Ever since Joe Brolly has launched the GAA ‘slave debate’, the media has been bursting with articles and expert opinions on the overtraining and burnout of our country’s inter-county GAA stars. As a Gaelic footballer I know that something has got to give for these lads who torture themselves, to seldomly receive any more than pride. Despite this being an ongoing, yearly, dead-end debate in the GAA community, at least the awareness is being raised, and if nothing else, people are showing a lot more respect to these lads who give up chunks of their lives for their respective counties.
But why are we never talking about club players? Do they not sacrifice just as much, and for generally less rewards? I believe inter-county players give far more than they get in return. But at least they’re being looked after. Doctors and physios on hand. Expenses, nutrition, job opportunities even. I can safely say as a club player, they are all commodities I could only dream about. Unfortunately clubs, including my own, cannot afford to provide this for us. But what they can do under the guidance of The GAA and GPA, is start to respect the stress and pain that some players put themselves through for their clubs.
I can safely say that the worst I’ve ever felt in my entire life was off the back of one football match, and possibly the two horrible years leading up to it:
Sunday, 1st of September 2013, Louth Junior Championship Semi-Final, Plunketts v St.Finbarrs.
We were the laughing stock of the county. A division 1 League team stuck in Junior Championship for the second year running. Two points up and seconds from the county final. BANG. Goal conceded, and my world comes crashing down. All the sacrifices. The years training, countless sand dunes climbed, broken bones, strict diets, concerts missed, sleeps lost, weekends in, LIFE PUT ON HOLD. And for what? To wind up in the debts of depression.
And because I am a man, and particularly a footballer, I am expected just to be okay. Hurdle the feelings and move on. But I know I wouldn’t have moved on as easily as I did if it wasn’t for a couple of pep talks I received. One from my brother and one from a good friend and teammate of mine. Letting me know that it’s not unusual to feel like the world is against you from time to time.
I know that I’m making football out to seem like its all doom and gloom. It’s not. Thankfully for me and the majority of active players, the positives heavily outweigh the negatives. This is why we return year in year out. But unfortunately for some, the opposite is also true, and that’s why we’re seeing so many early retirements in GAA recently. So how can we start to eradicate these negatives? I personally feel that there are 3 simple changes at club level that could help greatly with retention and players’ mental health.
3 simple changes at club level that could help greatly with retention and players’ mental health
1. The first is a change in attitude. For too many years ‘traditionalists’ have ran GAA clubs. These people have traditional views on training, on injuries and most worryingly on mental health. I would love to see the GAA step up and help put player welfare at the top of clubs agendas. Ahead of Championships, or leagues or fundraising. Thankfully we’ve been blessed with progressive managers lately in my own club, but there are so many short sighted, traditionalist managers and coaches across the country.
A prime example… How many times have we heard “it’s all in your head,” when expressing your doubt about your fitness? This is a really pisses me off. It’s suggesting that there’s nothing physically wrong with you, just mentally, so in that case get out there and train. If player wellbeing was taking seriously players would never be made train or play through an injury. And they would feel comfortable approaching their manager and saying, “my heads not in it tonight, I’m going to take the evening off.
2. A club fixture list that is set in stone. We are amateur athletes, and believe it or not we have lives outside of GAA. However living these lives is becoming harder and harder because for 8 months of the year we cannot plan anything in case a fixture pops up from nowhere and we’re summonsed to be there. How many holidays have you held back from booking, or fly home early from because the fixtures committee have said “QUICK there’s no county team activity this week, we’ll get round 8 of the league out of the way Saturday…”
Across every county, league fixtures should be set at the start of each year, and if they clash with intercounty games then so be it. That’s the nature of teams, they’re about more than one or two of the better players. Granted that championship is more difficult as the inclusion of these county players is impeccable. But shouldn’t there be at least a two/three week period in the summer earmarked as a ‘No Fixture Zone’, to give lads a chance to get away or even just unwind.
3. Counsellors to work closer with clubs. We don’t need reminding about the devastating number of deaths by suicide and mental health related illnesses that exist among young males. With the GAA we have a perfect forum to make a change and fight back along side those who are affected. The perfect forum to break down the stigma and get players to start looking after their own mental health with a gentle push from their club.
Of course there’ll be that cruel ‘lads banter’, “ha counseling??? F**k off…”. But remember, five years ago they said the same about white boots. Three years ago it was about wearing under-armour gear. Last year it was yoga. So why not counselling now? It’s all about creating a social proof and making mental health and stress something that young men feel comfortable to discuss with their peers, their friends, their teammates.
Sometimes I feel like St. Oliver Plunketts is the reason I get out of bed in the mornings. It’s certainly the reason that I punish myself, running through hail, rain and snow throughout the winter. Thankfully last year, it was the reason I smiled every time i glanced at my banjaxed finger that I broke while celebrating our Championship win. However sometimes it’s the reason I want to give football up, or regret ever starting in the first place. Maybe I’m an absolute weirdo and nobody else ever thinks like this. But maybe they do, and that small bit of support will go a long way to help with on and off the field matters.