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GAA Sabbaticals: Positive Or Negative?

The levels of commitment required in GAA are an endless bone of contention today. It is hard to know what’s more annoying, the amount of talk about it or the lack of action. As 2016 begins, numbers are diminishing as some players move away while other are talking breaks from inter-county GAA.

Here we ask: is this a positive or negative thing for GAA?

It’s the age-old cliché, there are two sides to every story. One thing that is clear is that a lot is being asked of GAA players nowadays. A lot of people say that there is too much being asked; the likes of Joe Brolly and this writer amongst others. While many more will claim that GAA is fine and everything should be left alone.

This column is not going to focus on the long list of questions surrounding GAA at the moment. Everyone associated with GAA is like a broken record at this stage while the top tables continue their deafening silence whilst they count their cash.

We will look at a topic that has received coverage but hasn’t taken up a massive amount of column inches. The idea of GAA players taking a break or to use fancy terms; a sabbatical. The most high profile player related to this topic to date is Dublin’s All Star footballing full-back, Rory O’Caroll.

Following Dublin’s first outing of the season, Jim Gavin announced that Dublin would be without the services of O’Carroll for 2016. O’Carroll has opted to travel and work in New Zealand for the year. Having secured three All-Ireland medals and two All Star awards in the last five years, the immediate reaction was pretty negative as it looked at Dublin’s loss.

What nobody was willing to look at, was O’Carroll’s gain.

Barely anyone was prepared to complement him on his decision. There were very few people speaking out on the potential positives of the decision. Could it possibly be good for the player himself to take a break and see the world? Or should everybody capable of doing so give their lives up for GAA?

People forget that O’Carroll had previously missed a large chunk of Dublin’s campaign in 2011. As part of his university studies, he spent time in France but still returned to win an All-Ireland medal. He became an integral part of the Dublin side despite missing out on the now infamous pre-season training; training that seems to go on forever in GAA at all levels.

This writer feels that O’Carroll is setting a great example for other players and is showing that there is more to life than being an inter-county GAA player. It is easier to do in his position, seen that he has achieved an awful lot in his short career thus far. But it is a courageous move that should certainly be admired, applauded and encouraged.

Paul Mannion made his return to the Dublin shirt against Kerry in the opening round of the National Football League having spent a year in China as part of his college course in 2015. Mannion won an All-Ireland in 2013 but was by no means a guaranteed starter in a star-studded Dublin forward line.

He missed out on a second All-Ireland medal but made a very strong return to the Dublin side last weekend. A year’s break from inter-county GAA does not look to have done him any harm. He looked stronger, hungrier and like a player ready to light up the 2016 football season.

Another great example of sabbaticals in top level sport come from rugby. Two of the greatest rugby players of all time have both taken breaks in recent times, Dan Carter and Richie McCaw. Both players took breaks from the game at different stages in order to prolong their successful careers.

Again, one has to understand that even mustering up the courage to ask for a break is an easier thing to do when one’s pedigree is as high as the aforementioned players. But the people in charge knew how important Carter and McCaw both were in order for New Zealand to be successful.

The All Blacks won their first Rugby World Cup in 1987 and went 24 years without winning again. They have now gone onto secure back-to-back titles in 2011 and 2015, and set all sorts of records along the way. Carter and McCaw were the two vital cogs in the All Blacks machine. And both players were looked after and primed for the biggest days that lay ahead.

This example illustrates two things. The first thing it shows is the potential benefits of taking a break. The second thing it shows is high quality management. It shows the importance of people living a life as well as playing top level sport and how stepping back for a short time can reap big benefits in the longer scheme of things.

There are many benefits to taking breaks or sabbaticals. People in sport can need a break at any time. It could be an extended off-season, a mid-season break, missing out on pre-season or even something indefinite. One size does not fit all and everybody is different. And it takes an intelligent or sometimes even brave person to walk away or ask to walk away for a period of time.

It can be hard to have sympathy for top level sports stars at times – GAA, soccer, rugby, whatever the code may be. But it gets forgotten that these people are human beings who can experience different sorts of emotions.

It may be hard to believe, particularly when it’s a persons living, but a lot of people get involved in sport because it is a hobby that they become extremely passionate about. Fair enough, to some people it is a job and they use sport as a way of making the best living they possibly can, but that is not always the case.

GAA players in particular do not get paid. This writer is fully aware of the perks that can be involved and how a lot of players do well for themselves out of being involved in Gaelic Games. But any GAA star plays the game because it is a sport that they have enjoyed playing. It is a very taxing environment at inter-county level and players should be allowed to take breaks if needed.

This is where the responsibility comes into play. Responsibility from managers, coaches and players themselves.

In GAA it is nearly always the case that people who play, coach or manage for the love of the game. Losing and underperforming effects them more than any supporter or any stakeholder and this is when it can be a very difficult sport to be involved in.

Being involved in any sport at the top level is no joke. Sports people are constantly in the spotlight and with media and other sources as big as they are today, it can be virtually impossible for sports people to get away from their field.

That is why the idea of sabbaticals should not be seen as a negative. It should be seen as a positive.

It is very easy for somebody to find themselves too ‘stuck’ in sport at any level, and GAA seems to have a real issue with this. There are a number of contributing factors.

One thing, in this writer’s view, is that a lot of inter-county managers or coaches that they tend to bring in are getting paid, while players are not. In many cases this seems to create a situation of dictators and slaves.

That may sound a bit extreme but the power that managers have is too much. A lot of managers seem to be telling players how to live their lives. They also have the power to postpone club fixtures. Amongst other things, there are introducing codes of conduct and drinking bans, all of which appear to be getting out of control.

Players need to have lives and Rory O’Carroll is the most high profile example of this in the modern day game. Armagh’s Jamie Clarke is another player to have withdrawn from the inter-county scene. Joe Canning took a year off before starting his inter-county career. Jonathan Glynn of Galway is currently in America and is yet to commit to Galway for the new season.

None of these players should be put under any insane amounts of pressure, they should be allowed to make their own decisions.

People involved in GAA often see that injury can often be a player’s best chance of getting a prolonged rest. This sounds ridiculous, but it’s true and it not a good state of affairs either. Obviously rupturing a cruciate knee ligament and spending nine months on the sideline is not what is in question here.

But it can often be seen that a player who spends six weeks on the sideline rehabbing an injury comes back a better player. And why is this the case; because they have had a break. It may have been enforced but the improvement on return shows that these breaks can be beneficial and can often be required.

So our punchline here is that less can be more.

Everyone knows that the training to matches ratio in GAA is far too high. Players spend too much time putting their bodies through the ‘hard slog’ and not enough time expressing themselves on the field of play.

Everyone in GAA, particularly managers, players and in some cases parents need to take care of what is in front of them. They need to recongnise that there is a balance required and that there is a lot more to life then GAA.

So fair play to Rory O’Carroll. Fair play for walking away , taking a break and living life. He will have a lot more years in the Dublin jersey – a year off will not stop that.

We choose O’Carroll’s example simply as it is the highest profile one. Hopefully more high profile players will follow in his footsteps and the trend will change.

There is a lot more to life than inter-county GAA. So sabbaticals are a positive, not a negative.

Sean Cremin, Pundit Arena

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Author: The PA Team

This article was written by a member of The PA Team.