Thursday 14 December 2017

Something has to give in burnout issue

A balance must be found to protect the players, writes Christy O'Connor

BACK in January, Professor Niall Moyna fired a huge flare into the sky in an attempt to draw attention to how drastic the issue between third level colleges and the GAA had become.

Having spent over a decade building DCU into a force -- they were reigning Sigerson Cup champions until yesterday's shock defeat in the quarter-finals -- Moyna said that if the GAA couldn't find a better slot than mid-spring for colleges' competitions, then maybe it was time to scrap them.

Perhaps Moyna was only trying to ratchet up the whole debate, but the statement was based on his experience of the strain being imposed on young players by the GAA's overlapping and congested fixture list.

Kerry manager Jack O'Connor weighed in heavily on that subject last week when he called for a radical reform of the colleges GAA calendar amid fears that the inter-county stars of the future are heading for burn-out by the time they turn 20.

O'Connor revealed that he didn't consider Jonathan Lyne and Daithí Casey for last weekend's league game against Dublin because they could be facing seven top level games in 16 days.

The Sigerson Cup play-offs is central to that whole crux because the play-offs could see top players tog out three times in as many days.

With the demands being placed on elite young players attempting to juggle inter-county and third-level commitments every spring, some players are at breaking point.

In its current format, the winter training ban doesn't entirely address the nub of the problem of player burnout, because the main victims consistently identified have been players in their late teens and early 20s. Although having a closed-season is a well-intentioned initiative, even elements of its strongest support privately accept it needs tweaking.

Rather than a blanket ban that serves some teams well but not others, every inter-county team could invoke a training ban for say, three months, beginning with their exit from the championship.


Before the training ban was imposed on inter-county teams in 2008, allowing college teams into the early-season provincial competitions seemed a reasonable idea.

Allowing the college teams first call on inter-county players in their panels gave greater opportunity to fringe county players and saved the players in question having to make a difficult choice. Colleges can still derive benefit from playing in these competitions, but having them there is yielding little or nothing for the inter-county teams the competitions exist to service. Right now, there is just no place for college sides in inter-county competitions.

Before the colleges joined these competitions, county panels trained in November and December, managers had time to study fringe players, hold challenge games and know their hand before they sat down in January.

Those conditions no longer exist and the increased intensity has only accelerated burnout.

O'Connor has called for the Sigerson and Fitzgibbon Cups to be moved to a pre-Christmas slot to offer young players protection that the training ban can't.

O'Connor felt that if the competitions were slotted into November and early December, those players would then have a break into January to recharge them for the new season.

However, GAA director-general Páraic Duffy said on Monday that reverting to that format was not realistic because some of the colleges don't restart until October every year, while the different exam times narrow the period in which they could play off the competitions.

Yet, it's becoming increasingly difficult to reconcile the training ban with the colleges competitions, because it is effectively saying that if you want to accommodate the colleges in the current format, you have to deal with burnout.

The colleges' argument is that they play all their big games in four to six weeks, whereas the county teams take from four to six months to complete their campaigns.

However, most colleges are back by mid-September and the leagues which run before Christmas could be either scrapped, or condensed, to make way for a six-week pre-season.

Challenge games in that timespan -- against say, inter-county development squads -- could also facilitate preparations for a Sigerson, which could start in mid-January and conclude in mid to late February, before the National Leagues would begin.

The provincial U-21 football championships also start in spring, which places a further strain on the young footballers who are also involved at third level and with senior inter-county sides.

It puts many weaker football counties in a difficult position, particularly when those counties also depend on such players for their U-21 sides. Some of them are inevitably lost through injuries sustained during third level competitions.

It could be argued that the proliferation of Fitzgibbon Cup games, thanks to the round-robin format, has increased the potential for player burnout.

Yet if the colleges weren't involved in the provincial competitions, the Fitzgibbon group games and quarter-finals could be run off in the four weeks between late January and late February, with the finals weekend on its usual date of the last weekend in the month.

The National Hurling Leagues shouldn't really begin before March 1.

The provincial competitions -- without the colleges -- could then take place in February, which would provide a four-week pre-season in January to prevent burnout.

This is all part of a much wider debate, though, concerning the need to radically restructure the entire GAA calendar.

As things stand now, numerous elite inter-county players are trying to balance pre-season training at the same time as peaking for competitions such as the Fitzgibbon, Sigerson and All-Ireland club championships. That doesn't happen in any other sport.

The current situation also adds to problems such as those experienced by the Dublin U-21 footballers last week when they had to line out in the Leinster championship -- which they lost to Meath -- without three Kilmacud players.

The GAA have already made plans to tackle the colleges debate. GAA President Christy Cooney recently appointed Nickey Brennan to head up a task force on the future for third-level competitions, with a report due by May.

Cooney insisted the priority will be to get the balance right for players and admitted all moves will be considered -- including the drastic option of scrapping the competitions altogether.

There is certainly no need to go that far because the Sigerson and Fitzgibbon Cup are fantastic competitions.

But before you address the damage caused by overlapping competitions, multiple team involvement and subsequent player burnout, you have to address the core issue of fixture planning.

And all parties need to realise that something will have to give.

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