Kicking Out: New Ireland badly needs GAA's gym culture to sustain
IF you’re into your social media, you’d have seen the Tyrone squad sunning themselves in glorious south-east Asia on their recent team holiday.
For the players, it was a glimpse into what they miss during the summer when the rest of the world goes on holiday and they’re tied into championship mode.
Instagram, where the boomerang is reborn as something completely different and #hashtags are as essential as air itself, is the current online residence for the millennial generation.
On Instagram, the only things scarcer than male chest hair are clothes and socks.
Our forefathers were all about layering up with love rugs and moustaches and anything else that would add an extra degree to their body temperatures, but Ireland’s sub-zero climate means nothing to our youth.
Old Ireland is officially dead. Its people were once described in the Lonely Planet magazine as “suspicious of praise and tending not to believe anything nice that’s ever said about them,” adding that “the Irish wallow in false modesty like a sport and are fond of the peculiar art of self-deprecation.”
In New Ireland, self-deprecation has been replaced by self-appreciation.
Instagram is the keyhole through which we see how the social norms of traditional Irishness that have existed for centuries have changed beyond recognition over the last decade.
Self-esteem is no longer the pariah that past generations locked out of their houses only to look out the window after it, wishing quietly that it was acceptable to love themselves that little bit more, to feel that little bit better about themselves.
The improvement in a nation’s sense of individual self-worth can work both ways.
There’s the argument that these finely-tuned, new-age specimens are exceptionally positive role models for young boys and girls in terms of fitness and overall health.
The other side is that they’re so perfectly sculpted, it feeds into the body image debate and whether those that aspire see such physical prowess as unattainable and ultimately intimidating.
The notable thing about the public face of Tyrone’s team holiday is the incredible physical condition that their entire squad of players are in.
Eight-packs, rounded shoulders, sculpted biceps, strong thighs and calf muscles; those are the order of the day, a product of thousands of hours of Peter Donnelly’s expert tuition.
There is so much negativity that surrounds the GAA’s gym culture, yet of all the advancements that have come from the inter-county game and infiltrated the impressionables beneath, it is easily the most positive.
Culture is the key word. What we do eventually becomes what we are.
We’re no longer a nation of brickies and pipelayers, as Mayo great Ciaran McDonald was all his life, smiling that his work stood to him and he “never went to gyms”.
Fitness happens to nobody by accident, but being active was once the norm created by work itself.
The average lifestyle now is more sedentary by its nature, so fitness is now a much more manufactured ideal than ever before.
The inter-county game has such a stranglehold on young Irish men, and increasingly women, that these 20-somethings have become hugely important public figures.
Lest we forget, the rates of suicide among young people, particularly men, in Ireland are gut-wrenching. An average of more than one person per day will take their own life in this country.
Social media, in so many ways, feeds the cesspit of some modern cultures – body shaming, online bullying, etc – which contribute to so many unbearably sad cases.
But if you can see past the trees and find the wood, there is good in it.
And while the GAA are making efforts that carry the can for shamed governments on both sides of the border, perhaps the most important work has been subconscious.
Nobody set out to make the inter-county game such a demonstrative presence on the sport itself. It’s just morphed into it over time, and that’s largely down to the increase in time commitment.
That, in turn, is down to the sea change in terms of the approach to physical training. The gym is now a year-round, four, five, six-times a week staple diet of your average player.
There is a fine line between that and the worrying use of supplements, as well as the debate around doing the right things that aren’t detrimental to performance, but nothing on this earth is without its ills.
All those players seek personal betterment. The aim is to be a better player, but the subtext is that they feel better about themselves because of the impact of putting a strain on their physical limits.
That concept has been creamed from the top and clubs have taken a taste of it. Take the Bellaghy minor side that won Ulster last week. They’ve been working with S&C coach Mattie Brady over the last four years, building a base and then topping it up.
Even throughout the busy Ulster minor tournament, they continued with one S&C session per week.
Damian Cassidy, a product of Adrian McGuckin’s brilliant calisthenic (bodyweight) work in St Patrick’s Maghera long before it was fashionable, took over their minors last year. He couldn’t believe his eyes seeing 17-year-olds performing sets of 14 fully-extended pull-ups.
There is the obvious benefit on the pitch. You match up two teams whose skills are fairly equal, it’s the side that’s stronger, fitter and faster that will always win.
But there is so much more to the growing culture of physical improvement than simply achieving success on the pitch.
Socks and chest hair are gone. They’re not coming back any time soon.
You may scoff and scold, but each generation finds its own way to be, and those that came before tend to tut at the thought of what they consider societal abnormalities.
Young people live in a different world than the one we grew up in, one that the internet has made more complex and arguably more dangerous, in a completely changed kind of way.
The war to understand all the challenges of mental health will require different tools. Evidence suggests that physical wellbeing is one of the most powerful weapons of all in achieving a healthy mind.
Some commentators lament the gym culture in the GAA, blaming some imaginary woes on players getting fitter, faster and stronger.
But the inter-county behemoth has spawned nothing better. The harder this generation works in the gym, the more it will become a natural concept into later life and pass down to their children, and their children’s children.
Old Ireland is dead, and New Ireland badly needs the GAA’s gym culture to sustain.