One of the big topics in the GAA at the moment is health and well-being, and rightly so. Both the GAA and the GPA have done excellent work in the area, across a wide spectrum of issues, and they deserve to be applauded for it.
Managers are self-interested. They all want their pound of flesh and there are very few of them who will turn around to a player and consider his best interests before their own and say "Take the night off" even though that might be the blindingly obvious thing to do.
However, when it comes to issues of mental health and well-being, there is a natural tendency to focus on the most severe of problems - for example, serious mental health problems such as depression, or addiction, whether that be alcohol, drugs or as it was in my own case, compulsive gambling. It's obvious why these problems command the most attention - they are extremely serious.
But that shouldn't take away from what we can perhaps term as the less severe problems, such as stress, anxiety, or generally speaking, mental burnout. In dealing with these kind of problems among our players, we have to try and get to the root of the problem, and in my view, a major cause of stress, anxiety and burnout among young players are the demands currently placed on them by the way the game is structured at the highest levels.
When I talk about young players, I'm talking specifically about players aged from 18-21. It's the players who are eligible for U21, who are going through college and who are talented enough to be picked for their senior inter-county team at that age. Anyone who fits that profile, especially in the months from January to April, faces an intense schedule of club, county and colleges training and football matches which inevitably can lead to mental and physical fatigue, as well as stress, anxiety and other mental health issues.
Take a talented 20-year-old who is attending college who is on his county senior panel, like many players around the country. From January to April, he will be expected to play and train for a county senior squad, a county U21 squad, a college squad and quite possibly, his club senior and U21 squad. He could be facing a scenario where he is expected to be on the field in some guise for six days of the week. And on top of that, he has to study properly and conduct his actual personal life, separate from football. It's sometimes very easy to forget that we are talking about amateurs when we talk about the commitments that some of these players have.
Where do we look to alleviate this situation? Managers are self-interested, whether it be at club, colleges or county level. They all want their pound of flesh and there are very few of them who will turn around to a player and consider his best interests before their own and say "Take the night off" even though that might be the blindingly obvious thing to do.
That is part of a wider problem within the GAA of over-training. We are absolutely obsessed with training. Our training to games ratio is probably one of the worst of any sport in the world and more importantly, from a player welfare perspective, players are being asked to train for different teams when training with just the one at a given time should suffice. Managers will obviously want their specific groups gathered together at the same time in the same place, but that is not necessarily helping all their players, especially the ones togging for multiple teams.
Realistically, managers need to sit down and co-operate in these areas, especially with regard to players in the age bracket I am talking about. They need to work together, use their heads, and consider the actual training requirements of each individual player, and not just what they see as their team's training requirements. Burnout is as much a mental thing as a physical thing, and training and playing too much football can be mentally extremely challenging for players, especially when they feel they have no choice in the matter, and can't say no to whatever they are being asked to do.
You could go down the road of bringing in rules that say players at that age bracket can only play for certain teams - as in if they play for one, they can't play for another in that same calendar year. But I'm not sure how workable that is, as one of the big things about the GAA is that there is a genuine passion from players (and supporters) for all levels of competition, whether it be U21, colleges, club or senior. All the various teams have their own attractions. That's why sensible co-operation between the various managers of these young players is so vital.
Perhaps the GPA could work as a sort of mediator for players who are being asked to play for various teams. The GPA have been doing outstanding work around mental health and I believe they have a role to play in this area that I am talking about too. A player who feels that he is being asked to do too much or who is forced to make choices as to who he plays for could go to the GPA with the problem, and they could then engage with the various managers and come up with a plan for that specific player. No ifs, buts or maybes - they work the situation out to the best advantage of the player and the player alone.
Unfortunately, this is all part of a much bigger problem in the GAA, which I have discussed many times before - the overall scheduling of fixtures and in particular the way in which the club and inter-county seasons interact. We've talked about how young players (18-21) at the elite level of the game are at serious risk of mental fatigue and stress as a result of so much being demanded of them, but then you have the other big issue - the monster in the room - the scheduling of the club and inter-county championships and how that is affecting the well-being of players.
I don't think we've tried hard enough to meaningfully change and modernise the GAA calendar and to create a proper master fixture list which all counties can abide by, in conjunction with the inter-county championship. Apparently, the winning clubs in the Tipperary and Wexford Senior Football Championships won't be able to compete in the Munster and Leinster Club Championships this year because their county championships won't be run off in time. That is a ludicrous, mind-boggling situation for which there can be no excuse. Neither of those counties had much of a run in the All-Ireland this year, so I have no idea how that situation has come to pass.
At some stage, all the counties will have to come together and agree a format to get their competitions run off in time. There should be the same, simple back-door system in each county – not the myriad of formats there currently is - and that's it. If we can do that, then we can alleviate a very big part of the problem.
In an ideal world, that masters fixtures list would have weekends allocated for club championship games in between the inter-county championship games. That would hopefully mean that the All-Ireland Club Championships could then be run off within the same calendar year, but am I being unrealistic in imagining that the increasingly powerful body of inter-county managers would allow their players to go off playing club football in the middle of the inter-county season? It doesn’t seem very likely at present, given what we have seen happening in many high profile examples of recent seasons.
As far as I can see it, there are essentially two options. We could try and have the above situation, whereby the club championships are run off during the inter-county season at designated weekends, in a fluid union with the All-Ireland Series. If that doesn’t happen, the other option is to change the structure of the current inter-county season. As it stands, the playing season of inter-county football lasts from January to September.
That could easily be condensed and wrapped up by the end of August, or even earlier. For example, the Ulster Senior Football Championship Preliminary Round takes place in the middle of May every year more or less as a stand-alone fixture in the whole country. Like most championship weekends in the first two months of the summer, there are only a handful of games taking place. Then teams have waits of five weeks or more for their next matches, depending on whether they win or lose.
The whole thing takes an age to conclude and something that could be completed in one month ends up taking the guts of three. Why couldn’t all the provincial quarter-finals in Ireland be played over two weekends? The same with the semi-finals? It would greatly help to condense the calendar, would minimise the strain on players and would bring forward the commencement of the club championships, thus liberating the vast majority of players who play GAA in this country (non inter-county club players) to actually play some meaningful football.
I started this column by talking about player welfare and I should return to that now as that is the central point of all this talk about fixtures. You could spend all day talking about fixture planning. The current situation is so unsatisfactory and the list of hurdles in confronting it so wide and varied that you’d need to write a book to get through it all properly.
But the reason why sensible fixture planning is so important is that ultimately, it contributes hugely to the central welfare of our players. The current system is simply not serving them. Whether you’re a 20-year-old being asked to play for five teams at the same time or a club player in Donegal being asked to wait from January to October before playing possibly six championship matches in six successive weekends – something has to change. This week for example, the players of Naomh Conaill and Ardara played on Saturday in the Donegal quarter-final and drew. That means a replay during the week and a semi-final next weekend...three key club championship games in one week in October.
If you’re a club player in Donegal, or in many other counties, you’ve waited all year to play championship with your club. Imagine if you pick up a hamstring strain in the first match in early October. At any other time of the year, the hamstring strain would have a minimal impact on your season. But if it happened in early October, missing four weeks of football would essentially mean you would miss your entire season. That is simply wrong and no-one could forgive a player for despairing at such a situation.
We have made big strides in the area of health and well-being in recent times. But the current problems with fixture-planning, and the resulting stress being placed on players, have the potential to undo a lot of that if we don’t recognise it and deal with it as soon as possible.
Oisín McConville's exclusive football columns have featured on GAA.ie throughout the summer. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and are not necessarily those of the Association.