Monday 10 December 2018

Players far too dependent on 'pain management' and I'm limping proof of it

Dick Clerkin the newly-appointed chairperson of the GAA Medical, Scientific and Welfare Committee,. Photo: Philip Fitzpatrick/Sportsfile
Dick Clerkin the newly-appointed chairperson of the GAA Medical, Scientific and Welfare Committee,. Photo: Philip Fitzpatrick/Sportsfile

Dick Clerkin

Back in 2008, on a damp and misty afternoon in Omagh, Monaghan played Tyrone in typically physical McKenna Cup encounter.

In the days following that game I can vividly remember not being able to lift my arms above my head due to a searing pain in both my shoulders.

Little did I know that it would be the beginning of a recurring issue that would reach a worrying end game during the recent snow break. Now unable to perform any sort of pain-free throwing action, it left me largely useless when it came to throwing snowballs with my two boys.

One of the many persistent 'niggles' managed throughout my playing career is coming home to roost.

Every day I wake up with a limp thanks to a stiff left ankle. It can take a good 20 minutes to free itself up, and if it is a morning after a training session or match, it is significantly worse. Internally, I wince whenever the boys ask to be carried down the stairs for breakfast.

I can trace that particular ankle injury back to a club league game in 2013, four weeks before our Ulster Championship semi-final against Cavan.

rolled Scoring a goal to beat our rivals in Clones, I rolled my ankle in the process. As luck would have it, I broke a bone in my hand during the same game. I still finished the match.

I couldn't countenance the thought of missing out on an Ulster semi-final against our arch rivals.

Far from giving myself adequate rehab, I trained through the pain barrier to ensure I was available to play some part in the eventual downing of our storied neighbours.

Thereafter, a good warm-up and adrenaline-fuelled action generally got me through trainings and matches.

An injury that would eventually go on to require multiple injections and an operation, I never gave it the due care it needed. A morning hobble has always been a small price to pay for the purpose it served.

Over the past 20 years, playing senior football, between club county and college, I estimate I have played in the region of 600 games.

I could count on two hands the number of times I sat out games due to injury during that time. Yet in painful hindsight, there were countless games I should have not declared myself fit for.

A combination of sense of duty, defiant determination, and downright stubborn ignorance led me to put my body on the line more often than I should have.

If I could turn back the clock, I would do things differently, make different choices.

That may not mean wrapping myself in cotton wool and missing big games.

But not paying better attention to rehab programmes, or getting proper medical interventions during close seasons, certainly feels like own goals when I look back now.

The masking benefits of anti-inflammatories and cortisone injections had become all too familiar following a realisation that my body had limits which can only be pushed so far.

While legally administered and approved by the team doctor, there is no getting away from the blurred lines in which a dependency on such commonplace medications sits in the whole anti-doping argument.

Paul Kimmage, a champion in this area, has challenged the common place practice of 'pain management' on repeated occasions.

The reality is that few modern-day players, in any physical sport, are exempt in this regard.

In my own situation, it was more often for an improved quality of life, rather than allowing me to play and train, that pushed me towards pain relief medications.

However, it is certainly an area that requires much greater awareness amongst players and managers. The long-term implications of using such masking agents need to be considered when obsessing over short-term objectives.

Far from claiming any sense of martyrdom, my story would ring a familiar tone to many GAA careers. As the newly-appointed chairperson of the GAA Medical, Scientific and Welfare Committee, some might question my credentials to take up such an important post.

Instead of questioning the rationale of my nomination by incoming GAA president John Horan, I simply acknowledged the privilege of being asked to take on such an important brief, and duly accepted.

Injury prevention, anti-doping, and concussion are some of the headline topics that fall under the committee's remit.

If experience is accepted as a key requirement for any role, well then, 'I'm your man'.

Education and awareness around these issues is at the very core of what this committee strives to achieve.

Only last year, during our club's first championship victory in 45 years, I suffered a concussion that would go on to cause persistent headaches and sleepless nights in the days and nights that followed.

And, yes, I played on during the game, after receiving what I termed then as a just a 'bit of a knock'.

awareness It was only through better awareness of this issue that I had the wherewithal to go and see my doctor, and not just deal with the after-effects on my own.

As a result, I was off work for two weeks and I didn't train or play for three weeks after that game.

From the outside looking in, it can be hard to rationalise why players continue to take risks with their health and welfare, at a time when there has never been so much information regarding same.

I speak frankly now about these issues, not in fear of being compromised in my new position, but as someone who has intimate experience of many of the key areas this committee is tasked with addressing.

Experience from the players' perspective, and what drives them to makes decisions about their welfare, others might find hard to understand.

If given the opportunity, I would certainly make different choices in relation to protecting my long-term welfare.

Over the next three years, having learnt from my mistakes, I hope to influence as many players as possible to make better decisions regarding their own.

So that they don't find themselves, like I now do, unable to walk comfortably down the stairs in the morning or throw snowballs with their children.

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