Time for a major overhaul of competition structures
Exclusive: GPA chief Dessie Farrell looks at key issues facing GAA and offers solutions - including releasing all county stars to clubs on fenced-off summer weekends
FOR anyone involved at the coalface of county hurling or football - players, officials, administrators, managers - navigating the choppy waters of pre- and early-season months can be a hazardous affair.
While fuelled in most instances by the best of intentions, the upshot of the annual clamour during the GAA's 'quiet months' can be to confuse an already complex and somewhat intractable situation around fixtures, competition structures, closed season, multiple team demands, welfare and injury concerns and rule changes.
'U-21s are most vulnerable, but issue is overstated'
It is encouraging to realise there is widespread concern for the welfare of our athletes, but the idea that burnout, high on the agenda during winter, is ubiquitous in Gaelic games is probably overstated, one that has developed in parallel to the increasingly scientific approach to team preparation.
Are there problems in the area of player burnout, overuse injury and overtraining?
Yes there are, some quite serious - and a certain cohort, between the ages of 18 and 21, is probably the most vulnerable.
It is incumbent upon everyone involved in the game at this level, including the GPA, to seek solutions here.
The GAA's Medical, Scientific and Welfare Committee has been engaged on issues related to overtraining, overuse injury and burnout, and it is set to produce a helpful document in this regard which will, at the very least, bring much-needed clarity to this area.
In general terms, overtraining, overuse injury and burnout are often used interchangeably within the GAA and hence, inappropriately.
Like all problems, solutions will only be found through the process of assembling and analysing evidence and data which will inform us in how to deal with the issues.
'Wrong to blame exits on demands placed on players'
The recent retirements of high-profile players in unusually high numbers has been instrumental in adding fuel to the fire of burnout/overtraining.
The two shouldn't be confused. Yes, the demands on the modern day inter-county player are significant, but ultimately it is a personal choice.
At some point in their careers, players make a different choice and decide to leave the county game. This is never an easy decision but to attribute it solely to excessive demands being placed on players is incorrect.
There are many reasons to make such a decision. As you lose a yard of pace, the speed and intensity of the game can prove challenging.
And of course, many just simply decide to prioritise other areas of their lives: a young family, a career or a long-held desire to travel and see the world. All are valid reasons to hang up the county boots.
For those individuals who decide to commit to the county game and intend to stay with it for as long as they can, the challenge is to provide the structures and support to ensure that the vast majority feel their lives have been enriched by their involvement in the game at the top level.
The GPA through the Player Development Programme has set about this work in the last four years with good effect.
'Compromise required from county and club bosses'
For me, the greatest challenge within the game is the current competition structures which align so closely with the problem of scheduling.
Club and county players rightly crave a meaningful programme of games during a clearly defined season. However, no matter what way you approach the issue of fixtures, you will inevitably arrive back at the protracted inter-county provincial championships.
Following on-going consultation with county players, including an intensive session at the recent summit which was attended by over 100 GPA reps from county squads nationwide, we are now of the belief that change is required.
It is important that we do that without damaging the integrity, popularity and commercial appeal of the flagship competitions.
Eighty per cent of the GAA's annual funding comes from inter-county competitions - the same percentage is redistributed at all levels throughout the GAA.
It is evident following various surveys that the appetite among county players for structural change in our football competitions is real, with a constant preference for a Champions League-style model featuring in the responses.
However, while the GPA will continue to explore the viability of such changes, in the interim we still have the problem of a lack of weekends for club championship activity.
One possible solution is to identify specific weekends during an enhanced county summer programme and enshrine dates in the calendar for club championship in all counties simultaneously, where county players are available to play.
However, while this would involve compromise on behalf of the county manager, it would also involve compromise on the part of the club manager too.
For this to work, the county player cannot be expected to be available to clubs for weeks in advance of club championship.
For the two competitions to co-exist and to ensure the club programme is played in timely fashion and the county game prospers, the county player could train and play with the county while returning to his club in the week of the club championship.
This should not be an intensive week for him. Instead, the emphasis could be on game strategy and tactics, where you would expect the county player to be pivotal to same at club level.
This potentially could move our games from the dominant training culture which exists today to a games culture with defined pre-seasons and closed seasons.
There is an added bonus in this scenario which deals with the huge frustration of the many great county players from less successful counties - that is, a more comprehensive programme of competitive and meaningful county games.
'We need to bring in change in culture at all levels'
Another topical issue now almost on a par with the concerns around fixtures and burnout concerns is concussion.
There has been a significant shift in attitude towards concussion in the GAA in a very short space of time, and the introduction of guidelines for underage and adult players is a very positive step by the Association.
Education is critical to dealing with what is a fairly new medical concept for everyone involved in Gaelic games. However, we are still only taking the first steps. With the focus on county games there has been improvement at the top level but there is a huge challenge to implement a change in culture at all levels.
The GPA continues to work with Acquired Brain Injury Ireland to help educate members about concussion and raise awareness about best practice in relation to dealing with it during games.
FUTURE OF COUNTY PLAYER
GPA committed to unlocking players' potential off field
It is a positive development that player welfare issues are now regularly highlighted at all levels.
It is equally important, particularly in this context, to stress the importance of how county footballers and hurlers are supported with their lives off the field.
For many years the GPA's Development Programme has been refined to the point where a pivotal component of that programme is the personal development of the individual athlete.
The kernel of the GPA's approach is to encourage the player to reach a level of personal awareness and understanding first before they even take that next step.
GPA programmes are designed to support the player in reaching a critical understanding of their true identity, helping them to unlock their potential off the field of play.
If the pursuit of a personal best is a primary goal for any sportsperson, it is a theme the GPA is applying to the life of the county footballer and hurler as they chase career goals away from the arena and the training ground.
The commitment of the GPA to unlocking the individual's potential is reflected in the new Madden Leadership Programme for male and female county players, which will be of significant benefit to the GAA in future years, providing the wider Association with a highly skilled and experienced cohort of former county hurlers and footballers whose experience will be invaluable to the GAA at all levels.
It is also mirrored in the outline plans to construct a dedicated institute for county players with a view to taking the delivery of player programmes and services to a new level.
The GAA is unique; so too is the GPA, in that it is the only players' association in the world which solely caters for elite amateur athletes.
In an era where the funding levels and the appeal of our games - generated by county players for the wider benefit of the GAA - have never been greater, it is essential that these athletes continue to be properly supported in important areas of their own lives off the field.