Win the moment: 5 lessons in mental strength and high performance from Paul O'Connell

It’s about more than manic aggression.

IT’S NOT OFTEN you get to spend 20 minutes delving inside the mind of one of Irish sport’s greatest ever leaders.

Paul O’Connell, a man who approaches life with diligence, energy and an analytical mind, treated the attendees at the recent Pendulum Summit to just that. And it was a hugely illuminating and enjoyable presentation from the former Ireland skipper.

Having seen dressing room clips of O’Connell speaking down the years, I expected a motivational talk that, as a rugby fan, I would appreciate, but perhaps might not be applicable to business.

Source: Mark Conroy/YouTube

O’Connell gave the opposite — an intelligent, wide ranging but concise talk that, though grounded in his rugby career, also offered many strategies, tactics, tips and mental tools for those in business to apply instantly.

Here are five lessons in mental strength and high performance that I took from the session.

1. The spectre of ‘imposter syndrome’

The more you get to read about supposedly successful and confident people, the more you realise the scourge of imposter syndrome can impact anyone, at any time.

Unless blessed with Trumpian levels of self-confidence, everyone will have felt it at some stage. It’s the little thing in your head that tells you ‘you shouldn’t be here, you’re about to get found out’. The term was coined by two American psychologists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978. They described it as a feeling of “phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.”

O’Connell, despite being revered as one of the best rugby players in the world, was no stranger to the feeling. He begun the presentation talking about how before big games he would ”look out from the bus and wish he was one of the fans having a beer”. On Friday evenings before a match, he would ”dream about escaping the hotel and grabbing a flight home”. His nerves would get so bad that he would vomit before big matches.

And yet, on Saturday afternoon when the game came around, these feelings seemed to disappear. Once he got into the flow of the game his preparation, will to win and talent would take over.

Source: The British & Irish Lions/YouTube

For me, it’s somehow comforting that a hero of Irish sport could feel the same feelings before a big game that I do before a big presentation. Sometimes we put these guys up on a pedestal and play ourselves down. It seems that for most people imposter syndrome is one of the prices of success.

2. Getting the ‘big rocks’ in place

Secondly, O’Connell spoke about the simple idea of prioritisation and playing to your strengths while minimising your weakness. One of the books that has impacted him most is Stephen Covey’s “7 habits of highly effective people”, in which the writer talks about the ‘big rocks’.

These are the high leverage or most important activities in your life that you will get most benefit from prioritising.

“Big rocks mean you know where you’re going and how to get there, so you can say no to other peripheral things.”

pauliepres1 Source: Shane O'Leary

O’Connell introduced us to a piece of paper from his career on which he had plotted out his ‘big rocks’ – the parts of his game that were strong and that gave him a solid foundation. (Excuse the grainy pictures!)


This is simple advice, but in our world of low attention and constant stress, we can often becoming blinkered around certain small things without seeing the bigger picture.

We fall into the trap of what writer Robert Greene calls ‘tactical hell’, constantly reacting without focusing on our ‘big rocks’.

Again, this advice has huge impact for us in business, not least because it explains the importance of regularly taking time out to re-evaluate and re-focus on your big goals.

3. The power of journaling

Who knew Paul O’Connell kept a diary?! The idea of writing down your thoughts regularly and clearing your head seems an obvious one, but according to O’Connell, this simple evening act helped him tremendously.

“Those 15 minutes each Sunday became my biggest high performance tool, a big stress reliever.”

Preparation of the mind and getting your thoughts in line with your desired outcomes is vital for both sport and business. For O’Connell, it allowed him to isolate bad habits and keep his brain from going into overdrive. Again, who would’ve thought such a confident leader would have an anxious mind?

He referred to this idea as ‘closing the loop’ of the week, a way to relax, prepare and improve.

“If we don’t write down some of the things we do, we’re leaving out some really valuable insights about ourselves.”

4. The vital importance of radical self-awareness and unbiased feedback

Related to the above, he also spoke about the need to be radically self-critical. This isn’t about being critical in a negative manner, but being self-aware enough to see yourself in context of others, and to short-circuit bad behaviour before it becomes a habit.

For a pro rugby player, the ability to watch yourself back on tape is invaluable.

O’Connell spoke of the famously intense feedback sessions that Joe Schmidt delivers to his players. In the moment, it can be embarrassing and nerve-wracking, but ultimately it’s important to have people around you to deliver those tough critiques if we want to improve. Smart people seek out feedback.

One example was how Paul changed his approach to referees. He told us that for a period in his career he was annoying refs and raising his own anger on the field because of referring decisions. With some self-reflection, he became more aware of his presence and begun speaking only about 3-4 key points throughout the game, with much better success.

“Here was I, this 6’6 ugly second row with my ears taped up and my Limerick accent talking down to some English or French referee. I knew I needed to change how I spoke.”

This regular rhythm of unbiased feedback something that many modern businesses lack. Some choose to do six-month reviews with employees, but even that is too much of a gap. It’s the only way to improve and it helps employees (and sports stars) see a top down, helicopter view of themselves, their faults and foibles.

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5. Mindfulness and winning the next moment

Though it’s become somewhat of a cliché, being present and mindful in the moment is an incredibly powerful and surprisingly difficult skill to cultivate according to O’Connell.

The Munster legend gave a brilliant example of in-game mindfulness, which Schmidt calls “winning the moment in front of your face” from Ireland’s draw with New Zealand in 2012. Already down 14-0 after 16 minutes, New Zealand conceded another soft try to Rob Kearney.

But instead of standing still and watching Kearney run the ball in, the All Blacks captain Kieran Read tracked Kearney all the way to the try line, with the result that Kearney couldn’t bring the ball under the posts.

The conversion was made more difficult, Sexton missed and Ireland lost the game by two points. A small moment of mindfulness had made all the difference.

Source: AnLaighin King/YouTube

O’Connell also told an anecdote of Schmidt analysing video and finding examples of opposition players putting their head down after a mistake and hiding, referencing how ”that guy would never get picked for us.”

Years later, the benefit of ‘winning the next moment’ and staying switched on paid dividends for Ireland. A late last-gasp tackle from Jamie Heaslip denied Stuart Hogg a try and Ireland won the 6 Nations on points difference.

Win the next moment.

Source: Six Nations Rugby/YouTube

Everyone makes mistakes at a high level, in business and sport, but the key is to not compound the error. It’s important to compartmentalise and move on, to remain present, to ask:

“What is the best possible thing I can do right now”

Linked to this, O’Connell also extolled the virtues of visualisation, saying that “every top player uses this“ and mentioning the importance of what Schmidt calls the mind gym. He would also ”regularly remember and write down good performances to try bring myself back to that level.”


Overall, this 20-minute presentation delivered more value and actionable insight that I’ve ever seen at any conference.  They say that there is major overlap between business and sport when it comes to high performance. O’Connell’s simple lessons really illuminate that point.

Follow Shane at @shaneoleary1 or see more of his posts on sport, business and marketing here.

About the author:

Shane O'Leary

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