Ballygunner’s Shane O’Sullivan practises what he preaches
Midfielder’s interest in sports psychology is serving him well on and off the field
Ballygunner’s Shane O’Sullivan in action against Patrick Mullen of Ballyhale Shamrocks in Hurling All-Ireland Senior Club Championship semi-final. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
When Shane O’Sullivan was 14 years old and a student at De La Salle College in Waterford, his teacher Derek McGrath took him and the rest of the class to a lecture in New Ross presented by Liam Griffin, the 1996 All-Ireland winning hurling manager with Wexford.
It was billed as a lecture in the skills and fitness of hurling, only instead Griffin took them on a psychological journey behind the winning of that All-Ireland title – and O’Sullivan has never looked back.
With that began his journey into sports psychology, which he continues to both practise and preach – as a high-performance and leadership coach to several global companies, and also the long-serving midfielder with Ballygunner as they prepare to defend their AIB Munster club hurling title against Borris-Ileigh at Páirc Uí Rinn on Sunday.
“We were expecting Liam to talk about hurling skills and the players, and all he spoke about was performance psychologically, basically, we call it today,” says O’Sullivan, vividly recalling that day now at age 34. “About the power of the mind. Visualisation. How to motivate a team. How they worked – some players actually went in, one on one, like Billy Byrne and did visualisation sessions instead of being out on the field training.
“I was just blown away, as a 14-year-old. And after it, the teacher told me to go up basically and thank him as captain of the team. So, I thanked him and I plucked up the courage to ask him, have you any advice of what to read? Because I was enthralled by it.
“And he told me to read The Inner Game of Tennis by a man called Timothy Gallwey. So in I went to the book centre in Waterford city and I asked them for it. They obviously didn’t have it in stock, so they ordered it in for me. And I read that book, and never stopped reading about psychology and the power of the mind ever since. I just found it unbelievably beneficial and powerful and so, so important in obviously sport but then in business and life as well.”
It has served him well on all fronts: joining the Waterford senior team in 2004, O’Sullivan won two Munster titles and won the league, before retiring in 2017; he never stopped learning and studying the subject along the way.
“I always studied it, because I was reading. And obviously performing inter-county wise, you’re trying to get the edge all the time and seeing what works, so you’re kind of your own guinea pig, you’re practising on yourself, making mistakes, learning, growing. And you see other leadership styles from managers who have come in.
“Justin McCarthy originally would have a different leadership style than Davy Fitzgerald. And Derek [McGrath] would have a different leadership than Davy. And then Michael Ryan was there. So, you’re learning all the time.
“Then I did the masters in sports psychology after that in WIT, and did the higher diploma executive coaching in the Irish Management Institute then. So, that brings you to what I work at today, as a high-performance coach, a leadership coach, in companies throughout the world. So, there’s about 60 per cent of my business would be all over Europe and the States; and then 40 per cent would be in Ireland.
“What happened originally, obviously I was doing a bit with the sports organisations. And business leaders starting asking me ‘Can you talk to the group about leadership? Can you talk to the group about how we maximise our potential and perform at our best?’ And I said I can. So, I went in and it worked well, and then it kept coming and it took off from there.”
Most of the work is carried out online, all while careful not to let it impact on his own commitment to the game: “I’d always try and prioritise the preparation, because you have to practise what you preach too.”