Colm Cavanagh: Your county career won't pay the bills

Your county career can consume your social and professional life but what happens when you hang up your boots?

IT is often said that sport can take over your life and this is certainly true of our social lives but how much can sport, specifically participation at county level, take over our career and work life too?

For over 13 years, my life revolved around GAA. Football came first regardless of whether it was a wedding, a stag do, a holiday, even funerals. I have missed countless events because I’ve had training or a match to attend (sometimes it was a perfect excuse to avoid some events so I won’t complain).

From a very young age, we are trained both physically and mentally, to eat, breathe, sleep and repeat football. For me then it is no surprise that, if we look at the age and career demographic of our county players, there are very few tradespeople, very few self-employed and many students and teachers.

In the past this wouldn’t have been as prevalent but as GAA moves more towards a professional standard in the amount of commitment and time it consumes, we can see young players almost opting to pursue careers that allow more flexibility for the time required to be a county player.

For student or teacher, there are eight weeks of summer break which is ideal for Championship preparation and games. On the other hand, I know some guys who have had to step away from the county set-up as a direct result of their career.

If you are self-employed and the weekends are your busiest time, then having training on a Thursday evening and leaving for a match at midday on a Friday to return on Sunday afternoon just isn’t feasible over time. If you are a tradesperson, who has physical labour as an everyday part of work and you are adding on three training sessions and at least two gym sessions per week on top of this, then the strain on your body is irreversible without the proper care and guidance from as early as possible.

I opted for accountancy as my chosen career which was of benefit to me as the progression path is clear and concise. There are many hours of study involved and years of exams (as with most professional careers) but I had an end goal in sight throughout my studies. There were many challenges and many sacrifices to make to be able to balance intense study and a summer exam schedule with playing football at the highest level. I had to miss the team holiday after winning the All-Ireland in 2008 because I had an exam the week after we would have returned. I knew I needed to be studying and couldn’t commit to the exam after 10 days in Orlando. It was a tough decision but I knew I needed to pass the exam so I had to be sensible (for once).

The GPA are running initiatives to help with career guidance and advice on how to balance a career with inter-county sport but it has been recognised that Ulster teams have the least knowledge of what services and advice are available and therefore the lowest uptake of the GPA’s offerings.

I understand it can be difficult to find the time to engage with ‘external’ organisations but a simple phone call or email conversation could open doors to possibilities that we didn’t even know were available. The fact that a lot of young players aren’t aware of the guidance and help available makes me wonder if there should be a bigger onus on the GAA and GPA to focus on and promote this. On the other hand, perhaps part of the responsibility lies with county boards to try and protect their players' futures rather than just protecting them long enough to have them give their all to the county and then be forgotten about once they hang up their boots. The focus should be on the person as a whole from when they initially join a panel right through to the end of their playing careers and they should be fully supported on all aspects of that journey.

I have been lucky enough to have had a footballing career long enough to establish some lifelong connections in all walks of life which was of a great benefit to me when I started my own business last year. Becoming self-employed had a large part to play in my decision to step away from Tyrone, not that this was the only reason, but the first six to 12 months in attempting to establish a new business are vital. It has been noticeable to me that GAA followers from all over Ireland and beyond have helped me get up and going and have been willing to give me a chance as a direct result of my football career. That alone has meant a lot to me and is a great example of the GAA community. It shows that all the commitments and sacrifices I made very early in my footballing career for the sake of my actual career were certainly worth it.

Something I was advised on very early in my football career and I’ve never forgotten it is that as much as representing your county is the best feeling in the world, it doesn’t pay the bills. We have to be a teacher, a student, an accountant not just ‘a footballer’ because what happens when you get to your early 30s and your football career starts to fade, where do you go for work then?

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