'GAA has big role to play on mental health issue'
Psychology expert says Association 'uniquely placed' to spearhead the fight against adolescent suicides
THE GAA could play a significant role in reducing suicide among young people, while also improving general mental health, according to a leading expert in sports psychology.
Dr Tadhg MacIntyre, lecturer in sport, exercise and performance psychology at University of Limerick, believes that the GAA is uniquely placed to confront an issue which is becoming increasingly problematic in Irish life.
"The GAA, with its huge nationwide community presence, could provide psychological training in resilience, optimism and social support of young players," he said.
"There is no better organisation on the planet than the GAA for reaching into the heart of the community. It has a presence in every village, which is the ideal starting point for this type of initiative."
Much of the interaction would take place online, but workshops would also be held, involving players, coaches, parents and other interested parties.
"This would help change the landscape," he continued. "As the greatest sporting body on this island, the GAA has the capacity to drive this change. It would set the Association apart from other sports for decades.
"Potentially, it could reduce adolescent suicide and enhance the positive mental health of thousands of people."
MacIntyre believes that providing preventative mental health care is crucial at a time when there's evidence that depression and other associated problems are on the increase.
"The capacity is there to use the GAA engine to promote a positive mental health programme," he said.
MacIntyre has been outspoken in the past about the quality of some of the advice being provided for sportspeople, especially in the GAA where the use of psychology and motivation techniques has increased dramatically in recent years.
He expressed concerns that some players could be getting the wrong advice, which carries serious risks.
"Mind coaches, performance architects, motivational coaches -- all these terms reduce the mental side of sport to something that equates with 'mental fitness' and a naive focus on performance enhancement," he said.
"Some of those coaches are former players or coaches with experience and possible insights but not necessarily with expertise. There are risks there."
The big fear is that the relentless drive for success leads to a focus on winning and which doesn't allow for anything else.
"Psychological support in sport has the capacity to change, but that change can be both positive and negative. Without specialist training and without a holistic focus, it can be a train wreck.
"Most of the recent cases of depression highlighted in the media (rugby and GAA) had mental coaches working with the teams. Could they not have recognised the symptoms among the people involved and referred them to appropriate personnel?"
MacIntyre believes that, in some cases, psychology is being used solely as an aid to boost the prospects of winning, which can leave residual damage.
"What we need is a recognition that psychology in sport is not simply about readiness to perform (in effect to win), but about understanding that each person is an individual, not just an athlete," he said.
"Psychological support should be a preventative system that enhances the resilience and coping strategies of the performers and indeed the coaches too."
He has concerns that the labelling of teams and/or individuals can be damaging. Winners are deemed to have got everything right, whereas losers are made to feel as if they are mentally weak, even when that's not the case.
That easy classification can have a negative impact on individuals if their identity is so wrapped up in sporting achievement that they regard themselves as failures when don't reach their goals, even when there are perfectly logical reasons why that happened.
"Are we trying too hard to exploit the mental advantage rather that look after our players?" he asked. "There is a fundamental challenge about labelling people 'winners' and 'losers'. It's never that simple but much modern-day commentary tend to treat it those simple terms."
The use of sports psychology has become a major growth industry in football and hurling over the last decade. And while many of the practitioners are excellent, MacIntyre has in the past expressed fears that it's an area which is open to exploitation.
"There's a real risk if the wrong person is being used. You won't let a physio go near your hamstring unless he or she is properly qualified. It should be the same with psychology. You shouldn't let anyone near your internal world unless you really trust them," he said.
His call on the GAA to use its vast club network to provide psychological training broadens a subject that has had attracted lots of attention in recent times.
"The GAA is the ideal organisation to lead the way on this issue," he said. "It remains one of the great pillars in Irish life, reaching into every town and village in the country. That puts it in a unique position to play a major role in such an important aspect as mental health."