No one tells you about the good aspects of ageing in a sport, writes Eimear Ryan.
I have always played in the forwards, but lately I’ve been learning a new position: centre-back. Truth be told, I’m a little daunted by the crucial patch of grass between the 21 and the 45 that I now have to look after. I played my first competitive club camogie match of the year in early April, which was also my first time this year playing on grass. Up until recently, with pitches soggy and unplayable, we’ve been training on the astroturf. Forwards to backs, astro to grass: lately, everything is in a state of flux.
There’s a lot to be said for the astro. It’s a godsend in the depths of January when the pitch is a quagmire: it gives a taste of hard ground, a sniff of summer. It’s great for building fitness, and the sure surface is a psychological boost: rather than trying to get to grips with a sticky, heavy ball, the sliotar hops off the ground.
The benefits of the astro are such that you can almost overlook the unpleasantness of ‘turf burn’ (it’s like carpet burn, but worse), or the fact that you have to empty countless little black crumbs out of your boots after every session.
But playing for too long on the astro can fill you with false confidence. Your touch is crisp, your 10-yard dash explosive. That all changes on grass. After the cosy compactness of the astro, the dimensions of the pitch seem impossibly big. Your touch becomes skewed, your 10-yard sprint ungainly.
It also becomes clear that lasting an hour on the astro is very different to lasting an hour on the pitch. Shortly after half-time, there’s a heaviness in your limbs that won’t go away, and much as you try to keep up with the nippy centre forward, your legs refuse to carry you. So you sit back in the pocket, unmarked, and gather loose ball. It seems like cheating, somehow — are you really allowed to let your woman run rampant out the field? Can you really just let her off? Afterwards you are told you played okay, though at the time you felt at sea.
At 30 years old, I know that it’s a privilege to be thrown this new challenge at this stage in my career. Centre-back is a position that can accommodate many types of player, including older ones. Experience counts for a lot here, and if one’s turn or sidestep aren’t as dexterous as they once were, good anticipation and an ability to read the game will stand to you. Despite having to recalibrate my forward’s instincts somewhat — I’m still not used to having the opposition goalposts in front of me, rather than at my back — I’m enjoying the change of scenery.
But there are things they don’t tell you about ageing as a hurler. You are hard on yourself — not necessarily out of insecurity, but because you have watched and played the game long enough to know what actually makes a good performance good. Your standards for yourself are higher than ever, but your body is less and less capable of delivering an ideal performance.
Then there’s the physical wear. Being an older player means taking an anti- inflammatory after a match, especially if you’ve taken a knock. It means a post-match visit to the pool is a necessity rather than an indulgence. It means bruising more easily and slathering yourself with Arnica after training to minimise the black and blue patterns on your arms. It means going down when hit, as much to take a quick rest for 20 seconds as to try to win a free.
But no one tells you about the good aspects of ageing in a sport, either. How nearing the end of your playing career injects a bit of urgency to you. You can see the end in sight, and you want to make these last few years count.
You have better vision and awareness of the players around you, a stark contrast to the tunnel vision of youth. You have more perspective, a stronger temperament; things bother you less. You’re inspired by the confidence and enthusiasm of the players you train with, even if some of them are literally half your age. Training goes from being a chore to something you actively look forward to and take glee in — where else does a grown adult get to canter around a field after a ball?
It’s a pity, really, that you can never have all the attributes at once. That you can’t match the bouldness of youth — the risk-taking, the fitness, the lightness on your feet — with the craftiness and experience of age. Maybe it’s no wonder that many players reach their peak in their late 20s, an age that bridges the gap between these two states, when physical, technical, and strategic abilities seem to align. (28 must be the magic number — the current age of Joe Canning, Seamus Callanan, and Richie Hogan.)
Still, there’s hope for those of us on the wrong side of 30. Tom Brady of the New England Patriots — who set multiple passing records in the 2017 Super Bowl — is the grand old age of 39. Waterford wing back Tony Browne kept playing into his 40s. Born in 1983, legendary footballer Cora Staunton is, entering her 23rd season with the Mayo seniors. And at the Beijing Olympics, 41-year-old Team USA swimmer Dara Torres came second in the 50m freestyle, just one-100th of a second behind Britta Steffen, the 25-year- old winner.
So there is room for veterans in sport incredibly, not just to keep pace or to make up the numbers, but to excel. Just as long as you have plenty of Arnica and Nurofen to hand.
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