Friday 15 December 2017

Why even Lar couldn't play ball with our impossible expectations

Darragh McManus

Lar Corbett's retirement announcement this week was the most seismic since that of DJ Carey in 1998. The Tipperary hurler, double All-Ireland and multiple All Star winner has left the game at the relatively young age of 30, despite being the sport's top attacker for the last three years.

Since Corbett's bombshell, myriad rumours have suggested why he did it, mostly centring on alleged disagreements with manager Declan Ryan and coach Tommy Dunne. Speculation is rife that Lar wanted the captaincy; Lar wanted to train on his own; Lar wasn't happy with managerial philosophy; Lar wasn't happy, full stop. Only Lar knows for certain.

A common thread runs through each theory, shedding a light on the difficulties and challenges involved in managing a disparate group of ambitious young people -- in any sport.

"It's a huge challenge," says Dr Tadhg MacIntyre, a lecturer in sport and exercise psychology at the University of Ulster.

"Every time you bring 30 guys together, they're a different 30 from two days ago. The conditions are constantly changing."

He also highlights an issue which specifically affects GAA teams -- over-training.

These amateur sportsmen are often required to commit to five nights' training a week, while some GAA panels spend every single evening together, whether training or team-building. All of this must inevitably cause incredible strain on bodies and minds.

"Our championship is decided primarily on a knockout basis," MacIntyre says. "That fundamentally creates a problem: it's all or nothing.

"That puts huge pressure on players and managers and is reflected in the coaching climate.

"Olympian training regimes are now expected of GAA players and essentially it's a case of 'whatever it takes'.

"That makes for rule-breaking on the field, but also affects player welfare, in terms of longevity and sustainability.

"A mature athlete doesn't need to do the same training as younger people. We should treat these guys as individuals, not use a one-size- fits-all approach.

"But in the GAA coaching climate, you get players over-trained, over-cooked and playing even though they are carrying injuries.

"And it's not just players suffering: managers do too. They don't intentionally set out to do this; they're responding to pressure and what's accepted in that environment."

So how can managers maximise their resources and play smart?

Sports psychologist Niamh Flynn emphasises the importance of good communication skills.

"Get to know the personality of each player and adapt the communication to suit. A good manager will know how to create a good atmosphere," she says.

MacIntyre adds: "One way of dealing with different personality types is for the manager to bring in an assistant with a different style to them. If he's autocratic, bring in someone with a more democratic mentoring style, more sophisticated, who can reach a player the other guy can't.

"And one thing nobody looks at is how isolated managers can get. They can't really talk to anyone else involved and they take the brunt of the criticism. It's no surprise their decision-making is sometimes called into question -- it's done under so much pressure, without the chance to reflect.

"They have to be very flexible and know when to seek outside help: psychologists, the other selectors, maybe a former manager functioning in a sort of mentor role."

It isn't easy for an athlete to simply hang up their boots. According to MacIntyre, post-retirement can often be the hardest time of all for a top athlete.

"Psych support is as important when leaving a performance system as when in it. We call that the 'transition out of' phase -- the most challenging for any high-performance athlete. There should be a form of debriefing to help them adjust to this new life.

"GAA players' roles aren't normal and are becoming increasingly abnormal with the expectations we're putting on them."

No doubt that's something Lar Corbett -- whatever his reasons for leaving -- appreciates.

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