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'I was like my own guinea pig': Ex-Waterford hurler helping business executives win the mind games

Shane O’Sullivan’s fascination with sports psychology can be traced back to a speech given by Liam Griffin in 1996.

FOR FORMER WATERFORD midfielder Shane O’Sullivan, his inter-county retirement was only the beginning.

Shane O’Sullivan Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

O’Sullivan hung up his hurley aged 31 the end of the 2016, 13 years after making his senior debut for the Deise as a teenager.

From 2004 to the finish with Waterford, he won three Munster titles, two National League medals and played in the 2008 All-Ireland final.

He lined out alongside some of hurling’s all-time greats, including Ken McGrath, Dan Shanahan, Tony Browne, John Mullane, Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh and Eoin Kelly.

“I’ve no regrets, absolutely not,” O’Sullivan tells The42. “The way it finished in the end there was a new, young progressive team in place.

“I don’t believe Derek [McGrath] really would have chosen me to play in any of those big games. I believed I was definitely capable but the manager has the final say. I had a new kid that came along a year ago. Your life and focus changes when you have a child.”

Like any sporting career, there were some great days, and a few tough ones too. Aside from the medals he collected and the friendships he made, there was another aspect of O’Sullivan’s playing career that would benefit him in later life.

O’Sullivan has long been fascinated with the power of the mind. Plying his trade in an elite sporting environment meant the Ballygunner man had the perfect test subject.

“I was like my own guinea pig,” he explains. “All the things I was learning about, I was applying all throughout my career.”

Liam Griffin Wexford 1996 Liam Griffin in 1996 Source: © Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

His interest in sports psychology can be traced all the way back to his adolescence. A speech given by Wexford manager Liam Griffin in 1996 planted a seed in O’Sullivan’s mind.

“We were an U14 team in De La Salle College and we went down to a hotel in Wexford where Liam Griffin was giving us a talk,” he says.

“He was just after winning the All-Ireland with Wexford at the time. He went to the same secondary school as I did. We went down and didn’t really know what to expect, we expected him to talk about hurling or the technical skills of the game.

“But he took us for an hour and all he spoke about was the psychological preparation of the team and how important it was. He spoke about the importance of visualisation. He said Billy Byrne would go into a room before training sessions with a sports psychologist and envisage himself coming on in certain games and scoring goals.”

Griffin was one of the earliest proponents of sports psychology in the GAA. He told the group of youngsters how he invented the ‘next ball’ mantra, how fear inhibits people, how chewing gum acts as a relaxant and why he would tell a joke to the Wexford squad half an hour before every game.

O’Sullivan continues: “He talked about getting the best practice model from the best Olympic hockey team at the time, Great Britain. He took their whole training manual and dismantled it, incorporating different skill strategies into hurling that worked for the Olympic hockey team. He spoke about the importance of belief, confidence and so on.

Liam Griffin Wexford Senior Hurling 1996 Source: © James Meehan/INPHO

“That just sparked my interest and I really believed him because he was after winning the All-Ireland. He drove me to read a book called ‘The Inner Game of Golf’ by a man called Timothy Galloway.”

Galloway’s 1979 book explores the challenge athletes face in making the connection between the mind and body, and centres on achieving a flow state.

It has informed the philosophies of some of America’s finest coaches – including Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors, and the Seattle Seahawks’ Pete Carroll.

After reading it, O’Sullivan was hooked.

“I went off and read that at 14 and I’ve never stopped reading about psychology since. It’s been an absolute passion for me and I’ve been learning all the time.

“I just decided then to get the academic qualifications after and I applied them to my own career and with many of my team-mates. Then I became a sports psychology consultant after I got my Sports Psychology Masters in WIT.

“All the way through the games, in National Leagues or in All-Ireland semi-finals or finals, I was applying the principles in preparation for them. Over a process of applying those principles for 10 years, you find what works practically, you find what doesn’t work and you can hone it.

“What works for me mightn’t work for everybody else. You definitely get a real insight into what’s the real practical skill you can use from a psychological perspective on a big day or in preparing for a big match.

Eoin Larkin with Shane O'Sullivan O'Sullivan competes for a ball with Kilkenny's Eoin Larkin in the 2008 All-Ireland final Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“They really, really did help, I’m certain of it. I’ve worked with athletes on what works for them on the big day and in a high performance environment where the pressure is at its highest.”

He believes the use of psychology is more common at the elite level of sport, as athletes seek to maximise their performances on the big occasions. The GAA is no different.

“My experience is the higher you go in relation to a person’s performance in sport or business, the more the people demand it and appreciate the power of the mind.

“For example, if you take the top 100 golfers in the world – the last thing some of them do before they go out in the final round of a major competition is they speak to their sports psychologist. They really, really value it. The lower down the food chain you go, the less appreciation or desire they have for it.

“The [inter-county] game has evolved from an amateur game, which it still is by name, but it’s evolved nearly into a professional manner. As a result people are looking for the edge and what makes them perform at their best.

“As a result of that progression, they’re looking for down the line at how they can improve their performance from a psychological aspect.”

Shane O'Sullivan heads for the dressing room with the trophy after the game Source: James Crombie/INPHO

His transition from county player to club player was aided by Ballygunner’s continued dominance in Waterford, where they won their fourth county title in-a-row last October. They went on reach the Munster final, where they fell to Limerick kingpins Na Piarsaigh.

Retiring also gave O’Sullivan more time to pour into his company ‘Inspiring Excellence’, where he works as a performance psychology consultant with athletes and businesses.

Some of his clients include ”Hurlers of the Year, All-Stars, professional golfers, multinational corporations and CEOs.” He’s also a keynote speaker, and gave a presentation at the recent GAA Coaching Conference in Croke Park.

“I’ve a passion for it. If you go in and work with somebody, both of you can enhance it together. You’re not a guru, you’re working with that individual. You work together and question each other on what process you have to go through to get their best performance.

“You see that stuff developing and becoming bigger than what they were previously. There’s a massive, massive motivation in that. I just like helping others fundamentality. It’s great when you can sit down and make a difference with people.”

GAA Games Development Conference - Day 1 Shane O'Sullivan discussing Keeping young people in the game during day one of the GAA Games Development Conference at Croke Park Source: Ramsey Cardy/SPORTSFILE

O’Sullivan sees plenty of similarities between achieving peak performance in the business and sporting worlds, and finds himself increasingly working in the corporate side of things.

“It’s high stake, high pressure environment. The principles you apply in both are the very same.

“In the business element of things there’s more demand for it because they’re professional organisations. They have the money to invest in things like this and they really value it.

“In the last five to 10 years it’s kind of with the millennials and the different workforce that are coming into organisations that they want more. They want to be consistently getting better, to see themselves becoming the best they can be in their roles and even in their own lives.

“That’s where the increased demand has come from in the business world and it’s very applicable. When a person is in a high-stake environment on All-Ireland final day, or in the Munster final where there’s 40,000 people and there’s real pressure there – it’s the same when you talk about high-level business where there’s targets and company deadlines to be met.”

As he wrote in a 2016 post his website: “The mind controls everything we do. It can transform ordinary people to do extraordinary things.”

***

Conor Cooney celebrates Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Shane O’Sullivan on:

The impact of Galway’s All-Ireland victory…

“It’s a life changing thing for those players and there’s a two-pronged benefit from it. First of all they can come back refreshed in the New Year with a new-found freedom and really go after developing their own performance and becoming the best they can be.

“The outcome orientation, the feeling they have to win and it’s all about winning, mightn’t be as strong. That really frees up players and teams to really look at developing themselves.

“The other aspect – and the Kilkenny model proves this over the years – when you get a taste of the victory and the feeling of being an All-Ireland champion, what it means to people and even the impact it had on the Keady family around a very difficult time in their lives.

“Once you get a taste of that it must become very addictive and it really motivates the team to try and go for it again and recreate that feeling or even better it this year. That’s the two things I would see from a psychological point of view that would benefit Galway this year.”

Why Tipperary fell short last season…

“You have to look at the bigger picture when you’re looking at these situations. When Tipp played Galway [in the All-Ireland semi-final] it was very close. There was a few technical mistakes and wides in the game. On the day they didn’t shoot as good as they’re normally able to shoot.

“The Tipperary team last year were very, very close and unlucky not to beat Galway in the semi-final. They were very, very close to winning another All-Ireland so I don’t think you can gloss over and say they were mentally not as strong as they were previously or that there was some psychological aspect that inhibited their performance.

“You have to look at all aspects of their game with a bigger picture and if you do look back at that game they certainly had enough opportunities to win it.”

What Waterford need to do to get over the line

“They weren’t too far away last year, but if you do what you did yesterday you’re already behind. A key thing for Waterford, when you look at the extra few percent in modern day hurling, sometimes you tend to forget the 98% as the most important.

“Waterford need to keep the foundations they’ve laid intact and keep maintaining them and add a small bit over the next three or four months in preparation for the championship.”

The42 has just published its first book, Behind The Lines, a collection of some of the year’s best sports stories. Pick up your copy in Eason’s, or order it here today (€10):

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