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'It's really important for others to see players as people with problems, and not just players'

Tipperary dual star Roisin Howard discusses the WGPA column she penned ahead of today’s All-Ireland camogie semi-final.

IT SHOWS STRENGTH of character and self-awareness to acknowledge that you’re struggling.

Nerves. Uncertainty. A slight sense of hesitancy, and maybe even reluctancy as it went live.

roisin-howard Tipperary dual star Roisin Howard. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

On 7 September 2020, Roisin Howard felt all of those things as the Women’s Gaelic Players’ Association [WGPA] published a deeply personal column, written by the Tipperary dual star.

Here she was, telling the world something she never thought she would: a candid account of her personal struggles and mental health battle, which saw her engage with the Association’s counselling supports.

Howard, a happy-go-lucky, bubbly person, whose glowing personality shines through with every word she utters, was letting her walls down and letting people — strangers, at that — in. Not for her, but for others.

And now, two-and-a-half months on, she’s so glad she did it.

“I didn’t really know how I felt when it was first released,” she tells The42 ahead of the Premier county’s All-Ireland senior camogie semi-final against Kilkenny. 

You feel a bit weird about it. The reaction I got and the messages from players all over the country and even just people that had read the column, it just made me really proud that my honesty could help so many other people.

“Just looking at it from the perspective that it’s really good to be able to normalise this type of thing; the good and the bad associated with mental health. And it’s really important for others to see players as people with problems, and not just players.”

***

In late 2019, I felt a complete change in my mindset due to struggles in my personal life.

This continued until the end of May this year, when I began to reach out for help, after completing my final exams and having more time for reflection during lockdown.

Over the past few years, Cahir star Howard looked like she was living the dream. She played both codes at the highest level, donning the blue and gold of Tipp with pride and enjoying plenty of success along the way.

She did so too with the Ashbourne and O’Connor Cup teams at University of Limerick [UL], where she studied Irish and Spanish. Her undergraduate degree allowed her the opportunity to study abroad, so she spent a semester in the Spanish city of Seville while also feeding the travel but with a summer of football in New York.

The 23-year-old appeared to have the sporting-life balance down to a tee, though it all soon came on top of her as the demands of both codes, niggly injuries and the stress of final year on home soil hit a new high.

I kind of pushed my feelings and emotions aside and just tried to get through the days, even though I knew that I absolutely wasn’t myself,” she recalls.

“I found it really hard to be in social settings. I enjoyed being out playing sport but at the same time, when it was in close relationships or sitting down chatting to people, I found that really hard — even people that I had known all my life or best friends in college. It was just a really weird feeling.”

Her world became consumed by the next match, the next deadline, the next focus. There was always a distraction.

beth-carton-and-roisin-howard-celebrate-after-the-game Celebrating UL's 2020 Ashbourne Cup win with Waterford's Beth Carton. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

In her column, Howard wrote about starting her day at 4am, having awoken from overwhelming anxiety. She would power through study sessions and exercise in the early hours before crashing as the rest of the world started their day. While this was wildly unhealthy, it worked for her at the time so she stuck to it.

The realisation of what she was enduring never really hit her until things eased up.

“I just kept going because I always had something do with college or a match. I was always trying to prove myself as a player, to be making the position on the team so I never kind of wanted to let my guard down in that sense.

“Looking back, I was nearly caught up with everything and just didn’t take ownership of my own mental health.

“During lockdown then and after I completed my exams in May, I was like, ’I'm not the same person at all that I was,’ and I knew I could get myself back if I took the time out. I just decided, ‘Look, I need to address this.’ That’s something that I can be proud of as well because it does take time for people to acknowledge it.

It was a really good opportunity to get my head and my life back on track. I knew that I was going to be starting a Masters in September and I just didn’t want that burden of the past just influencing my future.”

***

It’s hugely important to respect your feelings, emotions and acknowledge those things in life that are bringing about negativity.

With final year stress in the rear-view mirror and sport at a standstill, a gentle push from a friend and team-mate eventually sent Howard in the right direction. She reached out to the WGPA, and hasn’t looked back since.

“It was so fast moving, it was great,” she smiles. “I contacted Gemma [Begley] from the WGPA and within three or four days, I had my first counselling session.

“She put me in touch with a woman that lived quite close as well, even though it was done online. If I did want to meet her after, it could be set up so it was just great. They kept in contact with me after that just to make sure everything was okay and that it was a success.

It’s something I would definitely go to again if I needed to.”

With a weight lifted off her shoulders, Howard can safely say that addressing her demons head on and reaching out for help was the best thing she’s ever done. And that’s a message she’d like to get across loud and clear for anyone out there struggling.

“I definitely think that addressing it is the best thing to do, even if you are busy,” she nods. “Looking back, it is only an hour a week or whatever to engage in a session so even though we are busy, it does benefit you in every other area of your life

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“I know sometimes it is hard to acknowledge these things but it was definitely the best thing I did. Even looking at how much I’m enjoying sports at the moment I don’t think I would be enjoying it as much if I didn’t take ownership of my mental health.”

roisin-howard-scores-a-goal Playing football with Tipp. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

***

Her enjoyment in sport is best shared as she looks ahead to today’s All-Ireland semi-final against reigning champions Galway at Páirc Uí Chaoimh [throw-in 2.15pm, live on RTÉ Two], while her happiness in life in general epitomised by enthusiastic chat about her Masters in Primary School Teaching in Mary Immaculate College, and aspirations for the future.

But all focus is on today; Tipperary’s third consecutive last-four battle, and they’ll be hoping it’s a case of fourth time lucky as they eye a first All-Ireland final appearance since 2006.

While this year is Howard’s first involvement with the team since 2017 having focused on football at inter-county level when she wasn’t injured or travelling, she’s picked up right where she left off.

The Cahir ace is a constant threat at centre-half forward, and has loved every second of the journey so far in Bill Mullaney’s set-up.

“It’s really good and it’s a really enjoyable atmosphere to be in,” she beams.

“The management team we have just bring a great sense of honesty to the set-up, it makes you take on board everything they say to you. And you’re just kind of always trying to improve as a player and contribute to the team to make it better.

It’s a massive year for us. When you look at June and July, we didn’t really think that we would have the opportunity be in this position. If you were asked was there going to be an All-Ireland championship, you were doubting big time. It is a class position to be in.”

She won’t shy away from the height of the challenge that lies ahead, though takes great confidence from Tipp’s year to date — particularly from their “massive performance” and “savage work-rate” against a quality Waterford outfit in the quarter-final, though down a few players.

“We know we have a massive challenge ahead of us,” Howard concedes. “Galway have such a great caliber of players and they’re the All-Ireland champions for a reason. They are the in-form team to beat, we don’t underestimate the challenge that’s facing us.

“But at the same time, we will be looking at our own performances and what we can bring to the game. Before the championship started, we did play them in the league and we actually bet them in the semi-final.

Although we all know the championship is a totally different ball game, beating them in semi-final in the league is a good stepping stone and we did gain confidence from it.”

She promises the same work-rate and aggression today as Tipperary hope to finally get over the line and make the breakthrough into the Croke Park showpiece.

“We really do want to drive forward,” she stresses, with nods to the input of Clodagh Quirke, Cáit Devane, Karen Kennedy and Mary Ryan in particular. “We know we have the players but it’s about knuckling down and getting the performance and the result that we want.”

Another breadth of fresh air to the panel this year has been fellow dual star Aishling Moloney, best known for her incredible football exploits across the country.

aishling-moloney-and-roisin-howard-celebrate-after-the-game Howard and Moloney after Cahir's 2016 All-Ireland intermediate club championship semi-final. Source: Tommy Grealy/INPHO

A clubmate and best friend, Howard can’t speak highly enough of Moloney, whose presence alone is a huge boost with Orla O’Dwyer gone back to Australia.

“Me and Aishling have played together since we’ve been very young, we’re on the same club team so it’s class having a club girl there beside you do and she’s a great friend as well.

“We kind of know each other inside out on the pitch and it’s just a special relationship that we have that we bring forward to both camogie and football. It’s really enjoyable

And although we’re missing players, you cant really control that at the same time. We’re concentrating on who we have because we know that we have great girls on the bench, they’re there to do a job as well. We’re not concentrating on who we don’t have, we’re concentrating on who we do have and it doesn’t make a difference on the day.”

Two gutting one-point defeats on the football scene ended Tipperary’s 2020, and Howard is happy she has the small ball game to focus on after  the gut-wrenching disappointment. 

That said, it shows that they are there or thereabouts at senior level and well able to compete, while it’s been a learning curve too.

“We can feel a bit sorry for ourselves thinking that we should have kind of pushed on a bit but at the same time it makes us learn as players and bring it forward for the future,” Howard notes.

But for now, it’s all about Tipperary camogie as 2020 reaches its climax and Howard is honoured to be a part of the movement with the dual star’s 100% attention on this team.

“I enjoy playing both and it’s definitely something that I want to keep continuing to do,” she concludes, with a smile. “It’s an honour to representing your county at one sport never mind two.”

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Emma Duffy

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