Burn-out crisis still smouldering
Coaches and officials are ignoring danger signs in relation to fatigue and injuries, writes Dermot Crowe
O N Wednesday, Cavan won the Ulster under 21 championship for the first time in 15 years at Enniskillen, defeating favourites Tyrone, and afterwards their players were marched off to a pool session and an early night in bed. They didn't do this with much relish but they were left with no choice. Last night they were required to play the All-Ireland semi-final against Wexford, and managed to defy fatigue to record a win just three days after their Ulster triumph.
In light of current concerns about player burn-out and serious injuries, their selector Ronan Carolan, a former Cavan player and now a chartered physiotherapist, regarded the decision as an outrage.
"It shows a complete lack of understanding among some of those who took that decision regarding player welfare," he said yesterday, ahead of the Wexford match in Parnell Park.
"It is just incredible that Cavan under 21s, who would have achieved their greatest achievement on Wednesday night, celebrated basically by having to go to a swimming pool in the Slieve Russell (hotel) and home to bed. We are free of injuries but fundamentally a body does not recover fully in three days. When you talk of burn-out this is a contributory factor.
"It is a prime example where Croke Park has the power to be sensible and can change this and some (on the CCCC) chose not to. We had agreement between the Tyrone, Wexford and Cavan county boards before Wednesday that the All-Ireland semi-final should go ahead next week. A small few decided, despite the fact there is a medical committee in Croke Park, to go ahead anyway; it proves that those who made this decision have no understanding of what we are talking about. On a human level, by not letting the players celebrate; and then the player welfare issues. When you are more fatigued you are more likely to get injured."
Carolan is a member of the GAA-appointed Medical, Science and Welfare Committee that has been studying cases and causes of injuries in recent years. Last year, it published a report of its findings which tracked injury data from 33 inter-county Gaelic football and hurling teams since 2007. Hamstrings accounted for most injuries, 18.2 per cent in football, 15.5 per cent in hurling, while knee injuries ranked second highest, 11.6 per cent of the total.
The most severe injury in terms of time lost was found to be the anterior cruciate ligament, which has plagued a number of high-profile GAA players in recent months. Recurrent injury was also found to be a scourge and significantly hampered players' availability. A new hamstring injury can take 18 days to heal; a recurring one as many as 41 days. Typical inter-county players train 13 hours collectively for every one hour of competitive action.
Carolan doesn't believe that recent injuries to inter-county players like David Moran, Dermot Earley and Colm O'Neill indicate an abnormally high trend. "I don't think there is a higher rate now. We have been tracking around 15-20 inter-county teams over the last couple of years and we do believe there are injuries occurring that can be prevented. We are dealing with multi-directional, fast games with young fellas who are getting fitter and faster and stronger, and prepared to a high level. I don't think there is an increase but that does not mean we don't have a problem.
"We are striving to use what is sound scientific data to see if there a method by which we can prevent those injuries, particularly the cruciate injuries. By the nature of the games these injuries are obviously going to occur. The prevention of injury is where much of the focus is, looking at strength and conditioning and pre-season screening and training."
He says there needs to be a separate medical presentation scheduled at the annual coaching conference in Croke Park to get the message across to coaches who are more interested in discovering the latest craze in training drills than sitting in on a half-hour medical talk. "The issue with awareness and education is improving, definitely, but I have worked closely with the county minors and under 21s in Cavan and it always surprises me with young players how little awareness they have about how to look after themselves, particularly when they get an injury. The onus is on the coaches, particularly at that age category, heading towards Leaving Cert . . . the coaches have to ask themselves does this player need to train."
Carolan says the communication levels between coaches of kids on different teams, even in some cases between clubs and colleges, is still poor and leading to young players being burned out and placed at needless risk to injury. He claims that a report on burn-out presented to the GAA a few years ago has been left idle. "A huge amount of work was done there but to be honest it was ignored. I suppose to a degree politics got in the way."
Croke Park's Pat Daly has considered rules changes, including the possibility of outlawing the tackle on a player releasing the ball, in order to help reduce serious knee injuries. There have also been theories about harder ground and the kind of footwear players are using, with a club in Fermanagh banning blades after four of their players suffered serious knee injuries. Carolan has seen evidence of blades causing lacerations but can't prove that they cause greater jarring of the knee or ankle or lead to disproportionately high injuries compared to other forms of studded footwear.
"It is very hard to know who should gain control when you have the 16-20-year-olds who are wanted by many sports and many managers. We are continuing to abuse those players. We really need to educate the coaches. They simply need to pick up the phone to one another, say such and such has played a game at the weekend, he does not need to train three times the next week; that has not changed. Coaches are not taking the welfare of the player into account. It is all about attendance at training and talking up X amount of training sessions."
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