I was lucky enough to chat to a few of the guys representing Ireland in the International Rules series before they set off for Australia, and one thing that was an ever present in each conversation was how much they were looking forward to a glimpse of what being a professional athlete was.
I’m not sure they are aware that the level of commitment, mental discipline, effort in training and in diet when combined with the raw ability they’ve been given and crafted over the years is comparable to most other professional athletes across the world.
Such is the line between top amateur and professional nowadays. It also points toward why the peak age of our star GAA players is dropping. Only those able to commit so fully to diet and training, both in the gym and on the field, are the ones who can consistently make the step up from club to county player.
From 16-24 years of age if you tracked the physical and technical abilities of elite GAA, soccer and rugby players the difference in variants would be minimal compared to the same test carried out between a random group of 28-32 year olds.
Technically the skills may not diminish, if anything playing at the top level for a number of years should sharpen ball skills, but for amateur players who have jobs, family and lives outside of GAA it’s nigh impossible for them to maintain the level of commitment they could in the early 20’s. This is where professional players make the leap forward. They still get their food prepped. They still have scheduled strength sessions, recovery sessions, skills sessions, etc. and all this without a 9-5 job and the bills and debt that adult life can accumulate to worry about.
Professionals get paid to be elite. Amateurs are elite in spite of not getting paid. This isn’t an argument that Gaelic Games should turn professional, just an observation on the current state of the game. Such is the level of physical ability at the top end of GAA the window for longevity will continue to get smaller as our young players get fitter, stronger and faster. There will be anomalies, those truly gifted players that seem to always be in space, have more time on the ball than anyone on the field and can hit a kick pass onto the chest of an ant, but when the modern game is so dependent on strength, speed and power it is those who don’t have the lifestyle accommodate the necessary commitment who will suffer. A fate professional athletes do not have to worry about.
I’m looking forward to talking to the lads when they get back from Australia to see if they thought anything was really that different from what they usually do already. My guess is it’s not too dissimilar only they didn’t have to worry about waking up to go to work!