Dirty war's collateral damage
Not every youngster is getting chance to play more than one sport
Peter Clohessy wasn't a run-of-the-mill rugby prop. Yes, he was one of the best the game has seen, arguably the bravest and the toughest, but he was different to other props; he could do things that many others couldn't.
The Limerick man possessed a much broader skill-set than most of his counterparts. He could catch, he could kick, and during a game he tended to get his hands on the ball more often than other prop forwards.
However, Clohessy didn't become versatile in his position because he worked the hardest at his game. He did so because, along with rugby, he played Gaelic football and soccer in his teenage years. By the time he decided to focus on rugby, he had developed a wide range of athletic capabilities and skills that could be put to good use in most team sports, and especially rugby.
Playing several team sports as a child has been proven to be beneficial in the long-term when it comes to both skill and athletic development, and also in lowering the risk of injury.
But in today's sporting landscape, being a young multi-sport athlete is proving to be very difficult. Indeed in many cases, being on more than one team or playing more than one sport can lead to conflict, confusion and pressure. And this is more often than not directed at the child.
Nowhere is this more prominent that in the country's three biggest field sports. The GAA, IRFU and FAI may enjoy a cosy relationship at the top, but on the ground it's a different story. There is a war, and often a dirty war, being fought.
There is no shortage of anecdotal evidence of this doing the rounds, stories that highlight instances where kids were threatened with being dropped from the panel of one sport if they played another or training sessions being scheduled to deliberately clash with those of a rival sport. It is now the case that even the type of gear a child wears to a pitch can be grounds for omission from a team.
One reporter recently revealed that he often gets phone calls after games asking him to change some names in his match report so that certain managers won't find out that the kids played for a different team in a different sport after they were told not to. These were under 12 matches.
And while various sporting organisations can be quick to point the finger at their rivals, it is not a problem that is exclusive to only one sport – each is as guilty as the next.
Former Dublin footballer Paddy Christie is the principal of Our Lady of Victories BNS in Ballymun. He regularly encounters kids as young as eight being instructed to skip school games because it may adversely affect training they are scheduled to do later that evening.
"I've had my own experiences here in the school with kids who were told by their manager that they can't play a schools match because they have an important training session at 6 or 7 o'clock," says Christie.
"One particular child told me a few years ago that his manager said that he was going to make it as a Premier League star and he would be earning millions. His manager told him he was jeopardising his future by coming to training after playing a school game because he wouldn't be able to give 100 per cent.
"This is nothing to do with recovery or burnout; this is to do with people in charge of different sports with egos who think that their team is the most important team in the world. And, to make matters worse, these kids are sometimes only eight years of age; it is very very unfair to put that pressure on them.
"I believe that when kids are older, mid-teens say, they need to make decisions about what sport they want to focus on if they want to make it to the top level.
"But they shouldn't be forced to do that when they are not mature enough to make informed decisions."
Similar problems exist in secondary schools and it is a practice that is going on around the country. Former Munster rugby player Mike Lynch is a physical education teacher in St Clement's Redemptorist College in Limerick where he looks after several different teams.
Lynch has had first-hand experience in dealing with children who have been instructed by team managers to skip schools games and training sessions. But even more worrying is that he has often been told by kids that their manager doesn't want them participating in PE class as it may jeopardise their performance in an upcoming game.
"It's very frustrating to have a kid come in to school and say that their manager told them that they should not do the class because they have a match the following Sunday, or even in some cases a couple of weeks later," says Lynch.
"There are some sports and some individuals within those sports who seem to think that their particular team is the only team or the most important team. And for these people to impinge on a PE programme in a school is outrageous. It is a subject, part of the school curriculum and in our opinion, as important as other subjects.
"No manager has ever made contact with us, the kids deliver the message. When it happens we get on to the parents. We have no problem accommodating the students if it is a very big game and it is on the following day. In that case, we will tailor what we are doing in PE to suit them, but skipping the class is not an option."
In May, St Clement's will honour 12 of their former students for their sporting achievements. These include several inter-county hurlers, as well as some international rugby players and athletes.
All 12 come from a multi-sport background. While in school they played every sport available to them, there were never any restrictions put on them and they excelled when they decided to focus on a specific sport.
One of these former students is Liam Toland. The Clare man played several different sports including Gaelic football, rugby, basketball and hurling. He went on to be an international rugby player and also had the unique honour of captaining both Munster and Leinster.
"I found playing Gaelic football was hugely beneficial for rugby," says Toland, who also played with the Clare minor footballers.
"Not just because of the physicality of the game and the range of movements it required but also because of the aerobic training I was doing. It gave me an enormous aerobic capacity to play at openside.
"Similarly with Victor Costello; he did the shot putt, he represented Ireland at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Without a doubt, the shot putt gave Victor enormous power as a No 8."
There are plenty of current examples of sportsmen benefiting from experiencing several sports before deciding to focus on just one. Irish rugby players Rob Kearney and Tommy Bowe regularly showcase their Gaelic football abilities, with their impressive catching and fielding. In golf, Paul McGinley credits hurling for contributing to his success and in cricket Irish international John Mooney comes from a Gaelic football background.
Dr Liam Hennessy, former head of fitness with the IRFU, shares this school of thought. In fact, for a period while he was with the Ireland rugby team, he profiled all the players who had made it at international level and found that the majority of them came from a multi-sport background.
Early specialisation is an area that Hennessy, who is an exercise physiologist and a former international athlete, has looked at.
"The studies tell us that involvement in a diverse range of sports in childhood is important," says Dr Hennessy. "This stage is late childhood and pre-adolescence, where the children may not have entered that accelerated growth phase yet and where they are children still. Sampling different sports allows them to improve their motor skills and it allows them a great variation in terms of physical activity. As long as the children are well-managed in terms of volume and intensities, there is every reason to show that this will benefit them."
According to Dr Hennessy, there are particular sports that necessitate early specialisation such as gymnastics and swimming. But in team sports, like soccer, rugby and Gaelic games, early specialisation may actually lead to a lot of negative outcomes such as an increased risk of injury because of repetition in specific activities, as well over-training and burnout. A consequence of these negative outcomes can be premature drop-out from sport.
A study conducted on top-level athletes in CGS Sports (centimetres, grammes and seconds) in the University of Copenhagen in 2010 found that elite athletes who specialised at a later age trained less in childhood. It also determined that for international success specialisation is required during the mid-teens.
Hennessy, in conjunction with Setanta College where he is academic director, is launching a study that monitors the activity of players who are involved in a number of sports using GPS tracking devices and also monitors the activity of players who are single-sports participants.
"We feel that there is an awful lot of opinion and statement out there without any data to back it up. There is a recognised 60-minute-a-day recommendation of moderate activity for children where they are playing and active and moving. That is moderate-intensity exercise.
"In a study we carried out a couple of years ago, we found that even those engaging in a number of team sports weren't getting the 60 minutes a day when you average out how much time they were spending a day over a week. We found that one out of eight of the group we sampled were possibly overworked, in other words they were playing more than three competitive matches a week.
"A lot of us have opinions that are not based on what is happening, they are based on perception of what we see. That perception may be based on a small number of athletes or players who may be overworked. But in the context of the team, the greater involvement of the team, others may be underactive."
In a time when childhood obesity is an epidemic and computer gaming companies are doing their best to take the place of sports, facilitating kids playing games shouldn't be fraught with difficulties. Adults should park their egos and make it as easy as possible for children to be team players and athletes. It's as simple as that.
Sunday Indo Sport