Saturday 18 November 2017

Ban glosses over real issues

Eamonn Sweeney

Four years ago, the GAA got a bee in its bonnet about burnout, an issue which was apparently causing serious problems for minor and under 21 players. A task force was set up, a report was written and recommendations were made. And so we ended up with a ban on collective training during November and December.

It was a pretty uncontroversial move at the time but right now the training ban is coming under severe fire -- even GAA director-general Páraic Duffy admitted it is not working. And Dublin County Board CEO John Costello has questioned the very idea that there is a player burnout problem, asking "is burnout a genuine threat to the development of our younger players? In this context it is worth noting that you seldom hear of burnout in young athletes who probably undertake an even more demanding training schedule."

Costello's point is interesting because while the idea that the GAA had a serious burnout problem was accepted as an unquestionable truth, there was little hard evidence to back this up. The figures quoted at the time which said that 30 per cent of players between 16 and 24 felt exhausted and that 25 per cent felt that their GAA commitments didn't leave them much time for other interests were less than earth-shattering. And there was simply no sign that promising young players were quitting football and hurling in droves. Could it have been that the GAA were over-reacting and that the training ban is the result of this over-reaction?

It's easy to see why inter-county managers regard the training ban as a nonsense. For one thing, they'll be well aware that many of their most promising young stars are training and playing matches for third-level teams during the closed season even though these are the very players pinpointed as being most at risk of burnout. A manager who sees players being put through the mill in preparation for the Sigerson Cup is entitled to feel annoyed when it's implied that one winter session a week for the county team would somehow be the straw that breaks the camel's back.

You could even argue that the training ban, like the ban on competitive football at under 12 level, represents an ill-conceived lurch by the GAA into the realms of political correctness. Because while we would all sympathise with the 28 per cent of players who told the burnout survey that their GAA commitments didn't leave them with enough time to spend with family, friends and partners, the solution is pretty clear. If playing football is adversely affecting your personal life, then don't play so much football. You have a choice. Nobody is making young footballers and hurlers play. They're presumably doing it because they enjoy it and there's not really any need for the GAA to function as a cross between big brother and a nanny.

Similarly, if a player feels training with the county team before Christmas is too much for him to handle, then he shouldn't do it. Men who are old enough to hold down jobs and raise families can surely be allowed to judge for themselves whether they're going to be burned out from too much training. The GAA really shouldn't be dictating to managers how and when they prepare their teams.

This worry about burnout is not restricted to the GAA. We regularly see the spectacle of top Premier League teams resting first team players for FA and League Cup matches and even for some league fixtures. Last season, League winners Chelsea used 30 players, yet 30 years ago Aston Villa were able to win the first division title, as it was then, with just 14. These days pitches are better and footballers are supposed to be fitter, yet players appear to need far more rest than they did back then. It's odd. Villa certainly didn't seem to suffer from burnout as the year after their title win they won the European Cup. Could it be that we've become a bit over sensitive?

Another GAA hobby horse of recent years which has caused much distress at grassroots level was the axing of competitive games for under 12s. This was also partly rooted in the fear of youngsters quitting football and hurling because they'd had too much competition too young. And there have been calls for Athletics Ireland to take a similar step and end national championships for young athletes, lessening the competitive emphasis which is felt to be driving youngsters from the sport.

Yet the athletics body might be scoring a massive own goal were they to take such a step. Because it may actually be the competitive element which attracts youngsters to the sport of athletics. And perhaps it isn't burnout at all which causes some young athletes and GAA stars to drop out, but the old trinity of work, drink and sex, things which you can't legislate against. In fact, it often seems to be the young footballers and runners shouldering the heaviest workload who stay the course. And who is to say that the kids who drop out of competitive sport haven't simply found other things which give them greater enjoyment and feel that the trade-off is worth it? Maybe all this talk of bans and burnout is beside the point given that you can't change human nature.

Above all, the training ban discriminates against the GAA's weaker counties. Knocked out of the championship early, they must watch the big boys playing and training throughout the summer, getting fitter and stronger as they do so.

For teams like Kerry and Kilkenny whose season often runs till September, the winter break offers a welcome chance for a rest. But it's a different matter for teams whose early exit in July means that year after year they're spending less time together than the top sides. For them, the ban simply reinforces the division between the strong and the weak at a time when the GAA should be endeavouring to close the gap.

Maybe it's time for the Gaelic Players' Association to let us know what they think of the training ban. A vote of GPA members on the issue would be pretty definitive proof of the worth of this embattled piece of legislation. They're the ones who have to do the training after all.

In the meantime, the best young players will continue to play more football and hurling than their peers simply by virtue of being good enough to be selected on a number of different teams. You can bet that these are the guys we'll see in big senior games over the coming years and perhaps the gruelling schedule of their youth will be the very reason they've made it to the top.

After all, in the words of Neil Young, "it's better to burn out than to fade away."

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