The ball drops from out the field. He soars above his marker. Grabs it and turns in one fluid motion. Two red jerseys approach at speed but they’re too late. The strike is hit and the net is billowing. The stadium rocks. A leap of celebration follows. The look on his face screams adulation. Joy. Freedom.
This is Thurles. June, 2015. Maurice Shanahan added a further 0-9 points in a Man of the Match display as Waterford defeated Cork in the Munster Championship. By the end of the year he had secured his first All-Star award.
Contrast this with Maurice’s own description of his state of mind going into the 2015 season:
“I was suffering from depression, big time. It got on top of me and I couldn’t take any more of it,” Shanahan told RTÉ’s Drivetime (via the42.ie).
“I started to lock myself into rooms….I didn’t want to go out. I didn’t want to go to the hurling field. I didn’t want to do anything. I just wanted to lock myself away from it.”
Mental health is not a subject we are used to hearing GAA players discuss so openly. We’re more accustomed to the vanilla from them – bland comments about training hard and respecting the opposition. It helps to re-enforce our sense of these men and women as being machine-like in some way. Professional. Focussed. Prepared. Ready.
We revel in the fact that they live amongst us. They’re the guy in the bank. The teacher in the school. The role models for our children to aspire to. They’re not distant like some Premier League footballer across the water. This makes them even more special – we see them around us and yet place them above us. We take pride in the way they put on the armour and defend us as people. As Dubs. As Rebels. As Premier forces.
But what happens when that armour comes off? When the hurley is put aside or the football boots are removed so our heroes can go to work, earn a living, be a son, or a girlfriend, or a person doing every day human things. Many of the GAA players who will grace the likes of Croke Park, Thurles, Fitzgerald Stadium and Clones in 2016 define themselves as hurlers or footballers or camogs.
From an early age they’ve been good at our games. They’ve received accolades for this. It is something that made them different. And it becomes who they are. They build their lives around their sport. They begin to draw their esteem from it. Johnny becomes Johnny the hurler.
This is great when things are going well. Self-esteem will be high. Adulation will be coming from the masses. But what about when the player suffers an injury and can’t do what defines them? What if they experience a loss of form and the adulation turns to scorn? Imagine the impact the blows from the “keyboard warriors”, fortified by their anonymity online, or the mainstream media, critical in their appraisal of any mistakes made, can have on a psyche that defines itself by its exploits on the field of play.
Shanahan is one of a handful of GAA players who have spoken about their mental health challenges in recent years. His courage should be applauded but we need to do more than simply commend. These are serious issues that we need to address to ensure that more of our young people don’t end up going the tragic way of Niall Donohue, the Galway hurler who took his own life in 2013.
The GPA have shown leadership in this regard with their ‘We Wear More’ campaign, which highlights GAA players as being more than simply the 70 minutes we see on a Sunday. Johnny needs to become Johnny who plays hurling. He’s not solely defined by what he does on the field. He’s also Johnny who has a career. Johnny the son, the boyfriend, the buddy, the guy who enjoys gardening, whatever. He’s got other interests. Other things that define him and feed his sense of esteem so that when the day comes to hang up his hurley for good the blow to his wellbeing is not as severe.
And in a world where adulation or scorn can be instantly administered in 140 words on Twitter, we should remember too that Johnny may seem like a God for those fleeting moments when he soars on a Sunday but Gods in human form have feet of clay.
Kevin Clancy, Pundit Arena