The Christy O'Connor column: GAA has a duty to provide games for its youngsters

The Christy O'Connor column: GAA has a duty to provide games for its youngsters
Valley Rovers' Calum Fennelly clears his lines as Kilcormac Killoughey's Ter Guinan tries to hook him. Picture: David Keane.

LONG before the GAA’s roadmap detailing a safe return for Gaelic Games was released, Rebel Óg secretary Shane Supple rightly said that if there was a return to action in autumn, it is “vitally important” a games schedule is provided for juvenile players.

Having been deprived of so much social interaction over the last three months, especially with schools closing, Supple stressed the importance of providing games for young people as soon as it was safe to do so.

“It is vital we keep these young players interested and involved and don’t forget them in the conversation around a potential return to play,” he said.

“All they want to do is play a game of hurling or football. It is important for kids to have that social entanglement with their local club, to be involved with their community. It is where they meet their friends.”

For so many of those young kids and teenagers, the GAA pitch was their social scene. In that context, the closure of GAA pitches until the end of this month has bound to have had an impact on the mental wellbeing of those young players.

“That age group, from seven to 21, is the biggest drop-out rate in all team sports,” said John O’Mahony, Fine Gael’s spokesperson on Transport, Tourism and Sport in the Seanad, last month.

O’Mahony appreciated the safety concerns about granting access to club grounds but he felt there were bigger issues at play by keeping fields off-limits. 

“I just feel they have been through the Leaving Cert dilemma,” he said. “From the point of mental health alone they should be allowed access (to fields), especially when the Government were allowing it.” 

At least that end line is in sight now but young people have been crying out for something. With school closures across the globe impacting on almost 1.3 billion children and students, the mental health impacts of COVID-19 on those young people could be seen far beyond the life of the pandemic.

In recent surveys by ‘Save the Children’ of over 6,000 children and parents in the US, Germany, Finland, Spain and the UK, the results showed how up to 65% of the children struggled with boredom and feelings of isolation.

Feelings of helplessness, loneliness and fear of being socially excluded are common in any epidemic. But the recent research has shown that prolonged stress, boredom and social isolation, as well as a lack of outdoor play, can lead to a higher number of mental health conditions in children, such as anxiety and even depression. In those recent surveys, the data also showed how being unable to play outside with friends, or fears of falling behind in their education, added to children’s feelings of deprivation and anxiety.

Loughgael Shamrocks' Alana McKendry about to strike the ball against Clonakilty's Ciara Barrett in last year's John West Feile Division 2 camogie final. Picture: Gavin Browne
Loughgael Shamrocks' Alana McKendry about to strike the ball against Clonakilty's Ciara Barrett in last year's John West Feile Division 2 camogie final. Picture: Gavin Browne

“While children are resilient, we cannot underestimate the impact the pandemic is having on their mental wellbeing and overall health,” said Marie Dahl, Head of Save the Children’s Mental Health & Psychosocial Support Unit “Children are suffering enormous upheaval on a scale that we have not seen in this lifetime. So much is yet unknown about the long-term impacts of this crisis, which requires us to be vigilant and do everything possible to limit the impact on young minds.” 

With educational supports having been diluted into distance learning, and with children and teenagers having been cut off from school staff members who helped them build self-esteem, and cope with trauma, the services for helping to care for the physical and mental wellbeing of growing children have, in the most part, been suspended too.

Not every child or young person is interested in sport, but sport will play a huge part in kids' mental health and wellbeing when the gates are reopened again. As kids return to training and games, experts say that intentionally addressing mental health and life skills will be critical for youth sports providers, especially coaches.

Games will have a key role in that process but it’s difficult to know where underage games and activities will sit in such a tightly condensed window going forward.

When speaking about this issue, Shane Supple was acutely aware of the logistical problems that lay ahead for fixture-makers in Cork. For a start, there will be a huge demand for pitches and referees with so many adult games having to take place in such a short timespan. How much space will then be left for underage activity?

Cork, led by Conor Corbett, won last year's minor football crown. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Cork, led by Conor Corbett, won last year's minor football crown. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Whatever is proposed, there will inevitably be roadblocks and pitfalls. If the inter-county minor hurling and football championships (U17) are beginning in October, does that mean that all club minor competitions have to be concluded by October?

The window shouldn’t be that tight, especially when it would limit the activity and game-time of so many young players. The tradeoff may be that club minor teams could have to play without their county minor (U17) players, especially if those county minor teams progress deep into the winter.

There won’t be the same pressure to conclude the season for teams from U6 to U15, and U16, but weather and timing will be a significant factor too in the length of those teams’ season. Especially when not every club has floodlit facilities, an Astroturf pitch or an indoor hall.

In any case, at least kids will be back. Hopefully, they will get a sufficient games programme, because they will need that focus.

And for coaches, helping to develop kids and young people’s social and emotional skills will be just as important as improving their athletic talent and ball skills.

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