New research examines the realities of being a senior inter-county player

GAA players can spend up to 31 hours per week on their senior inter-county commitments and compromise on other aspects of their lives to do so, according to new ESRI research. Commissioned by the GAA and the GPA, the study uses data from a survey of 2016 players to examine how the demands of playing inter-county affects players’ personal and professional lives, and their club involvement.

In spite of the time commitments, very few players cited ‘too demanding’ as their reason for ceasing playing. The research revealed that the vast majority of 2016 players were glad that they made the choice to play senior inter-county. The benefits they identified from playing included the opportunities to build leadership skills, self-confidence and professional connections.

However, the report documented areas where players could benefit from additional support.

Players, particularly those aged over 30, compromised on their personal relationships and general downtime in order to ring-fence time for their inter-county commitments. Players spent just over six hours per day on these commitments on a pitch-based training day. 40 per cent did not have any time off from Gaelic games in 2016. Players aged 18 to 21 had particularly high levels of time commitment because the majority played with four or more teams. Travel time to and from training and increased emphasis on sports conditioning as a major component of inter-county training added substantially to the training load and time commitments of players.

Players compromised on sleep, with almost half not getting the eight to ten hours recommended for athletes on a pitch-based training day. The injury rate was higher among players getting seven or less hours sleep. Players’ mental wellbeing was poorer than that of the general population, especially when compared to those of a similar age. Suboptimal sleep may be contributing to their poorer mental wellbeing, although players also reported inter-county stresses such as finding the time commitments to be too much, that too much effort was demanded of them and that time away from family and friends was a downside of playing at this level.

At first glance it appears that players are maintaining their professional careers in tandem with playing senior inter-county, devoting an average of 7.9 hours to their professional commitments on a pitch-based training day during the championship. However, this was achieved only by cutting back on time for personal relationships, sleep and general relaxation. Regardless of age, the main reason players have for withdrawing from the game was that they wanted to focus on their professional career.

Over half of players sustained an injury while playing or training with their inter-county team during 2016. Of these, 56 per cent were out of the game for more than a month and 6 per cent missed work or college for five weeks or more. Many players continued to train and play with their county and club teams when injured, with quite a number receiving medication to do so. Injury was the second biggest reason for players ceasing to play senior inter-county.

Almost two-thirds of players indicated that their club was understanding when inter-county commitments restricted them in training/playing for their club. Nevertheless, arrangements between club and county management teams relating to player welfare appear somewhat ad-hoc.

Elish Kelly, ESRI researcher and author of the report, commented, “Most players emphasised that they were glad that they made the decision to play senior inter-county, and pointed to the benefits of doing so. Nevertheless, the research identified areas of concern across health and wellbeing, professional career development, and players’ personal lives. Addressing these concerns, and in particular the underlying sources of the issues, is key to enabling players to thrive on and off the pitch.”

Uachtarán CLG John Horan said: “This report illustrates the sacrifices that are required to play at the highest level and we acknowledge that. We are fully appreciative of the fact that, year after year, so many outstanding amateur athletes invest so much of their time and dedicate themselves towards playing and enjoying our Games at inter-county level.It is a commitment that we do not take lightly, and significant improvements have been made to ensure that inter-county player welfare is an integral element of our partnership with the GPA and our promotion of Gaelic Games. In 2017 there was €6.4m invested by the GAA nationally on player welfare and on injured players. We also know that our counties spent more than €25m on preparing inter-county teams. We will remain committed to supporting our players as they continue to strive to be the best they can be and we will look to ensure that the significant funding being invested on inter-county teams is used effectively. In addition, we have undertaken a review of our games programme with a view to improving the club to inter-county balance, and also the games to training ratio, and believe this will also be of benefit to players.”

Seamus Hickey, CEO of the GPA commented, “The GPA is very pleased that this important piece of research, that was commissioned by the GPA and the GAA last year, is now published. We have long called for such research to be conducted and we’re very pleased that the report is finally ready to share with the public. The findings validate the GPA’s long held view that while it’s an enormous privilege and honour to play at senior inter county level the demands on players that come with it are enormous and growing. The game has changed so much over the past ten years. The fitness levels, the injuries, the time commitment and the impact on players’ careers from playing at this level are huge. The GPA through our wide range of player support programmes is working hard to robustly support players to manage the demands of the modern game and the demand for our services has never been greater. Through the GPA player safety and welfare group and the work it does on injury prevention, through to our career coaching and mental health player support programmes, we are hard focused in all our efforts on helping to achieve greater balance on and off the field of play. We provide players around the country with direct support to help them thrive on and off the pitch but there is still much work to done as this report shows. We look forward to engaging with the GAA early next year on the next round of negotiations on funding for player support and related programmes.”