Is too much being asked of our GAA players?

Waterford star Noel Connors feels too much is being asked of players at this time of the year. Picture: Diarmuid Greene/ Sportsfile

Finally one of the GAA’s core issues — teenage player burnout — is getting a proper airing. Is the organisation ready to address a problem that’s literally eating away its future? Writes Eoghan Cormican.

Tony Browne’s advice to a greenhorn Noel Connors was straightforward. Unless the body is 100% right, don’t bother turning in the gate to training. Connors paid no heed. The 18-year old had just been called onto the Waterford senior panel. Whatever it took to get and remain centre-stage, he was willing.

Kevin Reilly sought out his deputy principal. Sean Boylan had phoned to request the 18-year old link up with the Meath senior football squad for the 2005 campaign. The dream. Colm O’Rourke didn’t provide the congratulatory response Reilly was expecting. The two-time All-Ireland medal winner was adamant his student wasn’t ready for life at the top-table. Reilly paid no heed.

Cathal Barrett also faced a decision. At 17, hurling was taking over from other sporting interests such as rugby, soccer and basketball. He didn’t want to park the latter three, but in order to serve his copious GAA masters, sacrifices had to be made. Soon, hurling was his life. Sacrifices were now being made outside the four white lines. Three Harty Cup finals (two replays) in the spring of 2010 played havoc with his Leaving Cert preparations.

Connors, Reilly and Barrett read the report of the minor review group. They weren’t taken aback. They weren’t even slightly surprised to read over 50% of minors in 2014 trained at least once a day every week, that 62% played while injured or that 42% reported chronic fatigue.

They listened to Joe Brolly and didn’t disagree with his description of them as indentured slaves. His assertion managers at all levels have imported professional practices into an amateur sport, they couldn’t find fault with. Connors (24), Reilly (28) and Barrett (21), you see, trained 365 days a year as minors. They played through injury, experienced chronic fatigue.

Tipperary corner-back Barrett viewed himself as a slave to the game for the guts of four years. Maturity would eventually teach him to say no to the seven or eight managers demanding he attend every training, gym session and challenge.

Kevin Reilly enjoyed his first winter break at the end of 2013. Such downtime he was never afforded in the nine years spent as a Meath senior. A work/sport/life balance all three have now achieved. Not before time.

“What was most familiar from reading the minor report was various managers telling the player not to go to this particular session with another team,” said 2014 young hurler of the year Barrett. “I know when I was a minor and still in school, I was being pulled every which way. When I was still eligible for the Dean Ryan Cup I was picked for the Thurles CBS Harty team as well. I had two competitions on the go and that was just in school. On top of that you had minor for Tipperary and minor, U21 and senior for the club. The club would be telling you to get time off from Harty Cup sessions for challenges. I would have found that to have a big impact on me.

“You’d have to sit down with one or two of the managers and explain to them that I needed to be at this challenge instead of their training. The GAA was the focal point of my life as a minor. Family holidays didn’t happen. Study was affected. One year the Harty Cup final went to two replays. I lost nearly a month of studying.”

Moving onto third level, there was no let-up. If anything, the workload increased. “For three or four years it was constant. In Tipperary, you’d play the first round of the U21 championship in March and the second wouldn’t be for another five months. All the while the team is still training away. Then you have college and county on top of that. You were getting no break at all. I would have avoided so many niggly injuries had there been a period of downtime at some stage of the season.”

Meath football captain Reilly believes young players feel a sense of responsibility to serve every team. Respect for their own welfare doesn’t even figure on the agenda.

“There is a period from the age of 16 to 22 you could be playing with anything up to eight different teams. When I was about 18, I was playing with eight to nine different teams between hurling and football. There would have been schools football with St Pat’s Navan, minor football with Meath, the U17 Irish international rules team and minor, U21 and senior with your club across both codes. You are trying to juggle that every day. That is impossible.

“If you put yourself in the player’s shoes, he wants to represent every single team. He doesn’t want to let anybody down. The last person he actually thinks about is himself. At 17 or 18, he needs someone else to think for him. Coaches are the ones that must think for the player.”

Added Waterford hurler Noel Connors: “Talk of burnout always occurs around this time because a lot of U21’s are playing senior for their county and then have Sigerson or Fitzgibbon on top of that. They are on scholarship at their college and so are being told to be at this training and that training. The player is overloading because he is trying to impress senior inter-county management. There must be an intervention between player and management. Someone must look out for the player.”

Colm O’Rourke looked out for Reilly. Tony Browne looked out for Connors. Neither wanted to listen.

“I was still in school at the time of my Meath call up,” recalls the Navan O’Mahony’s clubman. “I was delighted to be given the chance to play alongside Trevor Giles, Darren Fay, Ollie Murphy and Graham Geraghty, what young fella wouldn’t be over the moon at such a prospect.

“I called into Colm O’Rourke, our deputy principal, and told him the news. I thought he would congratulate me. ‘I don’t think so,’ he said. He told me I had too much going on, that .I wasn’t ready for physical demands of Meath senior football.

“Did I take his advice? No. They way I looked at it was this opportunity might never come around again so I needed to grab it with both hands.

“When I went in for pre-season training, it was the first season Sean Boylan had introduced a weights program. On my first night at the gym with the team there was a one size weight for each exercise and you just had to go and do it. Nigel Crawford and Anthony Moyles were horsing weights out of it and I, a scrawny 18-year old, was expected to do the same. Every time I came around to bench press, Declan Mulvihill was standing there and he would do it for me, lifting the weight up and down. That wasn’t right on me. You were expected to lift the same weights as the lads who were there nearly a decade. That wasn’t right. I had no experience of weights training and I suffered because of it.”

In the spring of 2012, Connors was informed he had a bulging disc in his lower back. He was 21. The over-training he had submitted himself to at underage had caught up with him.

“I was one of those young players who played through injuries to impress inter-county management. I am one of those statistics. After doing that for five years, I picked up a serious injury where I was out for five months. I could do nothing those five months.

“That was an eye-opener. I realised I had to start looking out for my own welfare as opposed to looking out for the team. You can see why Tony [Browne] lasted so long. He knew how to look after his body. I realised I had to be more professional. What Kevin said about no team getting the best out of him because he was being pulled every which way, that was the same for me. Managers have to come together and start putting the player first. All this dragging of talented players has to stop.”

The likelihood is, however, burnout will continue to dominate discussion in the early months of 2016. The consequences? All three say increasing numbers are walking away from the sport in the mid-20s having been exploited as minors. Reilly provides the example of the 2001 St Pat’s Navan Hogan Cup winning team. Five years later, only two of the starting team were still operating inside the whitewash.

“So many coaches are short-sighted. Go back to the St Pat’s Hogan Cup team of 2001, Meath football got absolutely nothing from that win because no-one came through. They didn’t come through because they were exploited, exploited, exploited. By 23, the vast majority weren’t even playing club football. They had enough. It has to come from the coach to see the bigger picture and enable the player to see the bigger picture.”

GAA President Liam O’Neill this week maintained the association can’t legislate for over-training, but the trio believe top-brass must drive the culture change.

“It must come from the top and trickle down,” said Connors. “Having the individual at their best is the objective of each manager. Yet no manager is achieving this. Rules and regulations will have to be passed for young players. We don’t want our young players to be disillusioned with our games. We want these young individuals coming through, telling people in a couple of years time how successful were the measures put in place to tackle burnout.”

Dr Tom Foley, a member of the GAA’s Medical, Scientific and Welfare committee and Carlow team doctor for the past 25 years, said the commitment expected from teenagers has reached an unhealthy level.

“I would like to see lads who come into an inter-county squad at 18 or 19, that they are still there 10 to 15 years later. I don’t want a player’s sporting career to be from 15 to 22. I have a huge issue with some of the training that goes on. You cannot get guys to peak four times a year. If you were involved in horse-racing, you wouldn’t have four different trainers for the one animal. They each have different training methods which doesn’t help the player. It just doesn’t make sense. The sad reality is that the majority of GAA people only enjoy the sport when they are qualified.”

Added Reilly: “You have to look at where a player is at in their lives. At 17, 18, they have a lot going on. They have to socialise. They have to study for the Leaving Cert. All the while they are trying to perfect their game. Sacrifices have to be made. We have all made them. But to what extent? Do you lose touch with your friends? Do you perform poorly in exams? Do relationships suffer? Are teams pushing lads to the limit? We certainly have to question that.

“Last year I was indirectly involved with the Meath minors, the Meath minor manager told me how he had to order one player to take a month off to address the tendonitis in his knees. The player wasn’t seen by the Meath minor squad for that month. He comes from a rural club and during his month off he played minor, U21 and senior for his club. He was supposed to be taking time off, but his club had him out playing. It’s not fair on their bodies.

“It’s not fair full stop.”


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