go with the flow

The game in your head - Inside the mind of Dublin footballer Paul Flynn

All-Ireland final parades, developing a career off the field and getting into the flow-state – Flynn on the psychology of his rise to the top.

LEGENDARY COLLEGE BASKETBALL coach John Wooden put it best when he said: “Sports don’t build character, they reveal it.”

If you want to understand the mindset of a great GAA player, watch them closely as they march behind the band on All-Ireland final day.

Paul Flynn James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

In these final moments before battle, you’d hardly see a flicker of emotion from any of the 30 players. Whatever they’re feeling inside is kept well under the surface, behind a steely glare.

There are no ripples or waves, but a silent storm is moving in.

When Paul Flynn follows the Artane Boys Band around Croke Park, he’s not worrying about this opponent. He’s hardly even thinking about what he’s going to do. All that work has been done, filed away somewhere in his subconscious.

Instead, he’s absorbing the occasion.

“I actually really enjoy the parade,” he tells The42. “I probably do something – I don’t know whether it’s the right thing or the wrong thing to do – but I do it all anyway. I just soak it all in.

“I just say to myself: ‘This is amazing, this is a great place to be. Look at the amount of people here. Someday I’m going to be one of them people sitting there watching this game and I’ve been that person before when I was younger.’

Paul Flynn Cathal Noonan / INPHO Cathal Noonan / INPHO / INPHO

“I’ll just take it all in and tell myself this is a unique opportunity. I’ll think then about a couple of aspects of the game that I want to get into. But I think it’s important to embrace the moment as well. It’s not distracting me but it’s keeping me grounded more than anything else and keeping me in the present as opposed to thinking ahead or in the past.

“You’re in the present and sports psychologists will always talk about when you’re in the flow-state, you’re in the present. You’re playing in the present. You’re not thinking about anything at all.”

With four All-Irelands and four All-Stars under his belt, Flynn can consider himself in the elite bracket of Gaelic footballers. While his athleticism and skill have been painstakingly honed over the years, the Fingallians man recognises that his mentality has been a big factor in his rise to the top.

In any sport there are countless examples of players who had the ability but lacked the mental toughness to perform at the highest level.

Paul Flynn celebrates after the game Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Throughout the course of Dublin 36-game unbeaten run, which was finally ended by Kerry last Sunday, the All-Ireland champions displayed a remarkable ability to thrive in high pressure situations.

The mental side of the game is still an area that’s undervalued in GAA.

Since 2000, Kilkenny have made the All-Ireland hurling final 14 times, losing on just three occasions. In the same period, Mayo have appeared in the All-Ireland football final in five separate years and lost all five. Ability on its own will only take you so far.

Flynn has played in five All-Ireland finals with Dublin (including the 2016 replay), and he hasn’t lost one. He’s one of Jim Gavin’s most trusted lieutenants and, despite playing almost the entire season at wing-forward, he reignited the midfield engine room in last year’s replay win over Mayo.

So often Dublin’s Mr Consistency, Flynn is one of just four footballers to win four All-Stars on the trot, alongside legendary figures Jack O’Shea, Pat Spillane and Paidi Ó Sé.

Paul Flynn and Diarmuid Connolly with the Sam Maguire Flynn and Diarmuid Connolly at Dublin's homecoming in 2013. Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

He’s is the only player to put together such a long run of All-Stars since Ó Sé picked up his fifth in succession in 1985.

Thanks to his ball-winning ability, constantly running engine and kicking skills, the Dublin star was almost untouchable during his apex between 2011 and 2014.

While he wasn’t a standout player at underage level, it was in his teens when he recognised his capacity to perform under pressure. The mental side to his game would ultimately take him to unimaginable heights.

“I definitely didn’t have a bullet proof confidence that I was going to make it,” says Flynn. “When I was minor and U21 I was always on the periphery. When it came to championship in both I started in midfield, but it was always a real battle.

“I continued to work on my game and I always had confidence in one part which was my engine and hunger. I knew once the tougher the game and battle got, the better I’d get. I had confidence in some aspects of my game but I always knew there were areas to work on.

“There’s the talent piece and the attitude piece. I was always very strong on the attitude piece and the commitment to honing in on my game and making sure I was the best me I could be. Whereas there were other players I played with who had the talent and probably didn’t put in the work or have the mental capacity to be able to take it to the next level.”

Over the years, Flynn has fine-tuned his mental approach. He rolls out the same routine before every big championship game. He may tweak it depending on the circumstances, but the template remains the same.

“You don’t always get into the flow-state but you’re trying to get there. I kind of feel I’ve got my preparation in order that I’m able to get into it. For whatever reason you get into it a bit more easy, you wish there’s a secret remedy to get you there everyday, but it’s not always possible.

“I would keep the same routine of how I approach a week. The reason I do that is because it worked for me before when I got into that flow state.

“It would start on a Monday. If you think about the week of a game, if the game is on a Sunday, you’re probably going to be training Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Those days are fine, they’re grand because you’re with the group.

“It’s the other days where you want to be filling up your days. On the Tuesday evening of a championship game I might go and do an ice bath or I might go to the beach – depending on the weather.

Paul Flynn arrives Donall Farmer / INPHO Donall Farmer / INPHO / INPHO

“It’s just a way of getting my recovery right. Then on the Thursday I’ll do something completely different, I might go to the cinema or go do something with my partner because you keep yourself completely occupied.

“Sometimes I work from home after lunch on the Friday of a championship game, but other than that I like to keep the same battle rhythm.

“The day before a game I might cut the grass or keep myself busy cleaning the house, whatever I need to do to distract myself so that I’m not thinking about the game at all.

“For 10 minutes at one stage of the day, I’ll go and think about the core pieces – say for instance I might have a couple of things I want to concentrate on in that game, whether it be on my shooting, my passing, the kickouts or whatever.

“I’ll just do a bit of visualisation for about 10 minutes, and that’s it and I won’t think about the game again.”

On the morning of a match, he’ll visit a graveyard around the corner where he lost a few people who are close to him. It clears the head and brings perspective.

AIG Insurance GUI & ILGU Cups & Shields Launch Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE / SPORTSFILE

The 30-year-old believes keeping his mind off the game in the build-up helps his performance no end.

“It is hard and that’s the biggest challenge. You feel like your mind is constantly thinking about it, but I just try to do is – if I start thinking about it, I’ll go back to the three or four things that I’m trying to do, say them in my head, ‘I’m going to do them well’ and then stop thinking about it.

“Because what you can do is mentally drain yourself and you can actually feel like you’ve played the game a number of times over in your head. When you get there you’re a little bit lethargic in the game. I feel this way helps keep me fresh.”

Flynn applies the same sort of commitment and dedication to other aspects of his life. He lived with Michael Murphy while they studied at DCU, and the Donegal captain found him to be a positive influence on and off the field.

“It was a fantastic time,” said Murphy last year. “I got an education, I qualified as a teacher coming out of it. I was on a course along with Paul Flynn.

“At the time me and him used to go out and kick ball together on our own and the sheer commitment to the game for him, the skill level in which he plays the game at, the intensity which he plays the game, was something which I really took a lot of things from.

“He would be dragging you out to lectures when you wanted to stay around the home and it was likewise with the training. It’s no surprise to see that his talent really did prevail.”

Flynn is just that type of character. Every aspect of his life is attacked with full gusto. It’s in his nature.

“It’s probably something that sport has brought out in me, where I’ve this thing where if you’re going to go and do something, do it to the best of your ability and get the most out of yourself,” he continues.

Jonny Cooper, Paul Mannion, Dean Rock, Paul Flynn, Paddy Andrews and Diarmuid Connolly James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

“If you’re going to go into something whether it be a degree, sport or your job, go into it full-hearted and give it everything you have. That’s the way I approach everything now.

“I wouldn’t even call it tunnel vision because if you’ve tunnel vision you’re not thinking about other aspects of your life. If I’d tunnel vision in sport I wouldn’t be thinking about my career or my fiance, you have to be able to have balance.”

Dublin manager Jim Gavin often talks about the importance of balance to achieve a high level of performance in sport. He believes its important his players have a three-pronged approach to their lives.

“The GAA will always be there for you,” Gavin told the Irish Times last year. “There’s a couple of glass balls in your life.

“The first is your family and your relationships, that’s a glass ball that you can’t drop. Second is your professional life or your academic life in some cases, that’s a glass ball you can’t drop. Then there’s your sport or hobby.”

Jim Gavin Tommy Grealy / INPHO Tommy Grealy / INPHO / INPHO

After he finished school, Flynn worked as a plumber before heading to DCU to study PE and Biology. He qualified as a teacher with first-class honours.

“I was doing teaching – it was a great course, loved it – but I probably went into it for the wrong reasons,” admits Flynn. “I was young and I was thinking, ‘I want to be a teacher now because I want to be able to have the summers off to play football.’

“For me it was a big decision because you’ve a job there and teaching is a great job. However, if I wasn’t going to do something that I wasn’t going to be able to go full-throttle at and give it everything and be great at, I just said there’s no point going in and doing it halfheartedly.

“You’re doing yourself an injustice but you’re also doing the students in schools an injustice.”

Paul Flynn consoles Joseph Wallace Flynn consoles his former student Joey Wallace after the 2016 Leinster final. Cathal Noonan / INPHO Cathal Noonan / INPHO / INPHO

He was attracted to the lure of the free summers months to facilitate his blossoming football career, but eventually Flynn yearned for something more. The job wasn’t fulfilling him off the field and he chose a different path.

“Then when I was teaching I realised that maybe this wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do. I went back, had a look at and realised I wanted to get into a sales role, I think it’s suitable to my own personality and to where I wanted to get to.

“You have to balance things off. I was 27 at that stage. I got a great job at Aer Lingus before I moved to Lincoln Recruitment. But it does take time for you to understand that.

“I would be even talking to some of the younger lads on the panel now, and saying to them that you have to be concentrating on both sides.

“The job I’m in is very much a sales and commercial role. So I’ve got to be able to perform and it’s pretty black and white whether you’re performing or not. I’m director of the company now so I’m very involved in ensuring we grow and we do well.

Paul Flynn Cathal Noonan / INPHO Cathal Noonan / INPHO / INPHO

“I’m much happier in the role I’m in. I’ve been able to give it my full attention as much as I can with football. I work hard off the pitch and I enjoy that too. It’s a healthy distraction from the football so it’s good in that sense.”

“It’s vitally important that all players in all teams concentrate on their career as well as what goes on on the pitch. From the ages of 20 to 30 that’s the most important part of your playing career, but it’s also the most important part in the development of your career off the pitch. So you have to be able to keep an eye on both of them at the same time.”

By juggling all three glass balls effectively, Flynn’s mind and body are become one as he takes the field for Dublin.

When it comes to the parade on All-Ireland final day, his mind is quiet and his thoughts are clear, freeing his body up to explode into life and, hopefully, get into that flow-state.


Paul Flynn was on hand at the GUI National Headquarters this week to launch the new offer which with AIG Insurance which allows GUI and ILGU members to avail of discounted rates on car and home Insurance as well as other great benefits exclusive to golfers. See for details.

The42 is on Instagram! Tap the button below on your phone to follow us!

Kerry rejig for U21 semi-final showdown in absence of captain

Seamus Callanan’s ‘humble’ hero Eoin Kelly and Lee Keegan on lessons he learned from Cora Staunton

Your Voice
Readers Comments
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.