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Madigan: 'There have been times when I've thought I'm better than I actually was'

The Leinster man sat down with The42 to talk about his work with sports psychologist Enda McNulty.

Setanta Sports ambassador Ian Madigan.
Setanta Sports ambassador Ian Madigan.

IAN MADIGAN HAS never come across as a guy who’s short on confidence.

The memory of the Blackrock College alumnus arriving to Ireland U20 trials way back in 2007 with firm belief that he would be selected in Eric Elwood’s final squad, despite being a full year younger than almost ever other player present, is strong.

This was confidence to make the more apprehensive of us jealous, a self-belief that informed Madigan that he was destined for far greater things. Some mistook it as arrogance, but the Dublin native backed his swagger up with performance.

Striding onto the pitch for a Probables v Possibles clash at Malahide RFC as a chilling wind blew in off the estuary, the out-half appeared nonplussed to find himself part of the latter selection.

By the end of the U20 Six Nations early the next year, Madigan had wrestled the number 10 shirt from his rivals to start against England. Now, he’s a 13-times Ireland international and the same confidence still drives him.

I’d have big self belief, although there have definitely been times in my career when I’ve thought I’m better than I actually was,” explains Madigan as we sit in Lansdowne FC in the shadows of the Aviva Stadium.

The 25-year-old is a thoughtful speaker, taking time to pause and select the words he feels most comfortable with. A diligent communicator you could say, and that same rigour is applied to how he prepares to reach his maximum potential in rugby.

Even behind mental attributes that appear to be natural, there are hours of labour.

“The confidence side of things, I view it as a skill and it’s definitely something that I work on,” explains Madigan, before going on to outline his dealings with sports psychologist Enda McNulty.

Ian Madigan 17/1/2015 Madigan starts at 12 for Leinster against Wasps today. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“I do a lot of work with Enda, I’d see him once a month minimum. Whether things are going well or badly for me, I’d still make sure I’m working on small things, like how to deal with mistakes in a game or dealing with the pressure of a big match.

“He’s given me tools for each of those kind of things, and as a result I get a huge amount of confidence from that.”

Madigan feels his developmental sporting years in tennis and golf have helped his confidence levels too, as he learned that “you never want to show weakness to your opponent”.

The youngster would always remind himself to walk tall on the court or fairway, and says that habit carried through his time as a Gaelic footballer with Kilmacud Crokes into professional rugby.

McNulty is an intriguing and omnipresent character in the sphere of Irish rugby. The former All-Ireland-winning Armagh footballer has become a vital part of the Ireland backroom staff and comes with testimonials from the likes of Brian O’Driscoll.

Madigan was first introduced to McNulty when he was a Leinster U17 player and has gone on to build a close relationship with him.

“He came along to do a session with the team to try and improve our mental strength,” recalls Madigan.

“He just said afterwards to the group ‘Feel free to contract me and do a one-on-one session.’ It was a side of the game that I thought was very interesting and something I wanted to learn more about.

“So I met up with him and probably started off working with him once every two or three months and then he worked closely with the Leinster academy. He’s working closely with Leinster and Ireland now and I’d say I’ve seen him one-on-one over 100 times.

Enda McNulty McNulty works closely with many of Ireland's top internationals. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“When you’re going to see him, it’s not like I’m going to see a shrink or anything like that. I’m quite friendly with him at this stage and I feel like I can be very open in what I’m saying to him and I trust him.”

Madigan’s discussions with McNulty are not strictly limited to rugby, and their meetings vary from 10-minute stints to hour-and-a-half-long sessions. Breakfast, a dinner rendezvous, Carton House, calling around to the Armagh man’s house; the setting constantly changes.

Wherever it takes place, Madigan’s work with McNulty is “definitely a big part of my preparation.”

There are others who aid the Leinster man’s preparation and belief, none more importantly than his own family. Madigan says his parents, Michael and Maria, are “competitive people,” while his older brother David acts as a key sounding board.

David was scrum-half on Blackrock’s 2004 Leinster Schools Senior Cup-winning team, meaning he possesses a strong bank of rugby knowledge.

Dave is a smart guy with a good understanding of the game,” says the younger Madigan brother. “He still gives me feedback individually and he’s obviously a Leinster supporter. He’d give me stuff that he might think is best suited to the team as well.

“There’s definitely been one or two things he’s given me that I don’t agree on, but there have been other things where I think he could be right, bring it into Leinster and run it by some of the senior guys on the team.

“There have been things that have helped us as a team, and more so, as an individual. He knows me inside out as a player. He’s always very honest and quite a lot of the time it’s not what you want to hear, but it’s what’s best for you.”

Madigan says he’s the type of player who looks for any edge in preparation he can find, although he draws a line at a certain point and “wouldn’t let it completely dominate my life.”

You’ll find no oxygen tents chez Madigan.

Ian Madigan warms up before the game Madigan is expected to play at out-half for Ireland against Italy next month. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

That said, he does look to draw from whatever expertise he is exposed to, even if it is in simple places such as the pages of a book.

“I’d read a fair bit, I like reading autobiographies,” says Madigan. “I read Paul Galvin’s book recently and it was very interesting to see how he thought before his games and see how much of a competitor he was.

“I read Roy Keane’s book recently as well, and it was interesting to see his mindset as a coach and how he viewed players and their actions. I certainly picked up a lot on how management view players, and found that very interesting.”

Indeed, that very issue has been relevant to Madigan in the past two seasons, as he has adapted to Matt O’Connor’s style of coaching at Leinster. If McNulty is important to Madigan’s preparation, then O’Connor is the man who decides whether or not it’s been worthwhile.

The Australian head coach led Leinster to a Pro12 title last season, with Madigan playing his part, but the Ireland international admits that it’s only this year that he’s realised exactly what it is O’Connor wants.

“You certainly don’t see the humourous side to Matt,” says Madigan when asked what the Leinster coach is like to work with on a daily basis, away from the glare of the media.

“He’s got a great sense of humour and he probably doesn’t show that externally, but he’s an absolute pleasure to work with. To have him on a day-to-day basis, he’d still give you detailed feedback but it’s in a different way.

“Matt might tell you, jokingly, that his younger son could pass better than you. You’d have a laugh about it, but what he’s actually telling you there is you need to go away and work on your passing. If you don’t work on your passing, he’s not going to pick you.

Ian Madigan speaks to Matt O'Connor before the game Madigan is enjoying working with Leinster head coach O'Connor. Source: Colm O'Neill/INPHO

“It probably took me a while to realise that last year. He was sending me these messages and maybe in a light-hearted conversation, I didn’t take them seriously enough. It’s something that I’ve realised this year and it’s helped me massively.

Aside from that side of things with the feedback, I’ve also understood the style of play that he wants to do and I can go out and execute on that much better.

“Whereas last year, for whatever reason, it took me a while to adjust to his style of play and I didn’t get selected as a result of it.”

Now Madigan is installed as O’Connor’s first-choice inside centre, not the player’s ideal position but one that he is growing ever more comfortable in. The next challenge is a make-or-break meeting with Wasps in Coventry this afternoon.

The English side’s chances have been talked up in some quarters, but we can rest assured that Madigan has every confidence in his, and Leinster’s, ability to secure their Champions Cup quarter-final spot.

********************

Setanta Sports ambassador Ian Madigan was speaking in advance of Leinster’s crucial trip to the Ricoh Arena to face Wasps in their final pool game in the European Rugby Champions Cup today. 

The game is live on BT Sports which is only available in Ireland as part of the Setanta Sports pack.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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