Quite often I found they were laden down with stories of mischief and changing room practical jokes, a diary of wins and losses usually with respectful accounts of their foes and basically not enough insight.
Not enough meat in the sandwich for an up-and-coming athlete. On a recommendation, I did read Paul O’Connell’s book recently and was pleasantly surprised at its content.
Many themes emerge and are evident throughout the book, such as Paulie’s ridiculous competitiveness and critical self-analysis. Another one I found strangely comforting, as a current athlete, is the self-doubt he sometimes suffered, even from one of the greatest and most decorated rugby players.
One of the indelible marks the book left, and which sets the tone for this article, is how he craved the unwavering support and encouragement of his father. Even up until retirement, Paul states it was a comfort to know no matter how he performed his dad would be backing him.
As a youngster playing golf, swimming, rugby, and even dabbling with fishing, he arrived into every competition with an already elevated level of confidence just because his dad told him he would be great.
It got me thinking, if Paul wasn’t lucky enough to have that relationship with his father, which shaped so much of his formative years, would he have achieved so much? Would Ireland have lost out on the services of one of their greatest sportsmen? Following on from that, do we encourage our youth enough?
One of the benefits of becoming a part-time professional athlete is it has afforded me the opportunity to pursue employment in other avenues beyond that of my primary occupation as a physiotherapist.
One of the opportunities I have been incredibly fortunate to take has been to become a ‘Sky Sports Living for Sport Athlete Mentor’. Set up and run by a UK=based charity, the ‘Youth Sports Trust’ I am part of a team of 30 or so athlete mentors in Ireland (extending to 120 when including the UK) who travel to schools speaking to students between 11 and 18 years of age trying to motivate and drive the need to have personal goals and aspirations, home to these teenagers.
It has long been touted athletes make great role models for our youth and even our adults too. Scroll across the common characteristics of successful athletes in your head and many common themes emerge: serious work ethic, passion driven, mentally strong, resolute, ambitious.
Surely many of the traits we’d like our youth to possess regardless of what path they choose to follow in life. Certainly, this has been identified nationwide as our sporting heroes are rolled out to perform duties from medal presentations to opening shops to marketing various products.
What is different about the role of an athlete mentor, however, is the impact is much greater than a handshake and an autograph. The athlete visits their allocated school twice where they might interact with any group or individual who the school believes may benefit from such interaction.
The greatest bang for buck is the athlete mentor works closely with a maximum group of 20 students, selected by the school, on two separate occasions.
Imagine you are a teenager sitting in school and you have superstars across a wide range of sports from GAA to rugby, athletics to kickboxing, modern pentathlon to bocce coming in to tell you their life story. Still not impressed?
How about names like Noel McGrath, Cora Staunton, Alison Miller, Natalya Coyle, Thomas Barr, Michael McKillop, Darran O’Sullivan, Carla Rowe, Jessie Barr, Paul Geaney, Darren O’Neill, Karl Lacey to randomly name a few?
These athletes are coming in to share their life story, to tell the students all about the peaks and many troughs on their path to success. It isn’t an opportunity to inflate their egos, toot their horn, more to show the kids that they were just like them; ordinary teenagers sitting awkwardly in their school chair, unsure of themselves or their way in life.
They weren’t superstars back then, and encountered many road blocks along the way on and off the pitch. But, importantly they never gave up. The aim of the program isn’t to identify the next sporting star within the school, far from it. The school identifies the group that the athlete works with.
Where the programme has greatest impact is when the students selected are the strugglers, the ones with poor behaviour, absenteeism, low self-esteem and are basically on a road to nowhere.
Day-in day-out these teenagers break rules at home and at school, get given out to and punished, break more rules and are basically stuck in this cycle where their negative space means the only interaction they have with family and teachers are negative ones.
It is incredibly difficult for guardians and teachers to try to deal with this, day in day out, as well dealing with siblings and other students and I certainly don’t envy them.
As an athlete mentor, we can go into the school with carte blanche, so to speak, and try to target these individuals in a positive way.
Often times I go to inner-city schools and these kids haven’t a notion who I am. But by the end of the four hours together listening, playing games and doing team building tasks, it’s amazing the change that can occur.
I’ve seen young guys who I’d nearly cross the street to avoid in public (who have only agreed to participate so they didn’t have to go to class) actually blush when praised for positive behaviour.
Instead of being marginalised for disrupting classwork, they’re given leadership roles within the tasks and their strengths identified and publically encouraged. Teachers report subsequently that ‘Tommy’ was the best behaved and most engaged they’d ever seen him.
How long this good behaviour lasts I don’t know. But if it breaks the vicious cycle of almost accepted negativity, if it gets through to even one or two or 20 kids that they are worthwhile, they have the potential to make something of themselves, then that is a success.
We’re not modern-day Mother Teresa’s travelling the country saving delinquents from a life of petty crime. My colleagues and I obviously get paid for the work we do. But there’s a large sense of job satisfaction at the end of a day where you meet a group of disengaged, unmotivated and unambitious teenagers in the morning and they bounce out the door at the end of the day.
Or the shy nervous girl in the corner who wouldn’t make eye contact that morning but voluntarily stood up and directed her class as a leader by lunchtime.
We all crave positive feedback no matter what the age, level of education or competency in a task. Quite often who delivers this message is almost more important than the message itself.
For some, it might simply be an acknowledgment of a job well done. For others, it might mean a whole lot more. I grew up in an environment that was more ‘stick’ than ‘carrot’, not too dissimilar to the rest of society. What my role as an athlete mentor has taught me, is that our words can carry a serious amount of weight for one of the most vulnerable groups in our society: our youth.
In a world pock-marked with opinions, perceptions and often unrealistic expectations, where trying to find your feet as a teenager is probably more treacherous than ever, the rest of us who are a bit more self-assured must encourage not discourage.
I’m asking anyone reading this who encounters a young person this weekend whether as a parent, a coach, or just meeting someone working in the local shop — praise them for something good that they did. Who knows, if we all offer a little more carrot than stick, we might unearth a new Paul O’Connell.
Now that wouldn’t be a bad thing!