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'We need these skills more than ever before to stop us slipping into mental illness'

Brent Pope and Jason Brennan have teamed up to write the newly-published Win.

MENTAL SKILLS MIGHT seem like something exclusively for elite sportspeople, but Brent Pope and Jason Brennan are enthusiastically of the belief that all of us can benefit from putting them into practice in our daily lives.

A native of New Zealand, Pope is well known for his work as a rugby pundit with RTÉ, while he also previously played and professionally coached in the sport, and is now one of Ireland’s leading speakers on mental health.

Brennan is a psychotherapist who has worked as a mental skills coach with leading sports teams such as Super Rugby’s Hurricanes and the Wellington Lions, as well as with a host of other international organisations and agencies, while he has also written several mental skills columns for The42.

WIN The book is out on Hachette Ireland.

Pope and Brennan, good friends for years now, have teamed up to write Win: Proven Strategies for Success in Sport, Life and Mental Health, newly-published by Hachette Ireland.

Brennan did the bulk of the writing for Win, with Pope providing insightful input in a range of sporting areas, as well as detailing some of his own struggles with anxiety.

Major sports stars such as Ronan O’Gara, AP McCoy, Dean Rock, Sonia O’Sullivan, Bernard Brogan, Shane Horgan and Dan Carter are among the impressive list of interviewees, all of whom share their experiences of the mental side of sports.

Essentially, the goal of Win is to help readers to learn about sporting mental skills, adapting them to their everyday lives or their own sporting pursuits.

Brennan, who previously lived in New Zealand – where Pope’s brother Mark is also a psychotherapist and introduced the co-authors to each other – has worked with many All Blacks, including Beauden Barrett, Conrad Smith and Dane Coles, but his initial experiences in rugby surprised him.

“When I first started working as a mental skills coach in New Zealand, I was amazed at the lack of mental skills training that people had, even at high levels,” says Brennan when asked about his motivation for writing this book.

“When I started working with these teams, they were hungry for it because I was around more often.

“So one of the motivations was creating a book that any sportsperson could get into and start to practice these techniques from any age. Don’t wait until you talk to a mental skills coach – get in and read this and work from there.

“The other side, something myself and Brent are very attuned on, is the increase in mental illness in nearly all countries globally.

“Life is supposed to be getting better, however mental illness is actually going up quite a lot globally. On the world burden of disease, mental illness has surpassed cancer.

RTE TV television Brent Pope Pope is the co-author of Win. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“There’s an awful lot of medication being put into it, but our hope was to create a book that explains a bit about mental illness and how to get back on track to mental health by taking some responsibility yourself and practising some mental skills that will help you to get back on track sooner.

“The third part, working as a psychotherapist and a mental skills coach, I found that when I helped people with these skills, they had a rapid recovery, whether it was their underperformance coming back quickly or whether, through exploring these mental skills, it got them back on track but also opened up new energy in their life.

“People were going on to do new things they might not have done before.”

The title of the book is an interesting concept in itself. Brennan admits that ‘winning’ could be seen as more straightforward to define in sport, given that trophies are on the line, but the interviews with high-profile sportspeople were fascinating in this area.

“When I asked some hugely successful people, like All Blacks, ‘what does winning mean to you?’ they had to stop and think about it,” explains Brennan.

“What they came out with was this: the behaviours they do that lead to winning – that was the common answer. ‘It’s my preparation, it’s my planning, it’s being there for the team, it’s supporting my team-mate, rebounding quickly from mistakes.’

“It’s what they do day-in, day-out. For them, that’s winning, which is at the heart of the book. Winning is successful behaviours repeated over and over again.

“Now, success is not the same thing for everybody.

“But if I can think about what success is for me personally and find out what behaviours I need to do to achieve that, then I’m winning.

“For some people, success might be regular training or setting goals and continuously working towards those goals. For others, it could be raising healthy children – that’s also winning because you have determined objectively what success is.”

Beauden Barrett All Blacks out-half Beauden Barrett was interviewed for the book. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

So what mental skills can people learn in the book? The ‘Glossary of Mental Skills’ at the back includes an impressive 45 different headings.

It might seem daunting but Brennan explains that himself and Pope are hopeful that people will slow down as they read the book, practising their ‘active reflection’ to consider various points, and then take away four or five of the mental skills to practice regularly.

“Conrad Smith talks about it in the book, it’s different strokes for different folks,” says Brenan. “Visualisation will work really well for one person’s mind, but not for another person because they’re maybe not into making pictures or being creative in their head.

“They may be more literal, so using a phrase or a trigger work will be useful for them.”

Brennan’s own favourite mental skill is ‘grounding.’

“It’s one of the first things I did with the Hurricanes,” he says. “It’s something anyone can do anywhere.

“With the Hurricanes, I got them to take their shoes off and walk onto the grass and invited them to do that before a game, to get the feel for the grass under their feet.

“We then worked on a process where they, in their mind, would go to their feet during a game and feel that grass between their toes because that would slow down their system, slow their breathing, change the chemicals in their body.

“I nearly always do that when I feel my head is too busy. If I’m in bed, for example, and my head is too busy, I sit up and put my feet on the ground and feel the carpet with my feet and I start to breathe slowly and move into a small meditation.

“Kids can do that too when they have nightmares and can’t sleep. They laugh and find it funny but they start to do it and can be brilliant at it. People can do it before tests, presentations, in a board meeting that is very tense – no one will know you’re doing it. It just cools down your system.”

Dean Rock celebrates after the game Dublin's Dean Rock is among the list of interviewees. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

It’s one example of the crossover of mental skills from sport into daily life, but Brennan cites many other examples from the book.

David Gillick’s experiences of winning medals in athletics but being miserable in the build-up, racked with nerves and not having someone close to share his feelings with – before eventually realising the importance of speaking to family and friends.

Richie Sadlier’s fear before playing for Millwall or Ireland. Beauden Barrett’s thoughts as he lines up a place kick. Ronan O’Gara dealing with struggles early in his career. Dean Rock coping with a highly-pressurised situation.

They might not seem immediately relevant to how the rest of us go about our lives, but the overlaps are multiple and Brennan is hopeful that Win can have a life-changing impact on those who invest time into it.

Given that he is in the process of recording the audio version of the book – a sign of our busy lives, in which reading physical books can be a luxury – Brennan feels mental skills are more important than ever.

“I want people to read this book because it will help them to change their frame of thinking.

“It will give them tools and strategies that they can pull out. We’ve got a section on resilience, which we need nowadays because we’re being bombarded with information – technology, social media, emails, all this stuff coming at us and our brains are being saturated.

“We need these skills and strategies now more than ever to stop us slipping into mental illness, because that can happen. It can happen quickly where someone has a tipping point in terms of a distress level where we can crash.

“Everyone knows somebody who is suffering or has suffered from mental illness.

“These skills can help people to take care of themselves when this stuff happens. I hope this book can affect people in a very positive way.”

Win: Proven Strategies for Success in Sport, Life and Mental Health is out now, published by Hachette Ireland. The book is available online and in bookstores. 

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Murray Kinsella

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