Arthur Sullivan of GAA.ie takes a closer look at the recent GPA Student Summits.
Of all periods in the GAA calendar, the eight-week spell from early February until the end of March is probably the busiest.
The Allianz Leagues in both football and hurling are almost entirely completed during that window, while the provincial stages of the All-Ireland U21 Football Championship also take place throughout the month of March.
The semi-finals and finals of the All-Ireland Club Championships take place in February and March, and on top of that, the Fitzgibbon and Sigerson Cups – the premier prizes in third level GAA – take place throughout the month of February.
It’s an intense schedule, and when one steps back and considers that period within the context of the overall 12 months, it’s no surprise that issues around player ‘burnout’, player welfare, fixture scheduling and the general workload expected of inter-county players nowadays have been among the most debated GAA topics of recent times among supporters, players, the media, and within the GAA itself.
While this is a busy time for all inter-county players, there is one particular group that is most affected during February and March – inter-county players that are full-time students. One third of the GPA’s playing members are full-time students, amounting to about 700 players.
For any player in full-time education good enough to make the senior inter-county panel in his county, the first few months of the year will most likely have been fairly hectic. If he is in full-time education, there’s a good chance he will be young enough to play U21, meaning he will have been involved with both the senior and U21 squads (football) over the last few months, most likely training with and playing matches for both.
He will also have been involved with his college’s Sigerson Cup team, if the college competes at that level, and if that competition was a success for them, he will have trained and played for them throughout February, and gone all the way to finals weekend at the end of the month.
Throw club duty in on top of that and it’s obvious that there are issues to be discussed. That was part of the GPA’s thinking in establishing the ‘Student Summits’ three years ago, workshops involving student inter-county players, where issues pertaining to balancing the life of a full-time student with that of an inter-county standard footballer are discussed.
“Over a third of our membership are students,” explains Seán Potts, the GPA’s Head of Communications. “So that’s about 700 players – a very significant cohort with particular challenges and problems, because they represent probably the busiest demographic within the county playing body. They could be playing for three or four teams at one time.
“We identified a few years ago that these players needed specific attention and that’s the point we commenced these summits. The primary objective is to listen to what student players have to say about the particular challenges and that’s to do with time management, overlapping responsibilities for different teams, trying to manage their ‘dual careers’ so to speak, their sporting career of playing with their county and the work career they are preparing for with their studies.
“We have found that they struggle at times to manage that and what we’ve noticed as well is that there is a significantly higher repeat rate among county players than among the ordinary student body.”
In a series of workshops that took place around the country from February 24 to March 5, over 300 student members of the GPA took part in the workshops, with around 50 students taking part in each one. All of those that took part are students who play at inter-county level, so the schedule of playing demands outlined at the start of this article applies to practically all of them.
At the final workshop, which took place at Croke Park in Dublin, the format was as follows. The 50 students were divided into five ’round-table’ groupings, and given a series of topics to discuss collectively, before charting the results and going through them in front of the rest of the groups. Helping the students through this process on behalf of the GPA were, among others, Limerick hurler Séamus Hickey, Offaly footballer Niall McNamee and former Cork hurler Conor Cusack.
To give a flavour of the discussion that took place, the first question that was asked of the players was: “How in control do I feel personally of all the challenges facing me as a player?” The student-players then charted how ‘in control’ they felt, marking a point between 1 and 10 on a flip chart corresponding to their group. Generally, the answers followed a similar pattern – very few said they felt things were totally outside their control, but very few said they felt in total control either.
“The objective is to start a conversation,” explains Séamus Hickey, a 2014 All Star and a member of the GPA’s National Executive Committee. “We want a discussion amongst members, to get them thinking about a) Their own welfare and b) A life outside of sport. We want to think about what it means to be a county player but what it means to be a person as well.
“These lads in college, they are dealing with an awful lot of commitments. They are dealing with academia in between their sports. Sometimes when we start a conversation around that topic, it generates some very interesting feedback and it’s that feedback that the GPA then takes and uses for its funding distribution and so on. The outcome of these kind of days is basically what determines how the GPA runs itself and how it can better run itself.”
Unsurprisingly, given most of the students taking part are young lads in their late teens and early 20s, the discussion takes a while to take light, with an initial reluctance on the part of the players to speak publicly. However, when the groups were then asked to pinpoint the issues that made them feel ‘not in control’ of the challenges facing them as players, the discussion got going.
The themes were common: time management, demands from managers, money issues, managing studies, having a social life. These were the things which all the groups agreed were difficult to keep on top of when balancing an inter-county career with full-time study.
One by one, each issue was discussed. The issue of money and the need to work part-time on top of both playing and studying came up on a few occasions – ‘impossible’ most of the players said – but for the few who were doing it, albeit with considerable difficulty, it was an absolute necessity to help them through their college years.
Another issue which came up frequently was the role of managers. It has been argued in many quarters over the last few years that inter-county managers have become ‘too powerful’ and that their power in determining schedules for players is one of the main issues affecting player welfare. On this point, there was a considerable divergence of opinion. Many of the players praised their managers for the intelligent way in which they managed their schedules, and said it was very much an issue that depended on the personality of the manager involved. While some agreed that certain managers could make life difficult with their demands, there was certainly nothing like a consensus on the issue.
The issue that came up the most was time management, and within that, the management of priorities. In this room of elite athletes – a few All-Ireland medallists among them – it was easy to forget that while these were accomplished young men in one area, they were still novices and students in terms of their actual professional careers.
And yet, when the question was asked of these amateur sportsmen which was more important to them – academic success or sporting success – a considerable majority raised their hands to answer ‘sporting success’. It was on this point that the most intense part of the discussion took place.
Conor Cusack spoke about his own battle with depression in his younger days, and about how that, as well as his commitment to sport, curtailed his ability to develop a professional career for himself. He said that after years of battling his demons, he finally got himself into a position where he had a job and a lifestyle he was happy with and he emphasised, from his own viewpoint, the importance of getting your priorities right as a young man.
“There is no problem saying that one of the issues is the reality that players are frequently blinkered in their pursuit of personal, athletic goals. This is a feature of elite sport,” explains Seán Potts.
“It is the nature of the elite athlete that they are blinkered in their pursuit of goals and they can neglect their own personal development. That’s a very real challenge – if they are neglecting their studies, they are not fulfilling any employment or contractual security that would help their future.”
Perhaps the most powerful words came from Niall McNamee. In detailing his long and well-documented battle with a gambling addiction, the Offaly star explained how troubled he had been during the many years he spent battling the illness. A member of the Offaly senior inter-county team at 17, McNamee was one of the most talented footballers of his age in the country, but he said his priorities were entirely askew for the best part of a decade.
He said it had taken all his struggles and most of his Offaly career to realise that his main priorities had to be his own well-being, his work, and his ability to live a well-balanced life, and not just his commitments as an Offaly footballer. The point was made that many young inter-county footballers see themselves only as that – it’s what their social media ‘profile pictures’ invariably tend to emphasise – yet their sporting careers will be over much sooner than they could possibly imagine at this early stage.
The word ‘happy’ came up quite a lot during the general discussion, and that feeds into a point that has been made by some commentators over the last few – including by many current players and managers – during recent debates on player welfare. It has been argued that most players are very happy to be involved at inter-county level, that that’s their dream, and that the sacrifices they make are done so willingly, in order to achieve something special.
“It’s a very good point,” says Séamus Hickey. “There isn’t a single person playing inter-county football or hurling that isn’t doing it by choice. It’s an ambition that we have had since we were very small, and it’s something we have harboured and worked towards all our lives so it is always a choice.
“Now, the game and the culture has shifted and it is a very different game from what it was 10 or 15 years ago. It’s a very different game from when I joined in 2006 playing with Limerick. Things change, things shift and you have to adapt with it. The conversation and the tone of the conversation, especially now from some external commentators and even from some of the players as well is that it’s a model that’s bursting at the seams and that something has to give.”
Yet Hickey admits that he is still “signing up and doing all the training sessions” that he can possibly do.
In total, the discussion lasted for about two hours, and by the end, many players had made powerful contributions regarding their own playing commitments and the issues they were experiencing. The GPA says the summits are very useful in terms of identifying areas which need programmes of support and funding, and the Association will very soon launch its Student Report, which will deal with various issues around the student inter-county playing body.
“We hope it will help provide a catalyst to bring things together and to help us take an overall look at the situation,” said Seán Potts. “It’s not seen as an end or a prescriptive thing but it’s a way to crystallise the talk around the topics, such as fixtures and so on.”
He hopes that the summits, and the forthcoming Student Report, will help to pinpoint some of the issues currently affecting the student playing body, and that an articulate presentation of those concerns can affect positive change within the GAA as a whole.
“If you look at the different structures that have affected positive change over the last few years – the FRC (Football Review Committee), the Minor Review Committee, the Hurling 20/20 – it might help provide a catalyst for that type of discussion so everyone can come together and look at this cohort of players and look at providing some solutions to some of the problems that continue to arise around this time of year.
“For instance, I think it could be a good start to the whole fixture issues. This is a good starting point and I think if we could achieve some good outcomes from this part of the year and the challenges facing students, it would be a good starting point for looking at the broader fixtures programme as a whole.”