John McEntee: Tunnel vision can distract you from what's really important

3d rendering tunnel in stadium with green field

HAVE you ever deliberately isolated yourself from the outside world to avoid becoming ensnared in a certain conversation? Perhaps it was after a depressing championship defeat by a complete underdog, or maybe, following a drunken weekend binge, when your only remaining friends are the apparitions you see standing at the foot of your bed as the memories of the things you shouldn’t have done or said come flooding back as quick as the vomit projects out.

An old family friend known as ‘PC’ used to refer to this experience as ‘the heebee-jeebies’.

In the build-up to important matches, Gaelic players shut themselves away from society more than any other Irish sportsmen.

They avoid reading papers, Facebook and Twitter accounts are frozen, mobile phones are diverted to answering machines and the ding-dong of a doorbell is ignored.

Of course, from the managers’ perspective, there are perfectly good reasons for such behaviour, after all, it is important players maintain their focus on their performance and listen only to the opinion of the management team.

I lived this mantra for my whole playing career.

In the build-up to big matches, I’d even avoid going to my mum’s house unless I was certain there were no customers in the shop or visitors with my da.

In the unlikely event that I was unwittingly cornered, I would spin a few stock lines I’d learned –“ach sure let’s hope we do ourselves justice”, or “it’s going to be a tough match”.

If anything, the modern day player is more pressurised to retreat into artificial hibernation.

As I reflect on this practice, I feel as though I’ve missed out on an important part of football that is very much overlooked.

Surely, players play for the love of the club or county and for the pride of the jersey but there are also some of them who want to express their innate talents and who thirst for that connection and that social bond the GAA provides.

Locking oneself away from society for months on end is not a necessary evil, it is actually harmful.

This type of practice contributes to players’ growing discontent at playing at elite level and worse still, at senior grade within ambitious club teams.

It is my view that this practice is affecting player welfare and is exposing them to increased risk of low mood and wanting to withdraw from friends and family.

I’ve seen it in people I’ve played with, who have struggled to make new friends after their playing days have ended.

They submerge themselves in work rather than seeking to obtain a healthy balanced lifestyle.

I’ve seen players drift away from their life-long friends; people who have supported them through many difficult days, who have sought to generate them employment and money, who have always prioritised the guy’s welfare.

I see it in the current crop of lads who play our games and it saddens me to watch them fall out of love with our games.

Such developments can be frightening experiences for the individuals. They think they are making clear decisions which is coloured by an irrational thought process. They often say they are choosing to put themselves first when in fact they are making unwise choices.

The GAA invests significantly in player welfare by giving money via the GPA for things such as food, kit and so on.

Some counties have gone a step further to invest in qualified professionals trained in psychology.

Their role is to prime the players mentally but the good ones will look out for players who are starting to drift into their own world, who are increasingly agitated, lacking sleep, are run down, not mixing with their true friends, who are aloof and from whom you get that sense that they are not being honest with themselves or the team.

These players gradually disengage and, over time, will quit the squad for one reason or another.

The more high profile the player, the more likely they will be affected.

I know of many cases across our country when team-mates have made several attempts to contact an affected player to persuade him to return to their set-up only to be ignored.

It worries me that this type of person, particularly at club level, cannot readily access professionally-trained people to talk through his problems, be they related to issues on the field or off it.

As issues are nipped in the bud, they are prevented from blossoming into fully-formed crises.

Winning matches is important, however, one’s health and wellbeing is much more critical. Player welfare is on the agenda of the GPA and CPA but I wonder if there is any meaningful implementation.

I suppose family and friends cannot absolve themselves of responsibility either.

If you or your team-mate is starting to change from how they used to be it, is incumbent on you to talk to him and encourage him to talk purposefully to others. Within this big GAA family, we are all but one sleep away from a nightmare.

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