On the ball

All-Ireland camogie player Julia White reveals how she combines career with competition.

They say there’s no ‘I’ in team, but looking after your personal wellbeing is key to success for your club. Finding the time, however, is another matter.

This is the situation that many of our GAA players find themselves in: working to make a living while reaching the top of a highly competitive, amateur sport, and still trying to have a personal life.

For UL alumna and Cork camogie player Julia White, finding that sweet spot has been a challenge. As a teenager, Julia rose to prominence in the Cork team, taking up the captain’s mantle in 2012. But injury plagued her for two years, until a defining moment in September 2017 when, after coming on as a last-minute substitute, she scored the winning point for Cork during injury time in the all-Ireland final. It was the stuff of dreams, but much hard work went on behind the scenes before that big moment.

Julia, who studied PE and chemistry and graduated in 2015, has been involved with camogie since she was a child, but it was as a teenager that she really began to devote herself to the sport. “It’s a little different for girls,” she says. “If you’re good, you can find yourself playing for several different teams at once, training five nights a week for nine to ten months. I remember when I was 17, I was playing at under 18s, Cork intermediate team and Cork senior team – I could be playing three matches in one day.”

This level of playing can take its toll on the body, and Julia says she ended up with glandular fever. “In terms of a social life, I was lucky that most of my friends played too,” she says, “but healthwise, it does take its toll. I was sick for about six months with glandular fever when I was in sixth year, and it’s come back twice since. I can now sense when I’ve overdone it, and I just stop and take a break for a few weeks.”

Prioritising her wellbeing was something that Julia had to learn, however. “I think it comes with confidence. You don’t want to say no, because you don’t want people to think you don’t care. But you have to put yourself first – there’s no point playing if you’re not up to it and if the manager sees you half-playing and doesn’t understand why, it will reflect badly on you, too.”

Julia is now a teacher in Cork, and admits it can be a struggle to find a balance between her love for the game and the other aspects of her life. “It can be hard,” she says. “I’ve always loved travelling and I see my friends heading off for months or even years travelling around the world, and that’s tough. I keep saying, ‘this year I’ll go’, but I never do! Career-wise, I’m lucky because I’m a teacher and I have my summers off, but I definitely question how some people keep it [playing] up with their careers. Your personal life – that can take a hit. It’s hard for a partner to understand that for nine months of the year, you’re tied up with matches and training. The answer is probably to go out with someone involved in the sport too!”

You’re giving up weekends and four or five nights a week and you mightn’t even get to play a match.

But then you score the winning point in an all-Ireland final and all those tough moments are worth it. “Yes,” she laughs. “But for the nine months before it, you do find yourself questioning if it’s worth it all. The run-up to the 2017 final was particularly tough as I was struggling for a long time with injury – in about two years I had maybe 20 minutes of matchplay. You’re giving up weekends and four or five nights a week and you mightn’t even get to play a match.”

Julia says that there are measures being introduced to improve player welfare but it’s early days. In the meantime, she has some sensible advice for up-and-coming players, and indeed anyone playing a sport that requires a lot of commitment. “Try to focus on the here and now, and don’t look too far into the future. Listen to your body and check in with yourself every now and again to make sure you’re feeling good and you’re enjoying it. Burnout can creep up on you; physically you might feel okay, but mentally you could be struggling. Try to be self-aware and be kind to yourself. Most of all, don’t be afraid to say no.”