To become a good hurler, it takes ability, skill, and plenty of practice. When you want to become a great hurler, you have the added responsibility of preparing yourself mentally.
Shane O’Sullivan is a former Waterford hurler who won three Munster titles and two National League medals with the Deise before hanging up his intercounty boots in 2016. He remains a pivotal member of the Ballygunner side who go in search of back-to-back Munster crowns in Sunday’s provincial final against Borris-lleigh.
O’Sullivan is also a Performance Psychology Consultant and Coach with Inspiring Excellence. While they work with businesses rather than sports teams, it is a role, and a passion, that has developed hand in hand with his hurling career.
His interest in the area began as a teenager.
“Would you believe, when I was 14, Liam Griffin was the All-Ireland winning manager with Wexford in 1996. He went to the same secondary school as I did – he boarded in De La Salle College.
“Derek McGrath was our teacher at the time and he brought us down to speak with Liam Griffin – to hear from him.
“He just spoke for an hour, not about winning the All-Ireland, but the power of the mind and how visualisation and goal-setting and motivation is the most important thing which impacted that Wexford win; breaking many years of not achieving anything to win an All-Ireland.
“Afterwards, our teacher asked me, as captain, to say thank you to Liam. I went up, thanked him and had the courage to say, ‘Where would you recommend me to further learn about performance psychology?’ He said there’s a book called ‘The Inner Game of Tennis’ by Timothy Galloway.
“I remember going into a shop and buying it, reading it and I haven’t stopped reading about it since. That’s where it all started.”
O’Sullivan credits performance psychology with helping him become the best hurler he can be. Both on and off the field, the practice has given him the mental skills to be able to cope with various surroundings.
For him, it has been especially helpful when dealing with mistakes.
“Every match you make mistakes. What separates the best players from the also-rans is you make mistakes, and just refocus and connect in the moment to what’s next.
“So all of the great players we see in football and hurling in Ireland at the moment, I think that’s the real differentiator – they can make a mistake and refocus.
“It doesn’t impact them as much as maybe it would with a younger player. Or a player that doesn’t have the same confidence or doesn’t have the skills to be able to refocus. Skills like mindfulness, grounding techniques, refocusing, triggers, positive talk, etc.”
So to be a great player, you must focus on the mental aspect of the game as well as the physical. It’s not an area exclusive to a select few, anyone can develop the skills if they work hard at it.
“It’s like everything. People look at the physical game, so if you want to get stronger, you go to the gym. If you want to improve your first touch in hurling, you go to the alley.
“If you want to improve your mental game, you have to go to the mind gym. You have to actually practice these skills over time, and then you get better.
“It’s the same principle. If you look the brain – neuroplasticity – the more neurons that are wired together, so you’re actually using different synapsis in your mind to be able to connect them and make them stronger when you really need them in a high-performance game. It’s the exact same principle.”
These aren’t just tips and tricks for life on the field but for life in general. O’Sullivan implements basic techniques in his everyday life but they are given in a boost on weeks such as this, with a huge prize to play for on Sunday.
“I’d use mindfulness every day, three/four times a day, visualisation, focusing on the positives, what can go right when you’re performing to your best. But also a ‘what if’ approach.
“Paidi O’Sé used to do this more organically but he used to walk the beach down in west Kerry and he used to bring the football. There’s a wonderful photo of himself and I think it’s Eoin Brosnan but he’d walk the beach and he’d think ‘what if this happens, what if that happens?’
“That’s mental rehearsal, that’s visualisation, that’s mental preparation. People wouldn’t have associated it because there’s no scientific label on it but all of the good players, they’d practice those.
“I’m not going to compare myself to Paidi O’Sé now but he was a brilliant role model for mental preparation.”
Ballygunner will need to be mentally prepared to face the Tipperary champions in Pairc Ui Rinn this weekend. While it may have been their first county title in over three decades, Borris-lleigh proved they are not a team to be taken lightly when they overcame the challenge of Glen Rovers just one week later.
O’Sullivan is not buying into the idea that his opponents are underdogs.
“They’re a formidable side. I’m not just saying that to say it, but they are actually formidable. Obviously, personally watching it, over the last few weeks, their team is very, very strong.
“They’ve nearly an All-Ireland senior inter-county winner in every line. You’ve Paddy Stapleton, Brendan Maher, Dan McCormack, Conor Kenny, then you have young [James] Devaney in the full-forward line who’s the grandson of one of the greatest players to ever play the game.
“So we’re under no illusions that they’re not an unknown to us. And anyone in Tipp who has watched them, I’m sure they’re not an unknown.
“To beat Glen Rovers so convincingly, one of the power-houses of Munster hurling for generations, they’re definitely not unknown. From my point of view.”
Ballygunner and former Waterford hurler Shane O’Sullivan ahead of the AIB GAA Munster Senior Hurling Club Championship Final where they face Borris-Ileigh on Sunday, November 24th at Páirc Uí Rinn.
AIB is in its 29th year sponsoring the GAA Club Championship and is delighted to continue to support the Junior, Intermediate and Senior Championships across football, hurling and camogie.