Pushed beyond breaking point
A leading expert in sports psychology has warned that there is a serious risk of inter-county GAA players becoming disillusioned as a result of the heavy training workload confronting them, especially at this time of year.
Speaking to the Irish Independent, Dr Tadhg MacIntyre, director of the Masters programme in Applied Science and Exercise Psychology at the University of Ulster Jordanstown, said that there were justifiable concerns over the "rush to the bottom in terms of pushing players."
He believes it could be damaging, both in physiological and psychological terms. "When you push people beyond the limit of their commitment, you risk losing them," he said.
MacIntyre added that every county should have a dedicated sports science officer to monitor and oversee training programmes.
"Some counties have that, but what of those who don't? That's where the danger arises."
Speaking in a week when Lar Corbett signed off the Tipperary hurling panel, explaining that he could no longer give the necessary commitment and when Waterford's John Mullane described the preparation practices in the inter-county game as "astonishing," MacIntyre said he knew of GAA players who were training almost as much as professional rugby players.
"Of course, the big difference is that the rugby players have recovery time because they're professionals, while the GAA players are either working or studying. They have no real recovery time," he said.
A native of Kildare, MacIntyre competed internationally in canoe-slalom for 15 years and has worked with athletes across several disciplines, including international sports and Gaelic Games.
He has very clear views on what he regards as a big challenge facing the GAA at a time when anecdotal evidence suggests that training regimes are stretching players to breaking point.
INDIVIDUALISATION: DIFFERENT PLAYERS, DIFFERENT PROGRAMMES
MacIntyre queries the wisdom of asking all players on a panel to undertake the same training routines.
"Training should be individualised in as far as it's possible. Take early morning training. If you're 29 or 30- years-old, the chances are you don't need that type of training because the base is already there.
"You should be doing different training and probably less of it. There's no reason why a young guy, who might go out three or four nights a week if he had the choice, couldn't train early a few mornings a week, but it's different for a player at the age of 30 with a wife and kids and other responsibilities. Everybody is an individual, so the same training size doesn't fit all."
Recent remarks by Tyrone's Sean Cavanagh back up the view that early morning sessions don't suit everybody. Tyrone haven't joined the dawn chorus, much to Cavanagh's delight.
"At 5.30 in the morning, I am trying to put the wee girl back in her cot these days. I couldn't even look at training. I can hardly breathe at that time of the morning, so I don't think 5.30 sessions would be good," he said.
COYOTE AND ROAD RUNNER
MacIntyre says that players will do just about anything they're told if they believe it will bring them success. "They will pursue goals to the end of the earth if asked. They are like Coyote chasing Road Runner -- they'll keep going whether or not it's achieving anything. But what people have to ask is whether they're doing the right thing or is the programme effective in avoiding a self-destructive goal pursuit.
"Are we saying that 30-year-old player needs to do the exact same as testosterone-filled 21-year-olds? Not a chance because, psychologically, they are in a different place."
The fear of being left behind was one of the key reasons why the November-December training ban fell asunder from the start.
As word spread that County 'A' or 'B' was training away merrily in the so-called closed months, others became concerned that they were conceding an advantage which might not be reclaimed in the new year.
Similarly, counties react to what is perceived to bring success. Pre-dawn training sessions have increased this season, almost certainly because they were used by Dublin footballers early last year as part of the initial block-building which eventually helped deliver an All-Ireland title.
"The trouble with copying someone is that you don't know whether you're dealing in reality or a version of reality," said MacIntyre.
"We kept hearing about all those early Dublin training sessions last year, but only the Dublin management and players know how often they did it.
"The myth can be more powerful than the reality."
WHEN LESS CAN MEAN MORE
Hard work in training is still regarded as a crucial prerequisite for players, but, according to MacIntyre, there's a danger that quantity is being confused with quality.
"Players aren't being asked to push cars around car parks as part of their training anymore or to run laps of the pitch incessantly, but that doesn't mean that all the work they put in is properly focused.
"We have to understand that there are psychological implications to simply increasing the workload. Players are not horses on 'Animal Farm'.
The 'I must work harder' mantra isn't always right."
DRIVING FOR SUCCESS
Players will do just about anything to achieve success, but, in the pursuit of that goal, mistakes can be made.
MacIntyre said that, come January 1, GAA players think only of what they can achieve throughout the year and will accept any demands in pursuit of their objectives.
"If, for instance, a Mayo footballer was told that by running up Croagh Patrick in his bare feet, it would improve his chances of winning an All-Ireland medal, he would do it.
"That's the way players everywhere think. The reality is that pushing them to levels just because they are prepared to accept it can be counter-productive."
A FINAL THOUGHT...
While heavy training is the norm at this time of year, there have been several examples of players who were either unable to partake due to injury or opted out for personal reasons, only to return in summer and make a huge contribution.
Said MacIntyre: "I've worked with counties where a player came back in May and was brilliant at what he did."