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Burnout issue remains

Sean Rice
NET GAINS Castlebar goalkeeper, Fiona McLoughlin, is powerless to prevent Cora Staunton scoring a goal during Sunday’s Mayo Ladies SFC Final. However, this was one of two that were disallowed. 
Pic: Michael McLaughlin

Burning issue won’t go away

Sean Rice

IT has come with the authority of a dozen eminent experts, and it will keep clubs and county boards occupied for the next few months until it is debated at a special Congress in January.
The report of the GAA’s Task Force on Player Burnout lays bare in stark terms the damage being done to many elite young footballers by extreme demands of club and county, and it proposes a radical shake-up in preparing them to reach their potential.
According to the report there is overwhelming evidence to suggest that burnout in talented young players is a serious issue that needs to be addressed. And the most common cause is their participation in excessive training sessions and matches, usually with numerous teams in multiple competitions.
These players play in several teams, train several times a week and sometimes more than once per day, play a number of competitive games every week, and sometimes two each day, undertake different types of training with a number of teams that are in different phases of their competitive season, the study reveals.
These problems are further compounded by the fact that the current GAA competition calendar does not allow for a closed season, which is essential for optimising recovery. Too many training sessions and frequency of games, coupled with inadequate recovery time may, over time, result in overuse injury, over-training and burnout.
The Task Force also slates the mindset and attitude of coaches, trainers, managers and parents in pressurising young and particularly talented players to participate in extraordinary numbers of training sessions and games which it claims is also contributing to the problem.
An important submission to the report is from Lynette Hughes who has researched player burnout (part-funded by the GAA), as part of her study for a PhD degree in the University of Ulster (Jordanstown).
In her study 534 inter-county Gaelic football players between the ages of 16 and 24 years took part, and all 32 counties were represented. Players were divided into three categories: 16-18 years (minor level), 19-21 years (U-21 and college level), and 22-24 years (young senior inter-county players).
A third of those played with at least five teams in one competitive season; of those, 26 percent played with at least seven teams. Ten percent in the 16-18 bracket were beginning to question their participation in Gaelic games. Almost 10 percent – mostly in the 22-24 age bracket – were in the final stages of burnout and deriving little satisfaction from their participation.
Others complained of exhaustion (30%); resentment by club players because of their participation with the county (42%), and lack of communication and feedback from managers, as well as conflict with managers over playing for other teams (36%). A big percentage felt pressurised to play when incompletely recovered from injury, and others reported being pressurised to play during examinations.
Dr Phil Glascow, head physiotherapist with the Sports Institute of Northern Ireland, said he found a greater overall injury rate among Gaelic footballers than in other sports. But the most critical statistics came from former Meath All-Ireland footballer Gerry McEntee who said the number of referrals to medical sports specialists, referrals for surgical opinion and the number of operations for chronic groin injuries had increased dramatically. The referrals were almost exclusively male, typically in the 15-21 age group and most commonly involved Gaelic footballers.
To ease the pressure on elite players and provide the scope for them to develop their full potential the study recommends that the minor and U-21 championships at inter-county level be replaced by an U-19 championship as a two-year experiment for 2009 and 2010. No U-17 player will be eligible to play in the U-19 competition, and no U-19 player will be allowed play in senior competition. They propose that the U-19 championship take place from late June to September.
They also propose that Development Squads be formed to cater for those U-16 and U-17, with competition for those age groups to be in blitz form.
Other proposals have to do with preparation for the U-19 championship, the completion of post-primary schools finals etc, and third level competitions, but the most contentious is certain to be the abolition of the minor championship which has been in operation since 1929 and the U-21 since 1964.
This writer has been critical in the past of moves to abolish the minor championship which has been an integral part of All-Ireland day for so long. But the evidence of medical experts Gerry McEntee and Dr Pat O’Neill, who chaired the Task Force, is so compelling  that their proposals ought to be taken seriously. The trial period of two years is not an instant cure, but it will allow young elite players make a bigger contribution to their clubs and, if the Task Force is correct, should provide a downward trend in the various factors that lead to burnout.
Nothing in the report indicates what part, if any, other games play in the onset of burnout. Elite players are generally in demand by all sports associations, and the proposals might be seen by some as one organisation’s problems becoming another’s opportunity.
Connacht Council Games manager, John Tobin, a member of the Task Force, said there was as much burnout in the counties of Connacht as in any other county, and the evidence of overuse injury was indisputable.  Many elite young players were never given a proper chance to recover fully, and were thus prevented from realising their full potential.
Tobin said the statistics from Pat O’Neill and Gerry McEntee were frightening. Chronic injury was rife among young talented players and a function of the report was to educate players and coaches of the value of rest and recovery. These young players must be given back their respect and dignity. They do not deserve to be abused.
He said those involved in the GAA would not appreciate the value of the proposals unless they read the report fully. You could lay down all the guidelines in the world, but they were of no use unless implemented . The proposed U-19 championship may not work, he said, but he would like to see it given a two-year trial.
I have before me a programme of the School of Excellence of 1996 conducted in Mayo. Following a number of trials, forty 15-year-olds – the cream of the county – were selected to participate in the week-long intensive football coaching course. Groomed in every aspect of the game, they were our future stars, the hopes of Mayo football resting on their shoulders.
At 26 years of age all of them ought now to be at the peak of their football careers. But only one of that school – Billy Joe Padden – has secured a place on the county senior side. From the same school of the previous year, two have had senior success at county level . . . Trevor Mortimer and Ger Brady.
What happened to the others? Could all, or some of them, have been the victims of burnout?


IN an age of almost instant communication it is difficult to understand why some clubs are reluctant to convey to the press the rescheduling of official fixtures in which their teams are involved.
Last Sunday this writer in the company of John Melvin of the Connaught Telegraph made his way to Ballina for a vital league tie between the newly crowned county champions and Castlebar Mitchels.
The match was timed for a 12 o’clock start, but an agreement between the clubs to have the start deferred to 2pm was not communicated to the press. Consequently, no coverage of the game is carried in this week’s issue.
Because the match was played in James Stephens Park, it fell to local officials to make the vital contact. None did. Clubs are quick to make complaints about any perceived neglect by the press of their games. But they ought to be aware that when they tamper with official fixtures and starting times the least the press expects is the courtesy of a phone call.

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