A couple of years ago, Ronan O’Gara wrote in these pages that: “The more I am learning, the less I take for granted what I savoured in the Munster dressing room every day as a player. A club’s culture is an unspoken language. The trademark. You can’t see it or hear it. You feel it.”
Obviously, he was speaking about a professional environment, but every coach in every sport is searching for ways to enhance the context in which their team operates.
I was at a club game over the weekend, where a lot of the players from the winning team were out and getting into their cars at the same time as I was leaving the ground. They were still togged out, with everything except their jersey and boots on, and were gone within five minutes of the final whistle.
It’s a similar story with most clubs I’ve come across.
Technology and the modern lifestyle have helped to shape a different dressing room
culture in the GAA, at least at club level.
Mobile phones and social media have infiltrated our daily routines and are now seen by most as being as vital to our survival as the air that we breathe.
Think about it: How many times is your phone out of reach? It’s the last thing most people look at before going to sleep and it’s there resting on your bedside locker when you wake in the morning.
Most of us know we have an unhealthy relationship with the devices, but we still can’t stop ourselves. It’s either in your pocket as you go through your day, strapped to your arm when you’re out for a run, or there to take pictures of yourself in the gym or to show the world what is on your dinner plate.
Check the time. Check Twitter. Check Instagram. How many likes, favourites, comments, retweets have you managed today. It is shaping our behaviours like never before and the needle shows no sign of returning to centre.
When I was playing — which wasn’t so long ago — the normal post-match routine was to have a shower after a game, hang around and take a few moments to enjoy the buzz in one another’s company after a win, or be pissed off together following a loss.
It was in those times after training and games where individuals would come together and form a group.
They would hear the stories and engage in the messing with everybody and develop that strong sense of group identity and belonging that is such an integral part of the GAA club and community.
From my experience, it’s a very different environment in today’s GAA dressing rooms, certainly outside of inter-county level. A lot of guys arrive fully togged out and ready to go.
Maybe they just pop their head in the door to put their car key on the shelf and throw on the boots. After training, very few take the time to have a shower, opting instead to head straight to their car in the gear which they just trained in.
Club players are spending less time in each other’s company in the dressing room before and after training and games. As a result, the tight-knit bond such interaction can help to create is being diluted and diminished. A lot of players now have far more communication through Snapchat or their WhatsApp group than they do face to face within the four walls of their team room.
We all know that the explosion of social media has eroded our ability to communicate in person. The GAA club dressing rooms are the manifestation of that modern-day phenomenon of the physical interaction losing out to the virtual.
It’s something former NFL player with the Dallas Cowboys Jason Witten wrote about recently, the changing culture of the locker room in his sport. He noted that:
I’m not breaking new ground here, but I was fascinated by a recent initiative by a primary school down in the small village of Blennerville, just outside Tralee.
They launched an 11-week pilot scheme that sought to ban the use of smartphones and tablets outside of school for pupils in the senior cycle and it eventually spread to the whole school. Obviously, it required huge buy-in from parents.
The use of messaging and media apps were causing problems that were seeping their way into school time. School principal Terry O’Sullivan, told Radio Kerry that teachers were having to spend more and more time dealing with incidents that had arisen outside of the school setting on social media.
It is hoped the initiative will start a national conversation aimed at a similar programme being rolled out in schools across the country.
It would certainly be a study worth investigating properly. There is research which suggests the use of mobile phones and social media can negatively impact on an individual’s productivity, creativity and engagement with tasks.
In his book The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle describes the importance of being in close proximity to colleagues to increase the frequency and quality of communication. They used a theory called the Allen curve to plot the frequency of interactions between workers based on their proximity to each other.
It may seem obvious, but the closer the physical distance between people, the higher the frequency of communication interactions. “In other words, proximity functions as a kind of connective drug. Get close and our tendency to connect lights up.”
Everybody’s life is busier than the next person. It’s all about immediate gratification, but developing a positive team culture doesn’t happen by flicking a switch. Part of it is about creating an environment that gives players the opportunity to spend time with other off the pitch.
Getting them to connect with each other within the close proximity of the four walls of the dressing room after training and games might not sound hugely important, but those are some of the crucial moments when people become more of a team.
There isn’t an easy way to stop the tide coming in, but getting the phones and social media out of the dressing room and bringing a towel instead might be a good place to start to at least slow it down.
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