Sunday's truly emotional final shows the importance of sports human touch

Should we really have been so surprised that last Sunday’s All-Ireland final and its aftermath were so emotional?

The gap between titles had nothing to do with it. Go back to 1988, and the last time Galway collected the Liam MacCarthy. Footage surfaced on the internet last week from The Sunday Game which covered their win that day over Tipperary — it showed Joe Connolly minutes after the final whistle, clearly overcome by the emotion of the victory.

Last weekend was raw enough too, though. When time was up between Galway and Waterford, RTÉ co-commentator Michael Duignan was emotional when referring to the late Tony Keady.

In his victory speech Galway captain David Burke also mentioned Keady, whose wife and children were nearby on the pitch. Burke also mentioned former teammate Niall Donoghue, who passed away suddenly a couple of years ago, and referred to the suicide charity Pieta House.

Waterford boss Derek McGrath was understandably heartbroken at the conclusion of the game, eyes brimming with tears as he spoke on television, and his powerful speech at the Waterford homecoming the following day struck a deep chord with his listeners.

Finally, when Galway returned home on the Monday manager Micheál Donoghue brought the trophy to show his father Miko, and it was clearly a deeply moving moment for both, as a superb Morgan Treacy photograph revealed.

Speaking on television immediately afterwards proved a struggle for Donoghue, a model of self-possession all through the season, but he found the words eventually.

”That’s what everything is about, isn’t it?” he said.

This relatively sudden outbreak of emotional openness in GAA circles is welcomed by Dr Mark Rowe, a GP who’s written books such as ‘A Prescription for Happiness’ and ‘The Men’s Health Book’. He has also worked with the Waterford hurling team, which explains his whereabouts last Sunday night.

“I was at the Waterford dinner in the Burlington with my wife, and it wasn’t a happy place to be in one sense, we hadn’t won, but it filled me with immense pride because of the dignified way in which everybody carried themselves. It was unprecedented.

“Derek (McGrath) spoke so eloquently that night, from the heart, and Kevin Moran spoke, and Kevin summarised the whole thing when he spoke about living in the now and being present.

“Okay, they’d done their best, they hadn’t won, but they’d enjoyed the experience and they weren’t going to run away from that; they’d participated in it rather than looking back and thinking ‘if only’.

“That’s one of the keys to contentment and fulfilment — it’s to be present, but the truth is that up to 50% of the time we’re not present at all.

“Sport can be brutal because it’s so final, it’s proverbially all or nothing, but the real essence of life — for everybody — is the journey, isn’t it?

“The destination is only fleeting compared to the journey, and the journey is that commitment to be better to yourself and to others. There are always people out there who can listen or support, your GP, voluntary groups . . . Self-care is not selfish care and Irish men need to be good to themselves, because everybody benefits from that.”

Referring to David Burke’s terrific victory speech, and his highlighting the work of Pieta House in particular, Rowe said that such openness was particularly welcome.

“Of course it is, it’s good to talk. One thing about being a male, and an Irish male in particular, is that we’ve been very emotionally repressed, and generally we haven’t been in a space where we can talk about how we feel.

“That isn’t just older guys but in younger guys too. It’s a cultural thing in Ireland, to bottle up how you feel. That’s the background and we have an epidemic of depression, ‘winter blues’, binge drinking and so on, but in recent years a growing minority, and I use ‘minority’ specifically, of men now embrace what it means to be a human being.

“They understand we’re not bullet-proof or immune from the vagaries of life. We’re not human doings, we’re human beings, and we have emotional intelligence, what I call our psychological fitness, which is just as important as our physical health.

“You can see that in a sporting context with brilliant people like Derek McGrath, who’s also a teacher who understands inner happiness is the foundation for success.

“That’s different to the old paradigm, where the harder you worked the more successful you became, and then you felt content. It’s good to set goals and targets but that’s actually the wrong way around; it starts with contentment and a sense of purpose. That leads to success, and many people have now embraced that.”

Powerful positive examples, such as that shot of the Donoghues’ embrace with the Liam MacCarthy Cup, can resonate far beyond those immediately involved. Rowe adds: “Good research from Yale University shows emotion is contagious out to three degrees of separation, so it doesn’t just have an impact on you but on your friends, and your friends’ friends.

“People you don’t even know can benefit from you being a leader in your own well-being.”

“The fact that recently enough people have come out and spoken about their battles with depression, that’s got to be good. In my talks I often say counselling is something everyone can benefit from. You don’t have to feel anxious or stressed out with life to benefit from talking to someone who’ll be non-biased, give you objective advice — or just give you a good listening ear.”

Rowe’s definition of health may be part of that objective advice.

“Health isn’t the absence of illness, it’s a state of physical, psychological and relational well-being, so everything’s connected.

“The World Health Organisation was saying that as long ago as 1948, but it seems to have been forgotten along the way: health is sport, environment, education, community. Health is all those things.”


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