Life after the the high of inter-county GAA can be a tough transition

Life after the the high of inter-county GAA can be a tough transition
Kieran Donaghy after the 2018 win over Cork. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

WHEN Kieran Donaghy retired from Kerry last September, he announced the decision through a poem he posted on Twitter. 

It was a unique and classy gesture, with the words reflecting the breadth of Donaghy’s Kerry career, and the emotion, love and pride it inspired in him.

His words spread across 33 lines but five lines towards the end encapsulated Donaghy’s comfort with the decision. ‘Now’s the right time to hand it to another/ The next chapter is here Oh I can’t wait/ No ifs, no buts, only total faith/ Hilary, Lola Rose and Indie by my side/Made it a no brainer to eventually decide.’

Donaghy had total faith in his next move because, along with being able to spend more time with his family, the next chapter would still be busy with his basketball commitments; only three weeks ago, the Warriors were crowned Basketball Ireland Super League champions for 2019.

Donaghy has also been busy with work, an expanding media career and a role as a performance consultant with the Galway hurlers.

Donaghy was happy with his decision but walking away is still never easy, especially when inter-county players have so much of their identity tied up with sport.

They invest so much in their sport that they find it very hard to detach from that identity.

Kieran Donaghy battles Neptune's Darragh O’Sullivan and Ger Noonan. Picture: Domnick Walsh
Kieran Donaghy battles Neptune's Darragh O’Sullivan and Ger Noonan. Picture: Domnick Walsh

Much of Donaghy’s identity had always been framed by basketball but studies have shown that an athlete’s coping mechanisms regarding retirement are directly influenced on choice.

For most sportspeople, especially those in professional sport, walking away – whether voluntarily or involuntarily - isn’t always easy but it’s inevitable.

The former England Rugby player Brian Moore wrote a book on the subject. During his research from interviewing athletes, Moore was left in no doubt as to how difficult that transition can be.

“I am almost certain,” wrote Moore, “that every athlete will have some psychological problems on retirement, irrespective of their financial position. Some will cope well; unfortunately, some won’t cope at all.”

The end game is often so sudden and final that getting dropped can lead to complications.

It also increases the chance exponentially that a player will experience symptoms of depression and anxiety and a loss of self-identity.

The difficulty with being an elite athlete means they are often institutionalised.

A way of life is over. The routine is gone. So is the social network.

A new way of life suddenly has to begin but the comments of two recently retired players — Tyrone’s Cathal McCarron and Dublin’s Johnny McCaffrey — underlined how much of a satisfying change that new life can be for GAA players.

“When I was younger I used to often think ‘What am I going to do when I finish playing with Dublin?’,” said McCaffrey, who retired after 12 years with the squad.

“I didn’t know a life after it and I was worried about how I would react.

“To be honest, it was a relief when I did retire. I don’t have any regrets whatsoever.

“I don’t miss being involved with Dublin. It’s only when you step back from something that you realise how much time you spent at it.

“You’re no longer an inter-county player, you’re just you’re normal self. It’s just pure relief.”

McCarron retired last month after 11 years with Tyrone.

Picture: INPHO/James Crombie
Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

He had suffered a serious knee injury last July, and while he had fully recovered, the six-hour round journey from his home in Athy in Kildare to Tyrone three times a week just wore McCarron down.

“The drive just wasn’t there,” he said.

“I was wiped out from the travelling. It wasn’t worth it. When I finally made the decision, it was a huge relief.”

Donaghy, McCaffrey and McCarron had all done their time.

Many others who are forced to retire still feel they have more time left but an increasing issue with retired GAA players is failing to plan for what comes next.

Many GAA players build their working careers around catering and facilitating their inter-county careers.

But when the end comes for many of those players, the career choices they made to facilitate their inter-county careers leaves them in a difficult position.

McCaffrey referred to that point.

“There are plenty of lads doing jobs to suit their inter-county career but when they leave that career, they struggle to find what they actually want to do.

“They often take the option that gives them that flexibility to suit their inter-county career but you need to be able to live too. You need to look after yourself.”

Players need to look to the long-term more, especially when inter-county careers are getting shorter.

Many young players don’t want to envisage the end when they are still in their prime but they should still be encouraged to plan for what will eventually come next.

Acceptance of that reality may make the departure easier whenever it does come.

Yet there can still be some struggles with the transition.

“You’re so finely tuned that, even now that I can go out on a Saturday night after a club league game, I’m still not into that way of thinking,” said McCarron.

“To me, that (going out on a Saturday night) still isn’t normal. It is normal but county players just don’t think like normal people.”

Making that adjustment is inevitably difficult because of the culture elite inter-county players have been immersed in for so long, and the constant mental switch-on for players within that environment.

Apart from the collective training and gym sessions and video analysis meetings, players have to individually focus on their diet, nutrition, hydration, flexibility, rehab, prehab, rest and recovery.

The glare is getting more intense every season because more is increasingly being demanded of players.

They know nothing else.

Many GAA players want nothing else but the pressure is so full-on now that making that transition into retirement may not be as difficult anymore as many envisage it will be.

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