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GAA could aid Ireland's obesity problem if clubs stop shifting the goalposts

Children pictured at the GAA's first Go Games blitzes in Croke Park in 2014. Despite promoting the participation of as many children as possible, the idea of Go Games is still looked upon as sacrilegious - an attitude which isn't helping with Ireland's problem of a lack of physical activity for kids.

IN just under 15 years’ time, it is predicted that around half of the people in Ireland will be obese.

According to experts from the World Health Organisation, it will be the fattest country in Europe by 2030.

In a report earlier this year, it said that the problem will be most acute in the Republic, where it is predicted that “being overweight will become almost universal.”

Obesity wasn’t a word I’d ever have heard when I was a child growing up through the 90s. It was naturally less of a concern, but I can’t pretend that I was always mad about being outside.

Yet even though it wasn’t my thing, like most of my peers the vast majority of my time outside school was spent outside the four walls.

We were fortunate to have a bit of space at the front of the house that played host to many a game involving most of the population of Drum.

And then there was the greasy green up the back of Glenview houses that played host to some of the all-time classics, games that had 45 minutes of injury-time and would only halt when the ball went in over the hedge and it was too dark to try and retrieve it.

We always had a games console of some description in the house but it was strictly limited to half an hour a day. Summer days, you wouldn’t have looked at it.

Being outside was just what our generation did but we’re caught in the middle now. We’re of an age of susceptibility to the technological boom. Young enough to adjust and old enough to influence.

The latter part is the problem now. The world moves on and we all have to move with it, but more than a few of the recent advancements are damaging – directly or indirectly – to the health of the next wave of youngsters.

The average pre-school child now watches 2.2 hours of TV per day. When you add in phones, the (undisclosed) time they spend looking at screens is frightening.

An astonishing 80 per cent of children in the Republic, and 75 per cent here in the north, are not meeting the recommended guideline of 60 minutes’ physical activity per day.

There are onuses on all of us in this. The world is a scarier place and parents are perhaps more reluctant now to let the front door swing open and tell the kids: ‘Away on out and don’t come back until it’s dark’.

Teachers are under greater pressure to produce academic results and there isn’t the same willingness to let break-time run on another 10 minutes, or to let the kids all outside for the last half hour on a Friday.

The GAA has long led the way in terms of promoting physical activity among youngsters. Only for the association, the obesity figures would surely be much worse.

Participation figures up to the age of 12 have risen steadily in recent years thanks to the quality and accessibility of coaching, but so has the drop-off.

An ESRI study in 2013 found that of 18,000 children that were playing Gaelic Games at the age of 12, some 3,491 had left by the age of 16.

A further 2,600 dropped out between 16 and 18, and the biggest wave was the 4,375 that quit from 18-21.

Ahead of last year’s National Games Development Conference, the director of games development and research Pat Daly admitted that underage football and hurling was too focussed on the elite.

“If you are losing that number of young players – and it’s not unique to the GAA – you have to ask why.

“You have to look at the values in what we offer and that is by and large competitive matches at club and school level as well as activity in talent academies.

“For everyone else interested in playing there has traditionally been very little on offer.”

It’s no coincidence that the two biggest dropout figures are at the stage where football becomes officially competitive, and where players move into senior football.

When kids hit under-14, there are leagues and championships to win and the adults treat those tournaments as if every game were the All-Ireland final itself.

Promoting competition among children is fine as long as it's in moderation and that there is some kind of alternative for those that either lack the quality or inclination for an increasingly pressurised environment.

Go Games, despite the fact that everyone gets a game and therefore physically active, are still viewed as being almost sacrilegious in some parts.

But as with putting the kids in front of the TV instead of sending them outside to play, all of these problems come from the adults.

There are plenty of egotistical coaches and committees happy to put success well above participation on the list of priorities.

Yet through a two-touch rule, those same Go Games actually encourage kick-passing and movement more so than their competitive counterpart.

You may call it softness to not value winning more highly than keeping kids interested but as the rising obesity levels show, there is a greater social responsibility resting on those in a position to affect positive change.

The Gaelic Athletic Association, with particular focus on the middle word, has half of the country’s population under the age of 12 ready to eat out of its hand.

Centrally, they’re doing the right things and encouraging participation over competition, but on the wings clubs are organising their own competitive under-8 tournaments.

They’re ignoring the damning black and white statistics about the numbers walking away from the game and, in the long run, potentially damaging themselves by driving away potential senior players before they’ve had a chance to develop.

That’s a relatively minor issue, though. Not even the politicians themselves (if ours ever goes back to work) are better placed to help solve the obesity problem.

The GAA, through activity itself and the education of its importance, could play a crucial role in stopping Ireland literally ballooning out of shape – but only if clubs and some ego-driven coaches take stock of their own priorities.

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