Always finding answers

PREVIOUSLY, Kevin McMenamin’s head would have been wrecked before a big game, his nerves nearly shot, his energy practically drained.

The night of his championship debut against Wexford last year had been particularly torturous. What if he made a mistake? How loud would the crowd groan? What if Dublin fell behind? What if they lost? As it turned out they didn’t, but they almost did with McMenamin taken off long before the end, a shadow of the player he had been for most of the league.

In almost any other setup he wouldn’t have known where to turn to, but with this one he did. Caroline Currid had been there with them from their very first session of 2010, out on the basketball court in DCU at 6.30 on a frosty January morning, and from then on it was like she was one of them.

If you had a grievance with or query for management, you could go to her and she’d discreetly suss it out. If you were feeling a bit flat, you could confide in her, if she hadn’t subtly approached you already. Towards the end of that league McMenamin had hit a wall, only to meet Currid the week before they played Tyrone away and find the few pointers she gave him, and again at half time, hugely useful and reassuring.

Now he had run up against another dead end so again they met for their monthly coffee. Together they talked it through, worked it out.

“She just had a very simple and honest way of dealing with you,” says McMenamin. “She’d hear you out and then between us we’d come up with the best way to approach it.”

It was okay for McMenamin to run through a game in his head, but only for about 10 minutes, and only when he was nice and relaxed, like on his bed at home, picturing how he wanted to play and to react, rather than how he didn’t want to play or react.

“Any longer than those 10 minutes, Kevin, do you find it helps you to be thinking about the game?” she asked him. “No, it doesn’t,” he responded.

“Is there anything that you do or like that gets your mind off the game?”

And that’s how super sub Kevin McMenamin came up with his own ingenious little pre-match routine.

It was slightly different from that of his 1982 equivalent, Seamus Darby, who eased his nerves the night before he made history and felled a kingdom by phoning up his brother-in-law and enquiring if he had a bottle of brandy handy, which the two of them drained along with a sprinkling of 7-Up.

It wasn’t totally unlike it though. Again it was offbeat, again it worked. The evening before this year’s All-Ireland final, a couple of McMenamin’s club-mates called over to his house in Templeogue, a guitar and banjo in hand. McMenamin greeted them with a mandolin in his hand before taking them to the back room, where they jammed for a couple of hours. Instead of thinking and worrying about Marc Ó Sé and Eoin Brosnan and Tom O’Sullivan, he was too absorbed playing and singing tunes from the likes of The Pogues, Damien Dempsey and Bell X1. He hadn’t a care in the world, and thanks to that little help from his friends, a day later he’d feel king of that world too.

About an hour after McMenamin had scored the goal that shook a stadium and a whole country, Pat Gilroy reflected on his team’s journey from startled earwigs to All-Ireland champions.

“We’ve done an awful lot of work on our mindset,” he said. “We’ve got huge benefit out of doing things a certain way. Some people who know a lot about the mind have been really helpful.”

Gilroy didn’t specify that “certain way” or who those certain people were but he was primarily referring to Caroline Currid and the Sligo woman’s pioneering way of working with GAA teams.

Before Currid, advisors to inter-county teams on the mental game were usually rolled in on a sporadic basis to talk to the group in general; sit downs with individual players were infrequent, almost fire-fighting, affairs. From her time working as a performance coach in the corporate world, Currid identified there had to be another way: the immersion approach. She’d go to all their games, most training sessions and meet every player one-to-one every month or so.

“I felt to get the most out of a team of players it wasn’t good enough to just do group sessions. You couldn’t really get to the root of some stuff that was going on with players. The only way you could do that was to sit down with them and give them time on an individual basis.

“I had to know these guys at a completely different level rather than being seen as some head shrink coming in to deal with their problems. I’d wear their gear, chat to them at training, become one of their unit, one of their family.”

Probably the reason it hadn’t been tried before was because people had assumed county boards would baulk at the time and cost involved but Currid sensed progressive ones would realise they nearly couldn’t afford not to have such a programme. The record and trophies have backed up her vision and her hunch.

The first team she tried it out with was Tyrone in 2008. In 2009 she joined up with the Tipperary hurlers and was still with them when they won the 2010 All-Ireland. These past two years she’s been working with the Dubs, the current All-Ireland football champions. That’s three All-Irelands in four years. The odd year out was 2009 and that year Tipperary gave probably the greatest runners-up performance any September has ever known, performance being the operative word.

That’s the business she sees herself in — performance. She’s just finished her masters in sports psychology in Jordanstown and has studied psychology through open university but she finds athletes tend to shirk at the term ‘sport psychologist’ so she tends to shy away from it too. She has qualifications in business coaching and as an NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) master practitioner but she doesn’t go around calling herself any of those things either.

Instead on her website she describes herself a performance coach. All those other disciplines have helped her and her clients — including one Paul O’Connell — but ultimately facilitating performance and the athlete is what it’s all about.

“It’s about steering them towards what they want to achieve. It’s very much their agenda rather than me going into the room and saying, ‘Right, well, I’m going to make this happen’.

“You listen to them and then between the two of us we try to come up with an intervention. It could be a problem at home and the solution is to move out of the home place. The key is to actively listen to them, let them express themselves. Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

Seek first to understand, then to be understood. The first time she heard that pearl of Stephen Covey’s was from an old mentor about seven years ago. When she looks back on who she was back then, it makes her laugh and it makes her cringe but above all it made her learn.

She was with MBNA banking in Carrick-on-Shannon and had made her way up from being a debt collector to section manager. At 23, she thought she’d arrived in the world. The shy little girl they’d known starting out was now an all-knowing, all-conquering boss. Boy, would she tell them what to do; boy, would she put them in their place!

“I went about it completely the wrong way. I thought people were beneath me. I was demanding that people work overtime rather than asking them. I was treating them as employees rather than human beings. These people had been in the bank for years yet here was Bucko, telling them it was my way or the highway!

“I was lucky I had a great boss. Matt McGrath called me in one day and said, ‘Caroline, you’re as good as anyone but you’re not superior than anyone either’. He taught me a huge amount about how to manage people. Maybe the reason they couldn’t work overtime that evening was because they had to collect their child from some class but they’d have no problem working overtime the next night, once you’d taken time to listen to what their circumstances were.”

Around this time she was also playing for the Sligo ladies footballers, helping them reach three consecutive All-Ireland junior finals. Again, there was huge learning in that. In the lead up to this year’s All-Ireland final Dublin kept talk of the post-match banquet to a minimum; the only people you could bring were your partner and your parents, end of story, while the first time you’d see your suit would be in your hotel room after the game.

That would have been informed by Currid’s experience of the 2004 All-Ireland junior ladies final. The Sligo girls had seemed more focused on banquet tickets and dresses than the game itself.

“We got caught up in the whole occasion and felt heavy on the day. It was only in the second half we started to play but by then we were eight points down.”

For 2005 she was made captain, but in the Connacht final her cruciate went. That’s when her fascination with the mental game really began. To help her in her recovery, she ate up a library of sport psychology and personal development books, everything from Bob Rotella to Robin Sharma’s The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari.

A year later she was back on the Sligo panel that would finally make their All-Ireland breakthrough and studying and working in performance business coaching. By the end of 2007 she was prepared to go into sports performance coaching full-time; while banking had been her apprenticeship, sport was her passion.

She spent that autumn cold-calling and meeting some of the biggest names in Irish sport to gain an insight into what mental approaches and techniques worked for them. Packie Bonner would have been one of them; Catherina McKiernan and Eamonn Coghlan too. What changed everything though was when she met Mickey Harte and mentioned her vision of performance coaching some GAA team for 2008. Harte told her to look no further. Tyrone would be that team.

She learned so much from that experience but they learned so much from hers too. They won that All-Ireland with marquee names like Mulligan and O’Neill as fringe players and unsung heroes like Martin Penrose, Collie McCullagh and Tommy McGuigan having career years. McGuigan himself puts a lot of that down to their one-to-one sessions with Currid.

“Up until that year,” McGuigan would say, “I’d have put too much pressure on myself taking frees, thinking, ‘This has to go over!’ Caroline taught me to relax and take a few deep breaths and think more, ‘This is going over’.”

Currid could empathise with McGuigan because when she became Sligo captain she’d put too much pressure on herself too. Instead of wanting to play well, she felt she had to do well and it was stifling her rather than trusting herself and letting it just happen.

Although such sessions with Currid can be soft, even soothing, some of her sessions, particularly the group ones, can be blunt, even brutal. She has done some terrific work on the club circuit, most notably helping Carrigtwohill win their first Cork senior hurling title in 93 years, and one of the most recurring issues and one of her greatest skills is bringing the group’s norm commitment level up towards that of the team’s most ambitious players.

“There are guys on the club scene who primarily just want to have the craic and that can be very frustrating for the guys who want to win. And one of the ways of handling it is to have accountability sessions where if someone feels someone else isn’t pulling up their socks, they say it straight out.

“You open it up, where the team is driving the team, not the manager, because they’re the guys who cross that white line together. A sports team doesn’t have to necessarily all like one another, though it helps, but they must all respect each other and in order to get that respect they must hold each other accountable and be honest with each other. Because it all comes out, one way or the other.

“If fellas are drinking, if fellas are late for training and all that stays under the carpet, then it will all come to the surface in the big game when the team is under pressure and they start being narky at each other because they don’t trust each other. In those accountability sessions I’ve seen players tear strips off each other, but by the end of it they almost always feel like a massive weight has been lifted off them, because before that everyone was talking behind each other’s backs and nobody was confronting the real issues.”

She stops short of saying she had to conduct such a session with Dublin, only to say that after her preliminary round of one-to-ones they found they were too individualistic and need to become a tighter, more coherent unit. Her real work though wasn’t so much talking to the group as getting the most out of all of those individuals. Not all the players availed of the Caroline option — “It would be naïve of me to think all 34 players would buy into it,” she says — but most of them did. The great thing she had over management was that while she was a link with them, she wasn’t one of them. She couldn’t drop them, she wouldn’t judge them.

Kevin Nolan, man of the match in the All-Ireland final, particularly benefitted from the ear and the words she offered. At the end of the 2010 league, his career with Dublin was on the brink. He’d played less than 70 minutes throughout that entire spring campaign and in May Gilroy relegated him to a development squad, telling him he could still make the starting 15 for the championship or just as easily be out of their plans altogether; it was up to him, depending on how he went with this development squad.

Nolan was startled but upped his game and sought out Currid.

“Caroline put it in such a way to me that Pat had been mentally testing me to see how I’d react and that I’d passed the test. After that I would have spoken to her a lot. What we found was that I would have been thinking too much about how my direct opponent would play. I was listening to too many people and worrying too much about my opponent’s strengths.

“I now find myself playing with a greater freedom, that I focus more on my own game without over analysing it, which is where Caroline came in, helping me come up with some little buzzwords to keep myself loose.”

He’s also struck a better lifestyle balance. In the past he’d have found if he wasn’t studying, he should be taken up by football and if he wasn’t doing something related to football that he should be studying.

“Caroline explained to me that it was good to hang out more with my friends and girlfriend because it reduced my stress levels and increased my energy levels.

“The Friday before this year’s Leinster semi-final against Kildare, I went to Tommy Tiernan with my girlfriend and had a great laugh. A couple of years ago I’d never have done that. I’d have thought if I wasn’t cooped up at home I wasn’t preparing properly for the match.”

He’s still laughing. Because Dublin have Sam, in no small part because they had the benefit of the Currid effect.

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