Last weekend the Johnstown Estate in Enfield was crammed with new inter-county players — over 100 members of the GPA and WGPA were on hand for the second annual GPA Rookie Camp.
In general terms the event is aimed at players who have recently made the step up to senior inter-county panels, as a tool to enable them to balance their playing, study, work and personal lives.
In specific terms? Eamonn Murphy, the GPA Player Representation Manager, sketches out the details.
“The essence of the rookie camp is to help them, because for a lot of them it’s a very exciting time in their lives, obviously.
“It’s their first year on a senior inter-county panel, and for a lot of them it’s also their first year in college as well.
“So even though it’s exciting for them, they’re operating in a dual career environment for the first time, which can bring its own unique set of challenges.
“For many of them it should be a formative time, a time for them to develop as people and as players, but as we all know from the 2018 ESRI report they’re investing huge amounts of time and energy into their sporting and academic commitments. We saw from the report that that can be up to 30 hours a week for their sporting commitments, and 30 to 35 to their careers or full-time academic courses.
“Because of that they’re going to encounter challenges along the way, and the idea behind running the rookie camp is to prepare them for some of the challenges they’re likely to meet, to provide them with some perspective or coping strategies to help them in those situations.
“The theme of the day was preparing the person behind the player, so it was very much player-focused, as opposed to just bringing them together to look solely at the athlete.”
Murphy points out that that newfound freedom can take some getting used to.
“In many ways from the time that they’re first brought onto county development squads at the age of 14, they’re being instructed in what to do, they’re told what time training is at, when to do their recovery — everything in the approach is quite regimented.
“So this may be the first time they really have a bit of independence, particularly if they’re going into their first year of college as well. For the first time they have to make some difficult life decisions, so the essence of the rookie camp is to empower them and to help them along the way with some of those decisions.”
With decisions come responsibilities, of course. Can some of those responsibilities come as a surprise to these rookies?
“There’s definitely an element of that involved. It can be an eye-opener to them to deal with some of the areas they need to focus on as they enter the dual career environment.
“For example, at the camp we had representatives present from Sport Ireland to make them aware of their responsibilities when it comes to anti-doping. Once they enter into that elite inter-county environment they’re not different to any other player or sportsperson when it comes to anti-doping tests.
“So that was a great opportunity to keep them informed and educated about their responsibilities there, but there would have been other elements to the day which were probably eye-opening to them, and it can only benefit them in the longer term.”
Those benefits aren’t just a matter of maximising their potential between the white lines, either. Personal development is a key objective for the player organisation.
“What we’ve found is that for a lot of them their first encounter with the GPA may be a squad visit in February or March,” says Murphy.
“So from our perspective it was a great opportunity to show them what the GPA does in terms of services provided to players.
“In terms of personal development coaching and planning, we’ve a long-held vision that every inter-county player engages with a personal development plan. All the international research validates that, even internationally; it shows that those players who engage in personal development away from sport also report increased levels of performance on the field.
“That can only be good for them, for the sport itself and for society as a whole. the more players with greater self-awareness and confidence, even empathy to a certain extent, it allows for them to give back to their sport, their clubs and their communities. Which is what the GAA, and sport generally, is all about.” It might be a counterintuitive move for players who have yet to play senior inter-county, but planning for the end of a career as soon as you begin makes sense — particularly if the end comes sooner than expected.
“That ties into identity, one of our reports which was only published a couple of weeks ago showed that many players feel like ‘the athlete’, so that issue of athletic identity can be something that has to be grappled with.
“Looking at the transition out of the game, it’s a belief in many elite-level sports that athletes should start their planning for transition and retirement even as they enter their sport.
“For a lot of the lads at the rookie camp, for instance, they may not even be part of their county panels in a couple of years, so they’ll have to learn how to deal with deselection and being dropped from panels. In that sense, given the short careers they may have, they also need to maximise their time on and off the field. We’re trying to show them that by participating in the range of programmes the GPA has to offer they’ll be better placed to do so.”
The presence of WGPA members points to the increased cooperation between the two organisations, adds Murphy: “We were delighted to partner with the WGPA on this — we had 40 WGPA members there on the day. It’s a different environment in terms of development and the games, and there can be different challenges, but in the main they encounter the same issues as the lads.
“The age profile is the same, the dual career challenge is the same, but having the WGPA there was part of the wider commitment we have to the integrated GPA-WGPA model which was recently endorsed at the GPA AGM.”
Next year there’ll be another intake of new players, of course. And another camp.
“What we’ve learned from the first couple of years of doing this is that it has enormous benefits,” says Murphy.
“We’re starting to see the results of that in more and more players engaging with our programmes at a younger age. And that can only benefit them on and off the field. It’s something that’s being done in elite level sports all over the world, so we’re no different in the GAA.
“We’re looking forward to seeing it develop over the years as we develop a new set of rookie players each season.”