Investigating Adolescent Gaelic Footballers Experiences of Mental Health Within The GAA
05 Aug 2021

Investigating Adolescent Gaelic Footballers Experiences of Mental Health Within The GAA

Recently Dr Susan Lawlor completed her dissertation investigating adolescent Gaelic footballers’ experiences of mental health within the GAA. Here is a breakdown of her research, the methods she used, key findings plus discussion.


Aims of the Research

This research aims to investigate some of the possible ways that adolescent Gaelic footballers understand and experience mental health and the contributing challenging factors that impact their development and abilities to seek help and to cope within the GAA.

Studies to date focus on elite Gaelic football academies, senior athletes and performance within the GAA (Mountjoy et al., 2008)

This study looks to address the gaps in current literature and develop a greater understanding of the role that psychological, social and cultural factors play in the development of young footballers within specific environments. 


Research Methodology

The investigation took the form of a qualitative study of twenty-seven adolescent Gaelic footballers who are currently part of the u14 and u16 Juvenile Teams. Focus-group interviews (incorporating imagery) and design thinking tools (incorporating vignettes) were utilised for data collection. The theoretical perspective of the study is social constructivist, which informed the use of thematic analysis to analyse the data.

The purpose of this qualitative research is to investigate adolescent Gaelic footballers’ understandings and experiences of mental health and the contributing challenging factors that impact their development and abilities to seek help and to cope within the GAA. 

This method was chosen in order to “add rigor, breadth, complexity, richness and depth” to the study (Denzin and Lincoln, 2005, p. 5). 

The depth of study offered by a qualitative design strengthens the present investigation, as compared to previous designs used in other studies. 

The qualitative design chosen broadens the knowledge of social experiences within the family, school and sporting environments within focus-group interviews (incorporating imagery) and design thinking tools (incorporating vignettes) of adolescent Gaelic footballers.

The nuanced approach of the design thinking tools allows young participants to speak freely which in turn reveals multiple perceptions of knowledge that contributes to existing literature.  

Additionally, the “dual exercise design” of focus groups incorporating imagery allows young participants to draw their own analogies from the visual, in turn allowing this sort of visual lexicon to broaden counselling research studies.

Data was collected in a local GAA Club amongst twenty-seven adolescents (fourteen females and thirteen males, ranging from the ages of twelve to fifteen years of age) in focus group interviews (incorporating imagery) and design thinking tools (incorporating vignettes).


The objectives of this study include the following questions:

  • How do adolescent Gaelic footballers understand mental health?
  • What challenging factors underpin the environment the adolescents interact within and between and what impact do these have on adolescent’s development and understanding of mental health?
  • How are cultural ideals of normality and stigmatizing attitudes and beliefs associated with mental health experienced by adolescent Gaelic footballers?
  • How does participating and interacting with significant others within the GAA environment impact these young people’s mental health and their abilities to cope and seek help?

Analysis of the data revealed four major themes: 

Theme 1   Sub-themes
Understanding Mental Health – Adolescents Perspective    ·       Stress

·       Feeling Sad

·       Depression

·       Anxiety

·       Anger

·       Ideation of disorder

·       Positive and Negative

·       Located internally or externally

Theme 2   Sub-themes
Barriers Within Existing Relationships Coaches/GAA Club  ·       Communication styles

·       Pressure to perform (GAA Community)

·       Inability to address mental health

Parents ·       Immersed in personal difficulties
Teachers ·       Lack of understanding
Teammates ·       Peer interactions
Peers ·       Fear of reaching out- no trust
Other ·       Googling
Theme 3   Sub-themes
Stigma And Socio-Cultural Ideals    ·       Negotiating school and sporting life

·       Players Pride

·       Pressure from celebrities

·       Stigma by association

·       Fear of being judged

·       Myth of being dangerous

·       Bullying/Cyberbullying

·       Fear of Counsellors

Theme 4   Sub-themes
Contributors To Positive Mental Health   


  ·       Trusting friendships

·       Parental support

·       Supportive coaches

·       Feeling part of a team

·       Sport as a stress relief

·       Music

Table 2 Emergent Themes

Theme 1 – Understanding Mental Health- Adolescents Perspectives – Participants understandings of mental health varied with feelings of stress, sadness, depression, anxiety and anger being highlighted in their experiences.

Theme 2 – Barriers Within Existing Relationship – Participants interacted with coaches, parents, teachers and teammates within the GAA environment with the findings highlighting numerous barriers. Participants noted the barriers that existed within their relationship with coaches and the GAA Club included: Communication styles, pressure to perform, Inability to address mental health effectively.

Theme 3 – Stigma And Cultural Ideals. One of the most prominent teams centred on stigma and cultural ideals with participants noting negotiating school and sporting life, players pride, pressure from celebrities, stigma by association, fear of being judged, the myth of being dangerous and bullying/cyberbullying as key sub-themes.

Theme 4 – Contributors To Positive Mental Health Participants demonstrated a number of sources that contributed to positive mental health and which helped them when dealing with their mental health. These included: trusting friendships, parental support, supportive coaches, being part of a team, sport as stress relief, music and sleep.

Discussion of Adolescent Gaelic Footballers Experiences of Mental Health Within The GAA

The purpose of this qualitative research project is to investigate adolescent Gaelic footballers’ understandings and experiences of mental health and the contributing challenging factors that impact their development and abilities to seek help and to cope within the GAA.  

How Do Adolescent Gaelic Footballers Understand Mental Health?

Participants’ understanding of mental health varied with many highlighting symptomologies of stress, sadness, depression, anxiety and anger as some of the ways that they understand and experience mental health. 

Whilst mental ‘illness is seen as a manifestation of physical illness from a medical model perspective and focus is placed on the ‘illness’ (Johnstone, 2000), most participants attributed behaviours associated with mental health to bad social relationships and the environment more so than the physical symptoms themselves.

As a result, participants placed their experiences of mental health within the context of wider society which is embedded in cultural norms as opposed to placing them within themselves (Larsen et al., 2012). 

Thus, participants and their emotional experiences are not separate from the social context in which they exist, which at a micro level, can have devastating effects on an individual and the people who surround them if they were (Kinderman, 2014).

Other participants likened their understanding of mental health to the presence of mental health and illness as related constructed but not separate ones (Westerhof and Keyes, 2010). 

They recognise that people don’t have to be diagnosed with a mental illness to be mentally unhealthy and noted that mental health can be both positive and negative at the same time, a point noted in Armstrong’s et al.(2000) study.

Whilst all participants recognised the seriousness of experiencing mental health difficulties, it was clear that misconceptions about mental health caused stigmatising beliefs and attitudes amongst them as many were fearful of being ‘stigmatised by association’ (Goffman, 1963; Rampell, 2011; Farrington et al., 2012; Livingstone et al., 2012). 

Interestingly, they were the same participants who used the term flippantly and displayed a somewhat ideation of particular ‘disorders’.  Participants can acquire the label of ‘crazy’ or ‘nuts’ and attach it to others, however, in this instance, it was done in a ‘messing’ capacity. However, like most marginalised positions, the position of being labelled as ‘nuts’ or ‘crazy’ has implications for people. The position of the labellers, and the relationship of the labeller to the subject, influence the power of that label (Link and Phelan, 2001; Wynaden et al., 2014). 

As using negative terms transgress social expectations for ‘normalcy’, it asserts a new set of expectations and discourse that can be just as limiting (Bhabha, 1994; Bathje and Pryor, 2011; Thornberg, 2011).


What Challenging Factors Underpin The Environment The Adolescents Interact Within And Between And What Impact Do These Have On Adolescent’s Development And Understanding Of Mental Health? 

Bronfenbrenner’s ecological system (1994) provides a framework for understanding the context of participants’ emotional well-being and behaviour. It was apparent from participants’ responses that the GAA as an environment with its interconnected systems and ever-changing interactions with significant others as well as wider societal systems had a detrimental impact on them and their understanding of mental health. 

It is apparent that social and cultural factors (macro-level factors), development processes within the sporting environment (meso-level factors), and individual’s interacting with others within this environment (micro-level factors) all impact participants understanding and experiences of mental health within the GAA.

Participants associated mental wellbeing and in some instances mental health problems with acts of actual participation in sport. The response and culture around validating mental health difficulties were highlighted by participants from both an environmental and personal perspective (Bronfenbrenner, 1979; Magnusson and Stattin, 2006). 

Many noted that barriers to their positive mental health within the GAA appeared in the lack of understanding by parents and coaches for the pressure and stressors that they were experiencing and whilst these individuals did attempt to assist participants as best as they could, coaches communication styles whereby they ‘call out’ young players in front of the team and parents personal difficulties proved to be noted barriers to participants seeking help from them (Davis and Jowett, 2010; Rees et al., 2010). 

It has been suggested that the absence of a supportive family environment can be detrimental to young participants feelings of self-worth and mental health and may have a knock-on effect on their capacity to build other relationships and socially interact with others in educational and sporting environments (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, 2000; Fraser-Thomas et al., 2017).    

Participants spoke with great pride of representing their club and of motivational and encouraging displays by coaches, teammates and parents as well as the social and personal benefits of being a footballer (Arnold and Fletcher, 2012; Kelly et al., 2018). They also noted the benefits of physical sport itself and how it helped them at times to relieve any burdens they may be carrying (Farrer et al., 2008). 

However, most participants noted the immense pressure that they were under trying to negotiate their educational and sporting lives with little understanding from their perspective from coaches, teachers and parents (Keeler and Wright, 2013). Whilst displays of pressure was evident both on and off the pitch, it was clear that many participants suppressed their true feelings of the pressure they were under for fear of repercussions from their parents and coaches (Grinspan, 2015; Strachan et al., 2016).


How Are Cultural Ideals Of Normality And Stigmatizing Attitudes And Beliefs Associated With Mental Health Experienced By Adolescent Gaelic Footballers?

Findings show that the combination of other people’s attitudes and the young participants own preconceived ideas concerning mental health and what is deemed to be ‘normal’ has the greatest impact on identity by imposing a devalued sense of self (Wisdom and Green, 2013; Rose and Thornicroft, 2010).  

Participants perception of their body is greatly influenced and measured against beauty standards of culture (Barnes, 1997). Bodies perceived as ‘less than human’ (Scott, 1976) in a society obsessed with perfection can result in them being differentiated against (Becker, 1967). 

Some participants alluded to the importance of appearance and how they felt pressurised to mimic reality stars and Western cultural ideals of the ‘perfect’ body which is promoted in the media. However, others noted that these ideals are unattainable and that expectations were too high (Wiese-Bjornstal, 2010). 

In a number of cases, the basic problem of interaction was posed by occasions of contact made between young participants and other people within various systems. The lack of cultural guidelines between these people resulted in unanchored social situations. All rules of polite behaviour became distorted as adolescent’s experiences were highlighted. Whilst Goffman (1963) claims that the individual cannot withdraw from these environments, it can be suggested that they can.  

Social values and stigmas, media portrayals of mental health as being dangerous and something to be fearful of, as well as, internalised assumptions concerning acceptable appearances and functioning has resulted in adolescent participants assuming that the responsibility of mental health lies in the ‘illness’ itself, thus it is something to be fearful of (Wendell, 1996; Davis, 1997). 

It would appear that young people are influenced by societal values which focus on a person’s mental health as the primary mode of identification, once again leading to the person being blamed for their own fate.  


How Does Participating And Interacting With Significant Others Within The GAA Environment Impact These Young People’s Mental Health And Their Abilities To Cope And Seek Help?

A young person’s abilities to manage situations vary when they are interacting with significant others, as does the external “stressors” associated with it (Collishaw et al., 2004; Lazarus and Folkman, 1984; Arnetz, 2006). 

Participants displayed various symptomologies surrounding mental health difficulties but coped largely through self-remedies. Many refused to seek help from anyone they deemed untrustworthy and tried to adapt to adverse environmental situations and circumstances significant others as opposed to questioning and challenging it.

Adolescence is a time where young people want to ‘fit in’ (Davis, 1997; Somerville, 2013) but this proved detrimental as some recounted being affected by bullying either directly or indirectly in person and/or through social media forums (Leighton, 2010; Farrington et al., 2012; Livingstone et al., 2012). 

Such comments highlight the difficulties experienced by these young participants who are trying to negotiate an online social context with very few boundaries which may not be on the radar of a lot of adults who may be able to support them within this context (Manago et al, 2012). Others chose to spend time alone ‘kicking the ball around’ or listening to music. Perhaps, it can be suggested that it is easier to choose isolation than to risk ostracism (Butler, 1993).

Numerous participants described how they would struggle to help another individual who was displaying signs of mental health difficulties, which were in line with research by Rachlin and Jones (2008). Most participants struggled with fears of being socially excluded as a result of being associated with the individual (Tatlow-Golden and McElvaney, 2015; Somerville, 2013; O’Neill and Dinh, 2012). 

The greatest constraints to being fully integrated into our society for people living with mental health is not their anomaly, but the fear, fallacy, and misunderstanding that society attaches to it (Clare, 2001; Gulliver et al., 2014). 

Without any choice, they could be allocated membership to a separate group from the moment of interaction with others not accepted in our culture (Bourget and Chenier, 2007).



Every young person has a state of mental health, the nature of which is very individualistic. What this research highlights is how factors ranging from the macro-level within a sporting club can be undeniably linked to the development of adolescent Gaelic footballers within their surrounding micro-environment. 

The findings within this study reveal that a combination of factors exists within the GAA context that can impact adolescents mental health in a positive and negative capacity. 

Similarly, this environment is embedded within wider society and culture where adolescents’ experiences of mental health are socially constructed. 

Powerful constraining forces are at work within Western culture and it is clear that young people use a variety of helping seeking behaviours and coping strategies to resist stigmatising tendencies of more powerful groups within society, in turn portraying them at times as passive recipients of stigma. 

It would appear that young people want to ‘fit in’, and any unconformity cannot fully overcome socio-cultural constraints in its entirety. 

Identifying oneself as anything other than ‘normal’ is still unwelcomed in our culture, where altruism is often greeted with a degree of distrust and suspicion.