With the GAA season all but over, Daniel Keenan examines player burnout, a growing problem within the sport

For years, player burnout has been a huge issue for the GAA. Gaelic football and hurling, being amateur sports, are more at risk of player burnout than professional sports, since most members have to balance work schedules with trainings and matches, but burning the candle at both ends can have a detrimental effect on the body.

Professor Giuseppe De Vito, Professor of Performance Science in UCD, spoke to the University Observer about player burnout.

“Player burnout is a syndrome. The definition was recently attempted at a conference in London. It is an underperformance, when an athlete doesn’t perform to their standard, lasting more than two weeks.”

Burnout is not just caused by over-training; it is a multi-factor syndrome. Physiological and psychological factors, from stress to malnutrition to infection, contribute to burnout. The idea that it is a syndrome brought about purely because of over-training is a dated notion.

In fact, over-training can be a tool to get the best out of athletes. “In order to obtain an improvement, you need to overload the system. And then you allow the system to recover and overload again,” says Professor de Vito.

This method is used as a tool for training individual sportspersons, such as runners or swimmers. Doing so with a collective team is much more difficult to accomplish however, since they compete throughout a season, rather than aiming for one singular event such as the World Championships.

Repetitive training schedules can have a negative effect on players and lead to burnout. They can also cause players to lose interest in the sport. “Lack of motivation and interest is one of the symptoms [of burnout],”says Professor de Vito. “What you find is that people become uninterested in training and competition.”

It is critical that players, particularly younger players, remain motivated and enjoy their sport. Players dropping off between minor (U-18) and U-21 is a growing problem within Gaelic football and hurling. While there are many factors which contribute to this, such as migration from home, lack of motivation to play because of a poor training structure is correlative.

It is difficult to estimate how many players have suffered from burnout in their careers since there are so many factors to consider. Personal tests, such as measuring a player’s time over a certain distance and recording it are one way to identify the syndrome. Should the times begin to increase and the player display some of the psychological effects, then burnout is a possibility, although the test is not conclusive.

“It’s not easy to make a [diagnosis] of burnout syndrome,” remarks Professor De Vito. “You need to have a number of factors together such as energy levels, mood levels, as well as psychological, physiological and medical testing. From all these tests together, you can have a clear picture.”

The problem for the GAA is that it doesn’t have the resources to implement these kinds of tests on such a large selection of players. Therefore a focus on prevention, rather than treatment, is more important.

One concept which is often ignored by players and coaches is that of rest, according to Professor De Vito;  “Recovery and resting is part of a training programme. When you plan a training week you need to alternate between a period of loading [training] and a period of recovery, to replenish your energy levels. Younger players always want to train harder without understanding that sometimes a resting session or reduced volume session is better.”

There are a number of factors which cause a player to burn out, but the central element is incorrect training. One of the main problems, it seems, is players and coaches being ignorant of proper training regimes, as well as not realising the importance of recovery.

Technical Development and Sports Manager at the GAA, Jimmy D’Arcy, explained how one of the aims of GAA is to increase knowledge of correct conditioning for players.

“Education and awareness are as big a part of the solution as a regulated games programme,” says D’Arcy. “We have a formal coach education programme. We want every team to be coached by an appropriately qualified coach … Currently it’s not a requirement for any coach to have a certain status [within the course].”

In order to reduce the physical and mental burden on players, particularly younger players who may have spent the previous season playing across different age groups, the GAA has a ban on inter-county teams training collectively for the winter break.

“There is a restricted period in November and December whereby inter-county teams are not permitted to train collectively. This would have been one of the initiatives that was brought in to counteract the burnout problem. Burnout isn’t only a physical issue, it’s a stress-related issue. Collective training is something that puts a stress-related requirement on players.”

The GAA has moved in the right direction but if they hope to truly minimise player burnout, they need to step up their current plan. The Coach Education Programme was set up more than twenty years ago but there is still limited knowledge on correct player conditioning among coaches and players.

The off-season restrictions on collective training are almost unmonitored, allowing county teams around the country to continue training into the winter break should they choose to do so. Although there are sanctions against this, there is minimal enforcement of the rule to prevent teams from training.

Burnout is the danger of amateurism. The great tradition of the GAA is the hard-working nature of those who play their sport. Amateurs training like professionals can be very dangerous without proper monitoring and education. Should this not be addressed correctly, burnout will continue to loom large in GAA.