Máire Treasa Ní Cheallaigh: The elephant in the room

THE composer Leonard Bernstein said that to achieve great things, we needed two things: a plan and not quite enough time. Too many managers and coaches have gotten this the wrong way around as they prepare for championship 2021.

We have no idea when or where or how the 2021 GAA season will pan out. The only certainty is the Whatsapp group. As soon as a club or county was fired out of the 2020 championship, a new Whatsapp group emerged from the ashes full of the hopes and dreams for a new season.

That same lack of certainty hasn’t stopped managers and coaches the length and breadth of the country implementing training regimes that wouldn’t look out of place amongst a group of mercenaries training to stage a coup.

While all this is happening, there’s a big elephant standing in the room and either people aren’t seeing Nellie, or they’re pretending that she’s not there. Managers pressuring players to train. Forcing them to follow intense regimes from home, in an effort to replace the closed gyms.

Some have gone beyond that and demanded their charges break lockdown regulations by emotionally blackmailing them to train in secret, in illicit groups or gatherings or secret gyms. Back in the day, we tried to sneak out of training, now people are devising ways to sneak into training.

It is the epitome of madness. Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. “We didn’t win last year lads, so let’s stick to the same plan again this year despite the fact that we don’t even have a schedule yet.

I don’t care if a ball isn’t going to be thrown into the club championship before the summer solstice, you’re going to be as fit now as you were last February, because that’s how we do things.”

It is an abject failure of leadership to see the potential this break in training can bring.

The smart teams are ticking over with their fitness, staying injury free, keeping the mind fresh and doing some mental strength and conditioning. They’re addressing their own elephants. The elephants are usually psychological. We all know of the teams who have been beaten repeatedly by the same team in semi-finals and finals in recent years. Or the player who doesn’t perform to the best of her ability against a particular team.

From what I can see, from talking to players and coaches, there are currently too many managers who are refusing to address these facts and instead, are pushing players to the point of physical torture and in the process, mentally ruining their ability to play top class sport.

Obviously, most teams don’t have the resources of the Dublin football team or the Limerick hurlers, but even if they did, far too few are willing to delegate responsibility to other people to allow their teams flourish, without a tight control on every single rein. Teams that have built a culture of trust empowers everyone to perform in their own roles in a way that benefits players and the team.

You don’t need to be a genius to know that this can take a psychological toll on players. Some who may have lost friends or family to Covid-19, or others who may live with vulnerable relatives could find this very hard, on top of the stress of living in a global pandemic.

All over the world, lockdowns have forced athletes to adapt their routines, as the targets and goalposts kept moving. Schedules, meticulously planned, have been torn up and thrown out the window. Never has a player’s support network been more critical. Never have they needed a strong manager more.

Here, players have spent their sporting careers planning their lives around championship. No greater evidence of this than the flurry of GAA weddings over the Christmas period. A popular GAA member might only get Christmas Eve and Christmas Day off from the ritual of stuffing a few fifties into a card in exchange for a beef or salmon dinner.

When all competitions and benchmarks are taken away, some may handle it better than others. Some may not be capable of training efficiently on their own. We have evidence that while some will be fine, others are carrying worries and anxieties while being socially isolated and lonely.

Unfortunately, there are still too many managers and coaches on the circuit who are too willing to ignore all this and push on with a schedule more suited to times where inhaling someone else’s viral load potentially wouldn’t kill you or carry a lethal illness home to your loved ones.

Exercise is important for well-being and a regular routine is good for us too. What is not good for us is when that routine creates stress, or is too intense of a schedule without even the whiff of a target. Ask any decent physiotherapist or S&C coach right now whether any team should be following intense training schedules and they will say no. A decent sport psychologist will say the same. Without the prospect of a concrete calendar it is a recipe for physical and mental injury.

It’s sad that too many would still prefer to ignore the evidence and risk losing a player when they need them, for the sake of looking like they’re doing something.

Sometimes, the best way of doing something effectively is by accepting that exceptional circumstances need different approaches.

Leadership is not flogging and anyone doing that should take a long look at themselves and ask themselves, what cracks they’re attempting to paper over.

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