Young GAA players get caught up with over-training and body image issues

Fitness ideals put enormous pressure on male and female teens in the modern age
Young GAA players get caught up with over-training and body image issues

Many young players push themselves too hard with the empty promise of playing in big games at Croke Park. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

RIGHT now the mental and physical health of teenagers, and younger children, is a cause for concern.

It’s not natural not to be able to be out and about with friends, heading to training and/or games in whatever is their chosen sport.

Of huge concern is the fact that most, if not all, sports will not return until after Easter at the earliest.

The word ‘earliest’ is the scary part of that statement and many expect it will be May, or possibly later before games return to anywhere near normal.

These are areas that are very much in the spotlight at present and hopefully, the pandemic has ensured they will get the support from relevant bodies they need going forward.

The gradual return to school in the coming weeks will help and it says a lot when students say they would rather be in school having to wear a mask all day and meeting friends than online schooling for the social aspect of education.

But there is an area that has been one of concern before the pandemic and long after it’s a distant memory it still will be. That’s the area of body image and nutrition. In the current climate where people may find themselves having more time on their hands, it is coming to the fore more and more.

Anybody who is involved in, or just interested in, sport is likely to see their social media accounts full of advertising telling you how to achieve the perfect six-pack/body and what supplements you should take to help you in this endeavour.

The problem with this information is two-fold. Firstly, much of this can be misleading to the extent that it can potentially damage rather than enhance your health.

Secondly, the ‘body beautiful’ imagery that is usually used to push this messaging poses a threat to the mental as well as physical health of young women and men.

Of course, there are plenty that are good and by following them they can help you to achieve your ultimate fitness aim.

Dr Sharon Madigan, Head of Performance Nutrition with the Sport Ireland Institute, recently spoke on the issue and raised some concerns she has.

Dr Sharon Madigan, centre,  Head of Performance Nutrition, Irish Institute of Sport, with basketball star Gráinne Dwyer and  Tom Devine, UCC and Waterford hurler at a "Sporting A Better Diet" event. Picture: Gerard McCarthy
Dr Sharon Madigan, centre,  Head of Performance Nutrition, Irish Institute of Sport, with basketball star Gráinne Dwyer and  Tom Devine, UCC and Waterford hurler at a "Sporting A Better Diet" event. Picture: Gerard McCarthy

She hopes the newly formed Gaelic Games Sports Science Working Group, of which she is a member, can produce guidance that will help people to sort out, as she puts it the ‘cowboys and snake-oil salesmen’.

Dr Madigan believes some are potentially damaging the health of our young players.

Recently she spoke to a GAA forum on the matter, giving some background on her interest in this area.

“I started my trade with Burren back in the 1990s. I spent many years with the Derry county team. I really felt that that’s kind of where I learned my trade, before the days of structured service provision through institutes and high-performance centres.

“There was a great multi-disciplinary team where I could learn from them and vice versa. There were no specialist courses on the island of Ireland and I had done mine in England and was a dietitian in the NHS.

“I was lucky enough to start a PhD in Jordanstown around the time that the Sports Institute was being developed in Belfast.

“GAA was one of the founder sports within the Northern Ireland Institute of Sports. So I have a long number of years experience of working with GAA players and teams, probably too many counties and clubs to mention.

“I’ve worked with a lot of great managers and coaches at county and club level and worked with both codes, men’s and women’s teams so I’d have a good range of experience.”

The current pandemic has added to the stress of people and many would benefit of being able to play/train or just go to sporting events.
The current pandemic has added to the stress of people and many would benefit of being able to play/train or just go to sporting events.

The area of proper nutrition for younger people is of particular interest to Dr Madigan.

At the level, county teams and club teams are at we’re probably looking at some gains that can be made in terms of performance, but we’re also looking at just the actual long-term health and well-being of our players as well. 

"That’s our fundamental starting point. When you get to the level of an All-Ireland or national league the managers and coaches are looking to get as much as they can get out of the player. The player is looking to get as much as they can from their own performance.

“Nutrition can play a big part in that. When you’re talking about underage the GAA has an opportunity to promote really good, healthy messages when it comes to nutrition.

“I don’t know how many referrals I’ve had over lockdown of young boys and girls having issues through over-training and under-eating. There is a big body of work to be done and it can be a bit overwhelming when you look at it. 

"The key is to start with evidence-based recommendations and build and deliver on that so that all clubs and counties have access to appropriate resources for all their players,” concluded Dr Madigan.

There is a long road ahead in this area but the work the GAA and Dr Madigan, amongst others, has started is sure to prove beneficial in the long term.

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