invariably been noted that this class of thing would be par for the course in a male dressing room.

Male dressing rooms, remember, where we’ve just been told that mental well-being is below the national average. And where, the ESRI report adds, fewer than one-third of county players would be comfortable approaching their manager with an emotional or mental health difficulty.

Where, as Leahy put it, if you started taking feelings into account, “we’d be a long time trying to get a team out onto the pitch”.

Despite these findings, we are adjudicating that men have got dressing room dynamics just right, and that women should follow suit.

Much like many previous audits in this land, this one is not really setting off any alarm bells at all. Much like the lads in the viral video of the Strabane v Stewartstown brawl doing the rounds this week, we are oblivious to the woman loudly imploring us to “catch yourselves on”.

Instead, we will now proceed into a ‘lively’ winter debate about tweaking the fixture list, or dividing the league into 1A and 1B, or seeding Munster, or devising imaginative ways of handicapping Dublin.

It will be a blessing, in one sense. Because most people, including everybody involved, agrees the Mayo ladies football community would be best left to quietly sort out their dispute.

But whatever the rights and wrongs — and throwing words like ‘unsafe’ into the mix was unfair and loaded — the likes of Cora Staunton and Sarah Tierney and Fiona McHale have surely earned the right to wage one more battle, having fought over the years for conditions male players long ago took for granted.

They were surely entitled to say: “We must be able to tell all players that their opinions, their feelings and their experiences matter.”

Phil Neville caused some amusement lately, with his blueprint for a “holistic” approach to managing the England women’s soccer team. Phil has a Whatsapp group for each member of the England squad (which seems to betray a certain misunderstanding of Whatsapp functionality, but anyway) in order that “every single minute of the day I know what players are doing”.

“I know every part of their lives,” Phil continued. “I know about their animals; if they’ve got a dog I know its name. I know about their partners, I know if they go to the cinema – it’s the detail you need to be successful. If they have an ice cream I know about it.”

It sounded very much like a stalker’s charter, making life as an English footballer seem nightmarish, and might cause the Mayo 12 to be careful what they wish for, but Phil’s heart is in the right place.

He insists it is all about building relationships.

“We’ve got this new culture now and for me to know every facet of my players’ lives is important. Modern-day coaching is about relationships so I need to know every little thing that will make my players tick.”

Scientist and psychologist, Professor Sophia Jowett, who studies the dynamic between coaches and athletes, says that is the key to the Mayo row. “For them to state that the environment was unhealthy there may be a number of factors contributing, but it always comes back to relationships, which are at the heart of a team’s DNA and culture.”

But we’ll hardly pay any heed to her either. On one of the many videos of that Tyrone row generating clicks on Facebook, the comments digressed from the 30 or 40 lads fighting on the field. They were mainly laughing at the “hysterical” woman crying stop.

Bjorn leaving it late to motivate

The suspense is becoming too much; when are we going to find out what ‘uniforms’ Europe will wear in the big one next week? Will they go with slacks again?

This fashion vacuum is indicative of the concerns mounting about Thomas Bjorn’s captaincy.

Is his hands-off approach really going to galvanise a continent?

What ground-breaking motivational work is being done to make sure these guys want the ball to go in the hole enough?

Have any celebrities been lined up to deliver talks? How are the vice-captains gelling? Where are the goldfish?

It’s getting late in the day now, yet none of these boxes, far as we know, have been ticked. All Bjorn, as a Liverpool fan, has confirmed so far is that there will be no appearance in Paris by Jurgen Klopp.

There is also the destabilising influence of Brexit to consider, the elephant in the, hopefully motivational-slogan daubed, team room.

“I think sometimes it is forgotten how great Europe is,” Bjorn said yesterday, forgetting it is his job to remind us.

 


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