One August day in 2008, an aspiring sports psychologist got in her car and drove down to Limerick to meet Paul O'Connell. Caroline Currid wanted to investigate his mental preparation as a high-performance athlete and his answers would be used to compile a case study. She had already interviewed Catherina McKiernan, Eamonn Coghlan and Packie Bonner as part of the project, but O'Connell's contribution was going to be key. Or so she thought.
The Sligo woman did not have a tape recorder, as was described in O'Connell's autobiography The Battle, but she did have an enthusiastic manner. She was expecting revolutionary ideas from a well-educated exponent of sports psychology. But the interview took on a far different dynamic and none of O'Connell's answers could be used to inform her study of the subject.
“I was shocked by his preparation,” she explains. “I was really going down there thinking that this guy had it sussed and that his preparation would be really good and that I would come away with a lot of detail about sports psychology. But he obviously was doing nothing and his preparation was not good.
“He was trying to get this emotional cue every time for his game,” she adds. “And you do see it with teams where they try to pick out something negative that the opponent said about them or a grudge or a chip on their shoulder. He was doing that all the time and there’s only so many times you can go to that well and it fades. You can’t rely on emotion to get the best out yourself; you’ve got to break it down and go with that process. Otherwise, the emotion will let you down and you’ll have a very inconsistent game: you’ll play great one day and then crap the next.”
The former Gaelic footballer, who won a Junior All-Ireland title with Sligo, admits she's "not a rugby person". Or at least she wasn't before she met O'Connell. Standing in the company of GAA heroes like Maurice Fitzgerald or Brian Dooher would have quickened her heart rate. But aside from O'Connell's "huge presence", she wasn't fazed by him. And when he hoisted up his barriers in the face of talk about sports psychology, she challenged his logic.
In his autobiography, O’Connell recalls telling Currid about his nomination for the IRB Player of the Year in 2006, which was eventually awarded to New Zealand’s Richie McCaw. Currid was shocked to hear that O’Connell didn’t think he deserved the gong.
“I was surprised at how well he remembers that conversation. I had taken the notes after it but I guarantee he didn’t and it obviously was a strong trigger in his head. It was almost as if he didn’t believe he was a world-class player. He’s so humble and such a gentleman in that way and it’s like he doesn’t realise the legend that he is, he doesn’t realise how good he is.”
They shook hands after the interview with full respect for each other’s contrasting views on the subject of sports psychology, and when O’Connell left, Currid produced a notebook and jotted down some observations.
“Shocked” and “wouldn’t it be great to work with this guy” were her immediate thoughts following their talk. She wanted to encourage him to give sports psychology more thought, but felt it would have been unfair to press it on him. A few weeks later, Currid received a surprise phone call the day after the All-Ireland football final.
Currid was working with the Tyrone team who won that day and O’Connell watched the game with interest on television. He told her he had reconsidered his position on sports psychology and within two weeks they began working together. Improving his pre-game preparation was the obvious place to start and Currid explains how her new client became entrenched in the whole process.
“I was giving him books and not only would he have that read, he’d have another one read that he had read about in that book. He was just gobbling it up. You hear Conor McGregor talking about an obsession, so with Paul, when he knows it’s going to help him, he gets obsessed with it. He uses it then to be the best that he can and that’s just who he is.
“When he went in on a tackle and he might be on the ground,” she continues, “he wanted to get up quicker. It’s very powerful for building patterns in your head, so that when you’re doing it off the pitch, usually the visualisations come on to the pitch with you.”
Currid and O’Connell maintained their working relationship from 2008 up until he retired this year. At one point, an injury-ravaged O’Connell was contemplating retirement earlier in his career. He called her up and within one hour, she had convinced him to reassess things and delay any decisions on his future.
“The thing that most frustrated Paul was injuries. A couple of weeks or months could go by and you wouldn’t hear from him, so things would be going well. But around the time the injuries were getting at him, he was struggling. He was going too far into the future rather than just focusing on the present day and getting himself back. The end result of the call was stop panicking, stay in the present day, do the rehab and see.”
The pair continue to work together in a different way now that O’Connell’s playing career is over. Their association has developed into a friendship and the former Irish captain is always willing to help Currid whenever she has a client who is struggling with injuries.
Currid’s own journey into the world of sports psychology is rooted in a knee injury she suffered in 2005. Desperate to return to the field, she turned to sports psychology as a method for enhancing her rehab, but it evolved into an obsession and she later became a self-employed sports psychologist. She travels around the world in order to keep pace with the latest trends and ideas in the field and has previously worked with All-Ireland winning teams including the 2010 Tipperary hurlers and 2011 Dublin footballers.
While she concedes that she is “working in a man’s world”, her gender has never caused any problems when working directly with the athletes.
“It never crossed my mind,” she says, “and in fairness to any of the managers I worked with, they never really made reference to the fact that I was female. A lot of the athletes I worked with actually said it was easier to talk to a woman. Maybe we’re just better listeners or something.”
Sports psychology has enabled Currid to do more than just improve an athlete’s performance mindset. Limited access to psychiatric help has prompted players to reach out to her, ready to take their own life, and those conversations have prevented suicide.
But the sceptics are still rampant. GAA pundit Joe Brolly has previously undermined the work of sports psychologists including Enda McNulty and, more recently, Kieran Shannon. Currid says she wishes Brolly could hear those chilling phone calls she receives.
“I don’t know how many times I have got a call from a young man who wants to commit suicide and the only reason he has my number is because their team took me in as a sports psychologist. It’s incredible and it’s a horrible epidemic in our country. I would love for Joe Brolly to listen to some of these men and then he’d realise how important it is for sports psychologists around this country going into these clubs.”
She adds: “These guys are dealing with depression, with suicide, with gambling addiction and alcoholism. It’s so hard to get a psychologist through our medical sector. A young hurler rang me and he was told he had to wait five weeks to get an appointment and this guy was ready to commit suicide.
"Thank God he picked up a phone to me. I'm not a clinical psychologist, but at least I can listen and I can try my best through the GPA. Conor Cusack is doing unbelievable work in the GPA to try and help these men not commit suicide and just get them back on track."
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