When Ireland’s Six Nations trip to Paris was called off as the Covid-19 pandemic swept across Europe, John Cooney could not help but laugh.
Ulster’s goalkicking scrum-half was having the season of his life, had earned three Test caps off the bench from head coach Andy Farrell, and may have been in line for a start in the No. 9 jersey had the game against France gone ahead.
Yet while such a setback might in previous years have sent the younger Cooney into a bout of self-pity, the 29-year-old, who has since turned 30, has rolled with enough punches during his professional career and learned to take control of his mental wellbeing.
Talking yesterday in his role as an ambassador for Rugby Players Ireland’s Tackle Your Feelings campaign, Cooney shared his experience of being better able to cope with life’s challenges such as the shoulder surgeries he had to rebound from in order to stake his claim for Ireland recognition.
It was not always easy and the former Leinster and Connacht scrum-half struggled mentally as a younger man, something he has relayed in a video for the TYF campaign.
He spoke of the intervention by his sister Sarah, who recommended he see a counsellor as he struggled during an injury lay-off while he was at Connacht, and of the debt of gratitude he felt he owed to his mother Ligouri when memories of her support stopped him from feeling sorry for himself.
“It was emotional,” Cooney said watching his mostly animated video.
“I sent it to my brother and sister and my sister said she was close to crying. They were huge for me, my family. That’s probably one of the things that kept me going the whole time, them.
“My sister was the one who suggested I go see a counsellor and I think it was my 24th or 25th birthday, I was at Connacht and she sent me Golf Is A Game of Confidence, the book by Dr Bob Rotella. I’d just started goalkicking and that really helped me at the start in terms of the psychology of it.
“She wrote me an open letter basically to stay in there and not give up and all these types of things which made a big difference to me.
“Same with my mum, she did a lot for me growing up so I sent it to her and I’d say that made her pretty upset. She would have brought me everywhere when I was young, to all my football games and my rugby games so I think through all those injuries it was easy for me to stay motivated thinking about the sacrifices they had made for me.
“I think that’s a huge message. I think people get quite selfish when they get injured or things aren’t going their way and they forget the time and sacrifices other people have made for them, so that made a big difference to me.”
Likening the current lockdown to being sidelined through injury, Cooney said he has benefited from his involvement with the TYF campaign.
“Definitely. When I was out with that right shoulder, it was my third surgery through injury. I was at Connacht and I went to see a counsellor and that was through Rugby Players Ireland, they funded six of the sessions for me and that set me on this path of understanding my mind and understanding what more I can get from the mental aspect rather than just the physical.
“Before that I was adamant that hard work and continuously trying to be fitter and stronger than everyone was the way I was going to be the best rugby player.
“I think breaking down my personality and understanding how I tick, how I can gain a bit more from trying to be smarter than other people or smarter in my approach made a big difference for me.
“Now I put a good onus on that. My girlfriend set it up, we have a little mindfulness corner (containing a Buddha figure, beanbag and candles) now in the house where I can go onto the TYF app or whatever other things I want to use and take 10-15 minutes to myself, which is making a big difference.
“That’s something I never would have done say five or six years ago.
“I find that sense of happiness or contentment I get after that makes a big difference that I probably won’t get from running 20 lengths of a field or 40km on a bike.”
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