GAA players struggle when their only identity is as athletes

The lockdowns have been frustrating but they have also brought perspective
GAA players struggle when their only identity is as athletes

Cork manager Keith Ricken hugs an emotional Colm O'Callaghan after defeating Dublin in the U20 All-Ireland final in 2019. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

MICHAEL Darragh Macauley has long had a theory on team WhatsApp groups – he believes that they should rotate every year, in order to make the process of retiring, being dropped or having to leave the set-up that bit more easier on the players who depart.

Reviewing the group in December may make that dislocation and detachment less painful because pressing that ‘leave group’ icon can be the hardest part for players whose inter-county careers are suddenly over.

“It was the one time my heart sank during the whole thing,” Paul Flynn admitted about his retirement in Damian Lawlor’s brilliant book ‘When the World Stops Watching’. “It made me wonder what I had done. That’s a funny dynamic, isn’t it? In this day and age? To get upset over leaving a text group?” 

Yet, upon speaking to others who had also departed the inter-county scene, Flynn discovered that most players felt exactly the same. “Seems it was tricky for a lot of us,” said Flynn. “That was probably more to do with losing an affinity of connection with a group than missing the banter or anything. Knowing I wouldn’t be a part of it again.”

Paul Flynn, Dublin, in action against Fintan Goold, Cork, at Croke Park. Picture: Piaras Ó Midheach / SPORTSFILE
Paul Flynn, Dublin, in action against Fintan Goold, Cork, at Croke Park. Picture: Piaras Ó Midheach / SPORTSFILE

Lawlor superbly explores that delicate crossing of such an emotional threshold. Many players handle that transition smoothly, but it can be harder to adapt when the identity and purpose of so many players are tied up in their sport at the elite level.

In the book, Lawlor speaks to Dr Stephen McIvor, who traces a lot of the difficulties sportspeople face in retirement back to when they were kids. McIvor, a sports psychologist who also played rugby for Munster and Ireland speaks in detail about the lack of balance in young people's lives, of how constant questions on their progress means they feel constantly judged on that basis.

“Retirement is connected right back to any person’s identity,” says McIver in the book. “How much they invested in their athletic life versus how much they invested into their social identity.” 


That attitude towards sport can often complicate their attitude in life. If players are overburdened by their sport, they can carry that pressure and stress throughout their daily lives. In that context, problems are bound to arise when an elite sporting career does end.

Because players attribute so much of their character to their sport, their foundations can become shaky when their form slides. That’s why it’s important for players to have people around them who see them as much more than just players or athletes. They need people who see them as a person first and foremost.

When Lawlor spoke to Keith Ricken on a similar topic for a piece on the RTÉ website back in January, Ricken talked about that struggle athletes and players often have with their own identity from their mid-20s onwards.

“They don’t see themselves as a student, brother, boyfriend, girlfriend, partner, whatever,” said Ricken. “They solely view themselves as athletes.

“When they are asked ‘Who are you?’ they should respond that they are brothers, uncles, boyfriends, part-time workers – that they are many things. 

But mostly they reply they’re athletes. And that can lead to them losing their identity very early on."

Ricken referred to the term identity foreclosure, which is a stage of self-identity discovery in which an individual has an identity but hasn't explored other options or ideas. 

It may be most common in young adolescents, but the trait is bound to become more common amongst sportspeople – especially elite amateur sportspeople - when the exploration of other options or ideas has been suspended by a near-obsession with excelling in their sport.

The last year has been difficult for everyone and, while elite sportspeople – especially inter-county players – were fortunate to have a championship in 2020, and they have another campaign to look forward to this year, the consistent uncertainty has been unsettling.


The constant waiting game with regard to when players may be able to return to play is also bound to affect some player's motivation. With some suggestions that the football championship may be knockout again in 2021, it’s only natural for some players to question the massive commitment required.

The lockdowns have been frustrating but they have also brought perspective. It has allowed people to realise what’s important, and to devote more time to those areas. It has also given many players more of an opportunity to explore who they really are.

Some players may be questioning their existence as inter-county players but, for many more, the constant waiting has only whetted their appetite. With some hurlers and footballers only having played two-three inter-county games in over 13 months, that desire to return has never been stronger.

The sense of isolation and dislocation felt by many players has also been a factor. Since the club (most of them) and inter-county championships concluded last year, the challenge for club and inter-county squads has been to stoke the feeling of togetherness and brotherhood that the absence of a shared dressing room had removed.

The playing fields have been silent for months now, but the background settings have still been charged and loaded with varying background emotions, especially in terms of planning and preparing; zoom calls, individual fitness programmes, individual work-ons, online technical and tactical group sessions.

Some players may want no more of it, while, for others, the constant waiting game may have inspired an insatiable desire that they’ve never experienced before. Striking the right balance is the key though, because it has never been more important for players to invest as much in their social identity as they do in their athletic life.

More in this section

Sponsored Content



Add to your home screen - easy access to Cork news, views, sport and more