Nickey Brennan: Player welfare - does anyone care anymore?

I MET a club hurler last week and I asked him if he hoped to be playing in 2013. A strange question you might ask, but when you consider that he has experienced horrific injuries in recent years it is easy to understand why he would be hoping for an injury-free 2013.

I MET a club hurler last week and I asked him if he hoped to be playing in 2013. A strange question you might ask, but when you consider that he has experienced horrific injuries in recent years it is easy to understand why he would be hoping for an injury-free 2013.

Sadly that may not happen as he struggles to regain fitness. This young man is 26 years of age. He should be looking forward to at least 10 more years playing with his club at some level.

He is an outstanding hurler. Had fate been kinder he would now be a member of the Kilkenny senior squad with a couple of All-Ireland medals in his pocket. Players afflicted with serious injuries never give up the hope that one day they can overcome such handicaps and get back to regular uninterrupted playing.

I earnestly hope this young man gets a lucky break and can resume playing with his club. His dedication and commitment is beyond question.

It is a sad fact that he is one of many young hurlers, and footballers, whose playing careers are now in jeopardy as a result of injuries. That young man’s predicament is far from unique. Rising Kilkenny star Cillian Buckley is currently recovering from surgery and hopes to be back playing in a couple of months.

Buckley is one of a number of young Kilkenny hurlers who are currently recovering from major operations. It is a worrying trend, but hopefully Buckley will regain full fitness.

Some may have read a recent Sunday newspaper article about Clare’s Conor McGrath and his hip operation. McGrath was one of the stars of Clare’s under 21 All-Ireland success last year.

Serious injuries not new

In Wexford, Liam Óg McGovern is a rising star in hurling and Gaelic football. He will see no action this year and is a huge loss to his club, St Anne’s and to the Wexford hurlers and footballers.

Serious injuries to young talented GAA players are nothing new. It is a topic with which I am very familiar as it was a core segment of the GAA player welfare work some years ago.

Hardly anyone disagreed at the time that something needed to be done to address the growing number of injuries. The statistics from eminent medical people were very disturbing and showed that many young men were likely to have a very short playing career.

I saw at first hand the x-rays and scans of many injuries which afflicted young players. When one of the country’s most eminent medical people, Dr Pat O’Neill, spelt out the stark reality of too much activity it was time for action.

And some action was taken. Dialogue between inter-county and Third Level coaches improved and a closed period from any training was imposed.

But the dire statistics and warnings from five years ago were quickly forgotten when the closed training season was altered towards the end of last year.

So what we got in November and December last was a plethora of challenge matches and trials in all sorts of weather. I will safely predict that the majority of those teams will not have to worry about training next August.

It is appropriate that players receive an individual ‘winter’ programme’ from their manager. But what benefit is there trying to assess the capabilities of a player on a dark gloomy night or afternoon in November and December?

The most vulnerable players in all of this are those who are in Third Level colleges. The training regimes in such institutions have been well documented.

It is often a case of getting them out early in the morning and maybe back again later in the afternoon. Not all colleges operate such a regimental set up, but when that same player has to attend an inter-county training session later that night, is it any wonder some end up with horrific injuries?

Most of these young players are still developing physically into their late teens and even early twenties and excessive demands on their bodies inevitably results in a range of injuries. The feeling was that Gaelic footballers were more prone to cruciate, groin and hip injuries than their hurling counterparts.

A Lifestyle Coach

However, that is no longer the case.

It was interesting to see the new Dublin football team manager, Jim Gavin, recently appoint the former boxer, Bernard Dunne, to his backroom team with a specific role of Lifestyle Coach.

County Boards around the country have acknowledged the need to address players’ dietary needs. Bernard Dunne’s new role with the Dubs is likely to be replicated in more counties in the coming years.

It is now over five years since the debate concerning player welfare was held in the GAA. The problems identified at that time remain and have probably worsened, particularly in the case of hurling. It would be unfair to say that no progress has been made, but it has generally been a case of two steps forward and one step backwards.

For a variety of reasons Kilkenny only completed its 2012 under-21 championships on Sunday. This meant many players had to train over the winter months and into the beginning of 2013.

A significant number of these young men are also involved with a Third Level college and these institutions are gearing up for a number of championships games in February. So over recent months, many had to juggle their time between club training and Third Level training.

At the beginning of each year, and much earlier in some cases, the demand also switches to the inter-county scene for the most talented of these young men as senior and under-21 team managers come calling. It is at times like this that not being a dual-county is a blessing.

Protect young men

Oh, and I have not mentioned the minors, many of whom were also involved with club under 21 activity and Second Level championships. Pious words are regularly spoken about the need to protect these young men, but the rhetoric is largely disingenuous.

Some will argue that the overall number of players afflicted by serious injuries due to too much playing/training is minimal when compared to the overall numbers playing Gaelic games. Fair point, but that is no consolation if one happens to be one of the injured.

Young lads will do everything possible to play at the highest level, but sometimes they need to be protected for their own long-term welfare. And the only people who can protect them are their various team managers. It’s time they started talking to each other....again.

This problem is not going to go away and needs much more research by the GAA. Of course there are people who care, but those with the real power to make an impact are no longer listening.