MICHAEL MOYNIHAN: Managers and coaches gatekeepers for players’ well-being

Everyone welcomes the new focus and openness on mental health within the GAA – recent efforts to remove the stigma about discussing such issues are doing wonders for people facing these challenges all over the country.

But one obvious question jumped out at this writer.

With all this focus on players and sportspeople, what about the person who’s often their first port of call when they need someone to talk to?

What about the managers?

“There’s definitely work to be done here,” said Colin Regan, the GAA Community and Health Manager, last week. “If you look at the recent Headstrong/UCD research, which surveyed over 14,000 adolescents, the majority of those adolescents who came through issues referred to one good adult they could turn to and among those adults were sports coaches time and again. There’s an onus on us to provide some of the skills needed in this area.”

Regan can offer hard evidence.

“Back in 2011 when we offered brief intervention training for coaches across the country, focused on drug and alcohol abuse – it was based on the Saor model devised by GAA members Jim O’Shea and Paul Goff of the HSE.

“That training was delivered to over 150 coaches in 2011 as part of a pilot scheme. Brief intervention means a short, structured conversation with someone having a challenge in their life, it’s about active listening and encouraging the individual to take the step they’re keen to take, given the conversation you’re having. Coaches and managers are gatekeepers for the health and well-being of their players, and they have a huge impact on those players’ health and welfare. This happens because the advice is given in an environment of respect, where they want to learn and improve themselves, to be the best player they can be, so every bit of advice in that environment is soaked up like a sponge.”

Regan points to counties which have run events to help educate coaches and managers which didn’t, as he says, “scare the bejesus” out of them at the same time.

“We had the health and well-being committees in Cavan and Longford, for instance, which recently ran well-attended events featuring Oisin McConville and Damien Sheridan.

“What was interesting about those events was that it wasn’t a case of scaring the bejesus out of coaches by saying ‘these are your responsibilities’, but showing them how to respond to needs as they arise.

“We can’t expect our coaches and managers to become counsellors either. What we hope is they can become signposts to the relevant services out there. For instance, when we spoke to the Samaritans we were wary about the associations, that it might be for those engaging in self-harm, but when we spoke to them and looked at the demographics and what people called them about, it was representative of the entire GAA population – young, old, male, female, relationship issues, job loss, loneliness, financial problems and so on.

“Because of that we’d hope that in the case of a player coming to a coach and saying, ‘I’m struggling with anxiety, there are a lot of things coming together in my life with financial issues or exams or whatever’, the coach can say, ‘would you not use the GAA’s partnership with the Samaritans as a starting point?”

As Regan says, there’s a recognition nationally that the first step in terms of mental health has been tackling the stigma and encouraging people to talk.

“That’s one reason we launched a partnership with the Samaritans, to help promote their helpline, and we stressed that it was for all members of the GAA — players, managers everyone.

“The next step, which has been recognised by mental health agencies, is that it’s not good enough to tell someone just to go talk to someone else about their mental health.

“You need people with listening skills and the knowledge to know where to direct people.”

As true of managers as it is of any other member of the GAA.


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