Player dropout and the GAA player crisis


This week I am based in Ireland in preparation for ICCE coaching conference in Liverpool while combining visits to Ulster Rugby academy, IRFU in Dublin and catching up with age grade coaches involved in GAA football, all trying to understand how their coaches strengthen coach-athlete relationships and continually engage their players. An interesting article was forwarded to me regarding reported raised concerns from GAA and Club Players Association concerning player drop out rates and hurling fixture calendar. Liam Griffin, the former All-Ireland winning Wexford manager and executive member of CPA, made reference to the 2013 ESRI report, 'Keeping Them In The Game', which revealed dropout rates in GAA were 75% between the ages of 21 and 26 in football and 60% in hurling and camogie because of lost interest. He praised the work of the GAA in fostering interest among young people, but said the issue of large numbers dropping out of the game at adult level was a "crisis", pointing to the irregularity of fixtures.

Could this increase in player dropout be as a result of athlete burnout due to extended seasons, uncertainty of fixtures and transition between competitions? Athlete burnout results from “chronically frustrated or unfulfilled basic physiological needs” (Cresswell, 2006) and “denotes a negative emotional reaction to sport participation” (Gustafsson, Kenttä, Hassmén, & Lundqvist, 2007).  Radeke (1997) identified the main symptoms of athlete burnout syndrome, which results in player illness, injury or most applicable for my research and this example, dropout. These symptoms are emotional and physical exhaustion, sport depersonalisation or devaluation and a reduced sense of accomplishment. Thibaut and Kelly (1989) recognized burnout as “a consequence of chronic stress and exposure to a point where unfavorable cost-benefit ratio for sport engagement”.

Deci and Ryan recognized the basic physiological needs as autonomy, competence and relatedness or connection to others. Satisfying these basic needs shall “foster self determined motivation” (Hollembeak, 2005)  and has been associated with “higher self-esteem, higher task engagement and lower anxiety” (Deci, 2001), reported as a problem with these players having seen 24,000 join the CPA due to frustration with fixture list. However, athlete intrinsic motivation is not the only reason for lower levels of athlete dropout; Lonsdale’s research found autonomous extrinsic motivations, such as integrated or identified regulators, also resulted in lower levels of athlete burnout. Therefore, ideas such as players being able to express a sense of themselves or achieving personal valued outcomes within better defined periods of the season could be areas to increase athlete engagement to sports or reduce levels of dropout from sport if adopted or encouraged.

Athlete devaluation to sport, regarded as “perhaps most cognitive of burnout dimensions” (Lemyre, 2006), has strong links to lack of autonomy (such as feelings of choice and self-directedness in sport development) and competence (perceptions of effectiveness in sport or team). Lonsdale’s research also found greater or stronger links to devaluation through lack of autonomy. Are GAA hurling losing club players entering into their investment stages of sport participation as they feel there is less choice surrounding fixtures and scheduling or lack of perceived accomplishment in club atmosphere?  In a rugby specific study, Cresswell and Eklund found that “reduced accomplishment and devaluation featured most prominently” in their research, alongside finding that athletes needs satisfactions were impacted by reduced sense of accomplishment and sport devaluation, similar to other research.

What can the clubs and coaches involved try and do immediately to stop the loss of players and keep them engaged and involved in football and hurling? Emotional support and perceived efficacy in hurling involvement are areas coaches can assist for prolonged athlete involvement, retention and engagement; this could include ideas such as cultivating personal involvement with players, offering two way communication, utilizing player input and understanding player’s feelings (Gould, Tuffey, Udry, & Loehr, 1996). Cresswell and Eklund (2006) also found concepts such as enjoyable challenges within rugby, open and free communication with coaches and management alongside few or flexible responsibilities outside sport allowed and encouraged player engagement and reduced burnout or dropout. Coaches and administration staff alike should take note from previous qualitative investigations which found attributions to burnout symptoms included pressure to comply and perform in elite environment and transitions between competitions or stages in season, which added emotional and mental stress, highlighting another strong reason why GAA should address the fixture scheduling and try stopping the loss of young adult players.