Pushing Them Away – GAA Dropout Rates

Dropout rates from teenage years into young adulthood are common among nearly all sports. During this time young people leave school and go to college. They leave age limited sports and join the free-for-all adult sports. They may feel intimidated, or even scared (I can safely say that I was shitting myself at 16 trying to train alongside fully grown men).But like so many others, I told myself to “hang on in there for a couple of years, once I reach my 20s I’ll be fine”. And for most sports, that is true. If you continue to play until you are 20/21, then you are likely to continue through until your 30s.

But Gaelic Games is different.

Having endured the difficult period moving from a teenager through to a young adult. There is then almost a 75% drop off rate between the ages of 21 and 26 in Gaelic Football (60% in Hurling/Camogie). (ESRI, 2013)

Only one 21yr old footballer out of four will still be playing at 26

What are we as a GAA community putting young players through that forces them to stop playing before they reach their prime age? Is this trend reversible, or will we forever lose out to our soccer and rugby counterparts?


This Seasons’ Rules

“First comes family, then comes work, and then it’s the team. DOES ANYONE DISAGREE??”

External me; “NO”. Internal me; “YES, I completely disagree”.  But if you voice that true opinion, you’re perceived as weak and unwilling to put in the work.

Around about now, all over the country, club GAA players are been told the conditions of their GAA participation for 2017. Some are fine, and seek only to benefit you and your team. But others are detrimental, and serve no purpose, apart from taking the enjoyment out of the games that we love.

By now I am sure that most of you have seen this:

Dublin club St. Brigid’s Player/Coach Contract 2017


This is not an attack at this club in particular as I would guess that at least 20% of all clubs in the country will produce similar contracts sometime this month. And it’s not even a dig at the terms of the contract. Looking at the contract, I would probably set most of those standards for myself to meet as a committed club player. The only difference is, I feckin choose to meet them. I’m not forced to. How anyone can justify asking an amateur, non-elite athlete to sign a contract like this in the first place is beyond me.

Is it worth it?

‘Keeping Them in the Game’ is an ESRI report for the Irish Sports Council (now Sport Ireland), on the taking up and dropping out of sport and exercise in Ireland. Produced in 2013, it paints a bad picture of the dropout rates of GAA compared to soccer.

Participation drop off in GAA compared to Soccer (ESRI, 2013)

Of course there are similarities in both sports. Like that huge decline in players as they move from underage games into adulthood (a story for another day). However the most striking difference is how soccer retains participants from 21yrs to 26yrs, while GAA participation is quashed by up to 75% during the same period. Why?

I believe that it is during this time that GAA players are saying to themselves “Is it worth it??” And for the majority of them, the answer is no. While for the rest of us, we’re either really motivated to continue or we’re entrapped in the game and we cannot walk away.

Uni-Dimensional Identities

One such reason for a player to leave sport is through the theory of uni-dimensional identity. Jay Coakley, one of the top researchers of athlete burnout, talks about the importance of avoiding a uni-dimensional identity among young sports people. He talks about how detrimental it can be to be known as ‘Brian the Footballer’. Ideally, young athletes should be developing many identities (outside of sport) to aid their social development. Unfortunately, being heavily involved and focussed on sport can sometimes be a disservice to a young person’s development. When this happens, it leads young people to question their participation, like I did.

Since studying about this uni-dimensional identity, I started to wonder about my own identity. Where would I be if I didn’t play GAA? What if I wasn’t forced strongly discouraged out of going to Boston on that J1? What if I had the time to volunteer more..travel more..work more…. However, after much consideration, I do still believe that the pros outway the cons in my own case and I am glad of my time spent in GAA. But I do fully understand any player who says “fuck it, I’m gone”. I understand it even more when they feel like they are entering into a rigid regime like St. Brigid’s seems to be. Because in a regime like that, you are faced with two options:

Option 1 – GAA


Option 2 – Travel, study, play an instrument, more time with friends, more job opportunities, more time to myself,more control… etc etc etc…


Maladaptive Motivation

I have a wish for GAA club development that every manager must undertake some training in sports psychology. That every manager must make themselves familiar with the foundations of motivation and how it works. If this was the case then managers would know that forcing (through social pressure or otherwise) players to sign a rigid contract like the one highlighted above is actually counter productive and encourages maladaptive extrinsic motivation as opposed to the healthier intrinsic motivation. If my wish came through then players would be encouraged to play because they want to, not because they have to. THANKFULLY we will not have such problems in my own club this year judging on our new management team. But if this is a fear for you and your team, well then I genuinely feel sorry for you.


If you are a manager or a coach reading this, then remember this one word, Autonomy. The easiest, most effective way to intrinsically motivate your team. By giving them autonomy. If you don’t believe me, check out Ken Hodge’s study  on the motivational climate of The ALL Blacks, the most successful sports team of all time IMO (even though they will not tackle fairly). The climate that Graham Henry and Wayne Smith create for their team is one that gives their players ownership and responsibility of how they perform. They created a dual-management model where there was a group of senior players who would meet to plan each week in advance. By doing this, managers are encouraging players to think for themselves. They are utilising the minds and ideas that exist within their group of players.  I guarantee that there is not one adult GAA team in the country who could not organise an effective training session or game-plan for themselves. So encourage it. Use all the resources available to you, including the years of experience that you see in front of you. And remember, it’s not the team who train the most that’ll have the best chance of success, it’s the team who train most intelligently.

Stand up and be counted

As a player, there are also many external factors that can also attribute to dropout rates within the GAA. Fixtures can be a nightmare and seasons can drag on for 12 months. But instead of worrying too much about those external factors that are difficult to control, look at your own club first. What can you do as a leader to encourage better practice? What can you do to encourage players to keep playing? Remember that this is your club as much as it is the managers or coaches, so encourage the changes. Instead of fantasising about the team you could have had, ensure that the team that you’re going to have in 5 years will full of 23, 24, and 25 year olds willing to play. Find out what it is that is discouraging participation in your club, and put a stop to it.

As a leader within my own team (I’ll probably regret writing that), I’m taking the responsibility of encouraging ‘fun and enjoyment’ as one of our primary goals for the season ahead. It’s time that we started to look forward to training and playing once again. Like we did when we were kids.

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