Tuesday 20 February 2018

Pressure on county players at crisis level

John Greene

John Greene

There was an inconvenient truth at the heart of John Mullane's decision to retire from inter-county hurling.

Mullane, who only turns 32 tomorrow, loved hurling for Waterford. He is an admirable character and although he never managed to win an All-Ireland, he will be remembered as one of the finest hurlers of this generation – and one of Waterford's greatest ever.

Mullane commanded a lot of respect and admiration among his peers, and there has been a lot said and written about the impact he had on the game.

When he met the media over a week ago to outline why he had taken this decision he had some very interesting things to say. Sadly, not enough attention has been paid to his remarks, because they shone a light on the craziness that has become an accepted part of Gaelic football and hurling. The demands placed on a lot of inter-county and club players are now way beyond what could be deemed reasonable.

Mullane went so far as to say that he had been mentally broken. He said that physically he felt he had a few more years in him at that level but he couldn't take the mental strain anymore. He is to be praised for making this admission. Some might pour scorn on it, and say he just wasn't up to it anymore, but this, in my view, is nonsense. With Mullane it has always been a case of what you see is what you get and his honesty on what was a difficult day for him should not be dismissed lightly.

Managers and coaches are placing more and more unrealistic demands on players and eventually a tipping point will be reached. A day will come when players will react against it. In a way this is what Mullane's retirement shows us. Here's an edited version of what he said 10 days ago.

"I had my mind made up last year. I remember we were running up the hills around Carriganore. Myself and two of my buddies that I actually started out with, Eoin McGrath and Eoin Kelly, and I think it was 'Banger' [Shane] Casey. The four of us, and I think we did about 10 or 12 of them [runs], and I remember coming down the hills of Carriganore and physically I was nearly getting sick. I just turned around to the lads. We kind of knew ourselves that this was going to be our last year. I knew then, coming down them hills, that that was it.

"Physically I feel I could go for another year or two, but mentally it's just after taking over. It's after breaking me. I just feel sapped from it. And there is a certain element of pressure from it too. It's nearly Thursday before you come around again mentally after a big game. The Monday and Tuesday you're drained. It just takes so much out of you mentally.

"I remember talking to Stephanie at home about the last couple of years and the amount of pressure that I have put on myself for the last five or six years to constantly go out and perform and to not leave anyone down. I just wanted to leave that go. I suppose it's the level of commitment then, and there were family reasons too. It is a young man's game. The bar is being raised every year.

"The preparation is five or six nights a week and I'm the kind of fella that just can't switch off. When I wasn't training I was preparing myself for the next session."

As more players retire in the coming years, this level of pressure that's being put on them by managers and coaches will become more apparent. It is unjustifiable, and it's unsustainable. At a time when job opportunities are rare, and money is tight, there are stories of players being driven to extremes.

One player, some weeks ago, let his manager know that because of a work commitment he would be late for training. The manager was far from impressed and this player felt he was put under pressure to put his job in jeopardy in order to make training on time.

Last week, a Dublin-based player went to physio at 7.20am, then on to work, then into his car to drive down the country for a body assessment, followed by a training session. He got back to his family at 10.30. He was away from home every night bar one.

There have been stories circulating about players who feel as if they are constantly on a mental tightrope, constantly being tested, almost as if there is an attempt to force some to quit. The rationale is that they are being prepared for battle, but where – as Colm O'Rourke asks elsewhere on these pages – is the enjoyment?

Another county trains on a Tuesday night, and again the next morning at 6.0am so that players who travel down from Dublin can stay the night and get two sessions in before heading back to college, or work, exhausted.

A player asked for the daftest and most extreme thing he had ever done at training replied immediately, "pulling sleds loaded with weights springs to mind".

Under 16 development squads are on intensive weight training programmes, college teams are training every day – some through exams – to prepare for the Sigerson and Fitzgibbon Cups and some club teams are already training four and five nights a week. Where will it all end?

Successful teams are always fit, and strong, and motivated, and well coached – and they have to be to succeed – but it is going too far. The tipping point cannot be far away.

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