Championship Preview: Is juice worth the squeeze?

The former Dublin attacker on the win-at-all-costs debate that has moved beyond cynically killing a goal-scoring opportunity for the opposition.

I spent some time in the US in recent weeks where the major sports story is not the NBA or NHL play-offs - though they are producing high quality excitement on a daily basis - but the story of American Football star Tom Brady, the New England Patriots quarterback who has been suspended for the first four games of the upcoming regular season without pay (approx $1.8m) as well as his team being fined $1m and losing future draft picks.

His crime? Apparently he was involved in deflating the pressure of the footballs used in the AFC Conference final (effectively an All-Ireland semi-final) on their way to winning last season’s Superbowl. By reducing the air pressure slightly it would give him an improved grip on the ball and it can also be easier to catch and throw, obvious benefits to him and his Patriots team mates.

Now much of the conversation that followed centred around why one of the sport’s greatest players felt the need to engage in such behaviour? It brings us back to the ‘win at all costs’ attitude and discussion in sport, what does ‘win at all costs’ really mean and is there a line?

Previously we would have related the ‘win at all costs’ question to on-field activities, the highest profile GAA one in recent years being the Sean Cavanagh rugby tackle on Conor McManus which prompted much debate on whether his actions were right or wrong. Did the fact Tyrone won the game justify the act? One reason for the introduction of the black card was designed to stop teams cynically closing games out by pulling opposition players down to negate attacks, always justified as ‘win at all costs’. The black card might be there now but has the overall mind-set or attitude changed?

Sports people, elite ones in particular are usually highly competitive by nature. They strive to continuously improve and push many aspects of their lives to the limit to maximise their potential.

With greater knowledge and more access to areas like sports science, nutrition and hydration, sports psychologists, our GAA players and teams are evolving to a level where they monitor every facet of their daily lives in preparation for performance in training and games. With all that in mind we must find a balance where the natural desire to compete and win isn’t confused with ‘winning at all costs’.

As the Championship season looms, we have had recent claims of inter-county players leaving employment to focus on their football and hurling and more worryingly we have also had a failed drug test. The easy thing when topics like this come up is to dismiss them as being exaggerated or isolated and not a threat to our games.

Inter-county players taking time off from their careers to focus on football or hurling is not a new occurrence but it does seem to be becoming more frequent. The GPA are working to help players understand and implement the requirements of a healthy work life balance during an inter-county career but when in a position to do so, some players are willing to put everything else on hold and prepare as a full-time Gaelic player. This obviously isn’t sustainable long term but over a three-to-six month window where players can put all their energies into getting the most out of themselves in a sporting context, they feel it is worth the sacrifice.

The ultimate sign of win at all costs in any sport is when the discussion and possibility of performance-enhancing drugs come into play. While we have limited details on the current positive sample in Monaghan it should act as a warning sign as to where some players might be willing to go in a bid to reach their potential.

Do I think there is a doping problem in the GAA? No I do not, but I am also conscious that we cannot be naive and sit back and say that will never happen in our games. I believe it is a good thing the GAA is signed up to the drug testing agreement with the Irish Sports Council and while there are questions around amateur players being tested to the same level as professional sports players, if it ensures we keep our games clean of doping it is the right thing to do and something I believe players want to do to ensure the playing field stays level.

The current condition of Gaelic football is a divisive issue at present with some calls for rule changes to improve the quality of our game. Healthy competition can improve the standard for all teams but I believe the biggest detriment to creating healthy competition is the current league and championship fixture structure as well as the inter-county calendar. I believe these are the issues that need to be addressed before we look to change the playing rules.

With an improved fixture structure and calendar, it would give more counties the opportunities both on and off the field the chance to progress and close the gap to the perceived big teams. This creation of healthy competition will be good for our game and look to move away from the win-at-all-costs mentality that can be destructive.

While many famous quotes from top sports stars will tell you that winning is everything, there is more to sport than beating the competition. Don’t get me wrong, winning is hugely important, but how a team wins also matters. Maybe it is easier to recognise that when you are outside a team environment. It will be interesting to examine how teams’ attitudes and actions match those of their words this summer - and if the last team standing really had to win at all costs.

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