Eugene McGee: Warning: training can be bad for your health
Why have so many top GAA players suffered serious, often career-threatening, injuries in the past few years? I ask the question at this time of year because we are now hearing about all the famous players who are not available to play because they are seriously injured, even though the inter-county season ended last August for all but two counties.
I was amazed to hear that no less than five members of the Kildare senior football panel are suffering from the same type of injury: damage to the cruciate ligament of the knee.
Dublin and Kilmacud Crokes players Paul Griffin and Mark Davoren have also spent a year on the sideline with the same type of injury, as have many others around the country. This is a very serious injury in any sportsperson's life and can often be career-ending.
We are constantly being told these days that GAA players have never been as physically fit in the history of the games as they are now. We constantly hear stories of the sophisticated modern training systems being introduced by the latest gurus who have gained experience in foreign lands with other sports and who profess to be the new messiahs of training.
Players are measured in all sorts of ways with regard to their training work. The composition of each player's body is scientifically analysed and, if necessary, altered by specific training systems to make lads thinner, faster, heavier, more agile, more flexible, etc, all in the name of sports science.
GAA players are expected by their trainers to match other top sports people, in soccer and rugby particularly, with regards to their physical fitness. But how much thought actually goes into the results and consequences of these intensive regimes of training?
Apart from the cruciate plague, there are many other serious injuries hampering teams across the country such as torn hamstrings, ankle ligament damage, scaphoid bone breaks in the wrists and so on.
The question that has to be asked about all these injuries is why are they happening to such an extent at a time when sports medicine, fitness regimes and such like have never been as sophisticated?
Surely an integral part of any system of fitness training for GAA players should be tailored towards the the prevention of serious injury. With that in mind, one would imagine the team managers, who usually hire in specifically qualified physical training experts to get players fit, would investigate more stringently the rationale behind such training.
If physical fitness advancement means anything, surely it should lead to a reduction in these very serious injuries? If not, then one must question the efficiency of the training methods nowadays and it is legitimate to ask if these intensive training methods are exploiting the welfare of players.
It is not good enough to have such elaborate fitness regimes in place and still have so many seriously injured players. Anecdotal evidence indicates that there are more injuries to GAA players than professional footballers.
These injuries deserve to be taken more seriously than is sometimes the case by certain team managers and officials who run county boards and clubs.
Naturally, their first priority is to get injured players back playing as soon as possible, but there is a lot more to it than that when we are dealing with GAA players because they are amateurs and the consequence of being seriously injured and unable to work for several months at a time can be very traumatic for players and their families.
Too often over the years I have observed managers at club and county level largely ignore the seriously injured player once it is obvious that he will be of no use to his team for a long period.
I am sure Kieran McGeeney is not such a person because he is connected to all his Kildare players at all times, but not all managers are like that.
Such players are often left out in the cold and this is a major flaw in the GAA system. Even though the GAA has a fairly good insurance scheme, it is not very adequate for long-term injuries and this can add to the mental strain for the player and his family.
But just on the question of the relationship between modern fitness methods and the increasing amount of serious injuries, surely, at the very least, more research is required. The old excuse for players getting injured was that they were not fit, they had not done enough stretching work before matches or training or such like. But these excuses are no longer valid as can be seen from the pre-match stretching regimes we see at Croke Park every summer.
One area that certainly needs attention is the difficulty facing managers when making a decision on whether an injured player is fit to resume playing. I wonder how many managers allow their loyalty to the team and player to outweigh their judgment or the advice they get from their own medical people.
Players in such situations will always assure the manager they are fully fit because they are so anxious to play, but how many times have we seen a player's judgment end in disaster? Henry Shefflin in the All- Ireland final last year is the perfect example. The vast majority of GAA fans very often forget the loneliness of the long-time injured player because he is out of sight and out of mind.
Only the really dedicated player has the will-power to drive his rehabilitation for a cruciate ligament injury, for example, back to full fitness over the period of up to a year. It is to the great credit of many GAA players that they have such determination, but the long absence can be a very lonely place for the unfortunate player.
Maybe it is time for the experts involved with modern training methods for GAA players to devote more attention to the prevention of these serious injuries rather than accepting them as being 'just unfortunate' in their headlong rush to change footballers and hurlers into Olympic-level athletes.