Burnout: Time for talking is over

Last year, the GAA’s Minor Review Work Group made the startling revelation a quarter of young players either trained or played seven days a week.

Burnout: Time for talking is over

In a survey that sampled the views of 300 young players the task-force also revealed more than half of respondents were out six days a week.

Most alarmingly of all, however, the report found 81% of respondents were “placed under pressure by managers not to participate with another unit of the association”, and also showed 62% had played games while injured.

Tomorrow, at its annual congress, GAA delegates will gather in Carlow hoping to finally deal with the issues of player welfare and burnout. Director-General Paraic Duffy says the time for talking is long since over.

“Are we going to say to all of them we came up with proposals to make things better but threw them in the bin because we didn’t care?” Duffy asks. “If we do, we will have let them down.”

Three headline motions are on the table. One seeks the U21 inter-county football competition to be replaced by an U20 competition. Changing the long-established minor grade to U17 to help with exam commitments is also up for a vote while another motion gaining traction is the seeking of All-Ireland finals to be brought forward two weeks.

There is still much opposition to the U21 to U20 switch, but ahead of the weekend gathering any executive with voting rights who hasn’t yet made up their mind should consider a study published by the Gaelic Players Association called ‘Never Enough Time’.

Its findings were also astonishing —40% of GAA playing students had to repeat college exams last year. 14% of respondents had to repeat an entire year, 50% felt under pressure to represent college teams and felt overwhelmed by their academic and sporting commitments.

Half of those interviewed admitted they were under pressure from their county manager and felt torn between college and county teams.

“The proposals in our report are simply essential for tackling welfare and burnout issues,” says the GPA’s Head of Communications Sean Potts.

The paper recommended banning games on consecutive days for the likes of the Sigerson and Fitzgibbon cups. It also sought to restructure the fixture calendar between January and March and seeks a later start for the leagues.

While the GPA’s fixture calendar proposals were largely dismissed by the GAA, their findings on player welfare should be essential reading for anyone involved in Congress because player welfare and burnout issues have for too long been a scourge.

Remember when Brian Corcoran lined out for 13 teams in one season? Or when Stephen Lucey had nine teams to keep happy while he studied Medicine at UCD? That was then. But it’s still happening. Last weekend, Monaghan’s Conor McCarthy played half of a Sigerson Cup semi-final on Friday for UCD before going almost the full 60 minutes in the final a day later. He then played for Monaghan against Tyrone in an U21 game on the Sunday. Madness.

His schedule is mirrored all over the land. Several Limerick hurlers face 11 games in 29 days this month. Another county player has had 10 games and a training camp in four weeks. Many of these have three masters to serve at this time of year— U21, college, and county senior teams. Two championships and a league to contend with. It’s absurd.

“We can do something about it and I hope we avail of the chance,” Duffy says. “We owe it to our players to put this right.”

UCD manager John Divilly took a common-sense approach to the Sigerson Cup and it worked. He says he often came to training and made up to 20 lads sit out the session.

“You have to look at their personal lives. They are between 19 and 22 and have a lot going on. People almost forget they have to enjoy football go out and have good time — do the books and do the training,” the former Galway defender states.

“Football should be a great release of energy and that’s why in the lead up to Christmas we had maybe 10 or 12 training and 20 other players, either tired or injured, watching. That was our choice.”

They certainly are. But Divilly says taking players out of the firing line worked. “I wouldn’t let guys tog out if they had colds and flus. One look at a player will tell you all you need to know. You can see it in their eyes. Getting the gearbag out seven days a week is no good for anyone.”

Gearóid Devitt, the GAA’s newly appointed Player Welfare Officer, says the motion to move the U21 championship would be a huge boost for young players and he also highlights the need for flexibility from inter-county senior managers.

“The switch would allow young players to focus on their studies and the chance to play with and against players from all over the country,” he says.

“Similarly, for the senior scene, managers would ideally allow flexibility, particularly in relation to those involved in Fitzgibbon and Sigerson in relation to midweek inter-county training, especially with respect to travelling. Students primary preoccupation in higher education is to achieve a qualification for their non-playing career and anything which assists them in this regard should be commended.”

Westmeath and UCD star John Heslin has emerged from this minefield still smiling. That’s an achievement in itself.

Last Friday, he helped his side qualify for the Sigerson Cup final. On Saturday, he almost single-handedly provided the ammo for his team to win the competition by hitting six points against DCU. This Sunday, he will more than likely lead the line for his county against Tipp in a crucial NFL clash.

Heslin has been on the go almost non-stop since the start of 2015. After last year’s Sigerson Cup, he played in the NFL and then enjoyed a decent Leinster championship. When Westmeath bowed out of the qualifiers he linked up with his club St Loman’s who reached the business end of the provincial club championship. Only for Westmeath manager Tom Cribbin giving him three weeks off he would have served an unbroken year.

The communication lines between Heslin’s bosses, Cribbin and UCD boss Divilly, prevented that but other players don’t have such assurance.

What would he do if neither manager saw the other side of the coin?

“I’d like to think I’d stand up and say this is a day off for me, or I won’t be there tonight,” Heslin replies. “But you often come across lads breaking into the county scene and they don’t want to miss anything because they think they can’t afford to.”

In addition to the considerable playing load, he is working towards a PhD in Agricultural Science at UCD. His study involves the trialling of 160 animals and he freely concedes the only way he can keep going is to communicate with the various stakeholders— lecturers and supervisors, coaches and physios.

The perennial fixtures crisis and the flogging of talented young players remain a thorn in the GAA’s side. The association has published eight documents on both matters between 2004 and 2016, hence a real restlessness to sort the issue once and for all.

Otherwise an epidemic of serious long-term injuries is en-route.

Although when you consider that 16 players from one inter-county squad recently underwent knee, groin, and hip surgeries, maybe that epidemic is already upon us.

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