The Kieran Shannon Interview: Kevin McManamon gets in tune

Kevin McManamon has many things on his mind besides playing football for Dublin. But it took him some time to get his mind right to play for the Metropolitans.
The Kieran Shannon Interview: Kevin McManamon gets in tune

Dublin, you’re a tough bastard

Yet full of the softness of all the people on your streets

DUBLIN YOU ARE, STEPHEN JAMES SMITH (poet)

December evening in Dublin and on the stroke of the appointed hour, Kevin McManamon, the strap of his bag running across his chest, makes his way through the bar door and over to you.

McManamon doesn’t bustle in the way he always seems to bustle about the football field but he’s a man on the move with a lot on the go, only he’s taking some time out here to sit down with you and outline all what he has on.

He’s just come from meeting a musician about an upcoming event he’s putting on for mental health awareness. Once he finishes with you here then, he’ll dash home to fetch his banjo and head out to play some music himself with his brother in a city centre bar.

That’s without mentioning the new day job. Or some of his sport psychology work with the likes of basketball Superleague Cup champions and league leaders, Templeogue.

It would be glib to say that playing with Dublin is about the least interesting thing about him, because when he speaks about that experience in his open, candid manner, there’s nothing the least bit uninteresting about it, but it’s fair to say there’s a lot more to Kevin McManamon than just being a Dublin footballer.

His housemate is Danny O’Reilly, the lead singer of The Coronas, and sometimes they wonder could they trade places. “I’d love to be a musician,” smiles McManamon, “but I don’t have the talent. Danny says he’d love to be a footballer. All he wants to talk about is football. All I want to talk about is music.”

The Pogues were the first act that rocked his world. As a kid he’d spend summer holidays in Achill, watching his dad join in with the locals in the music sessions. After hearing ‘Rainy Night in Soho’, he asked the old man to teach him how to play it.

I’ve been loving you such a long time

Down all the years, down all the days

And I’ve cried for all your troubles

Smile at your funny little ways

Fifteen years on, he still loves it. At his wedding, at his funeral, he’ll want that played.

A bit of Damien Dempsey will have to be thrown in somewhere too. This past week he caught one of his gigs in Vicar Street, he goes to see him there every Christmas.

“Damo just blows me away with what he’s writing about, his passion. At Christmas when he sings the song, ‘Chris And Stevie’, it’s the best seven minutes of my year. It’s about two mates he grew up with who commit suicide. It’s obviously sad for long parts of it but then there’s this change in the middle about hope and support. ‘Talk to me and tell me how you feel/Lean on me, I’m here.’”

That sentiment very much drives what McManamon now does with his days. During the summer he finished up working in the fresh food business that he set up with a St Jude’s clubmate straight after leaving college in 2009.

“The job was grand but I was only working so I could control my hours and play for Dublin; if [Pat] Gilroy was to suddenly say we were having a camp, I wouldn’t have an issue with it. I was making enough money, I was living at home, not a bother on me, but I never even thought I should be enjoying my work.”

Having studied a masters in sport psychology a few years ago and began practising in the field, he wanted a job in which he could help improve the emotional well-being of people.

He was familiar with the work of Aware.ie from Bernard Brogan being a director with the charity, and after hearing about their Beat The Blues programme, got trained up to help roll it out in schools throughout the county.

“It’s basically to educate students on what services Aware provide. A lot of them don’t have any real idea of the symptoms of depression or anxiety or bipolar. It gives them some tools to deal with some of the stresses they’re bound to face. Whether it’s the pressure of having to get so many points in the Leaving, or stuff on social media, or simply feeling down about yourself, it gives them ways to look at their stresses a bit differently.”

A small spark can ignite the light and hold it in your heart

But a small thought can put it out and hold you in the dark

ROISÍN Ó, HOLD ON

About a year ago, McManamon attended a night for Pieta House in the company of Paul Flynn, an ambassador for the cause. Ten speakers, 10 stories, each told in 10 minutes. Rory O’Carroll spoke at it, rugby international Jack McGrath too, and Conor Cusack. The eloquence and compassion of the Corkman greatly moved McManamon and triggered the idea of running a similar event himself.

“Myself and my mate Martin left that night so invigorated. The message was to help look out for people when they’re struggling, when they’re in the dark. And there was a phrase Conor used that night that really stuck with me – Warriors of the Light.

“I can’t tell you the amount of times in my work as a sport psych I’ve sat down with athletes and they’ve said, ‘I’ve never told anyone this before, Kev, but this is going on at the moment. I’m finding it hard to deal with it.’ You’d be thinking, ‘Why haven’t you told someone before? It’s nothing to be ashamed about, we all have something going on behind the scenes.’ For a while there more of the interventions were about people’s lives rather than about the sport.

“So that, mixed with my interest in music, the fact I love TED talks and am actually good at running events, I rang a few mates. ‘You know what we’re going to do – we’re going to have a night of poetry, songs and stories.’ The first Warriors of the Light night was in May in the intimate setting of The Fumbally Cafe, with the proceeds going to Aware. Candles were lit. Songs were sung. Poems were read. Stories were shared.

This month he held another one, in Blás Cafe. Next year he’ll run some more. They’re not just so people can pat themselves on the back for making some token gesture to a good cause and then do no more about it; anyone who attends them take a lot home with them.

“The idea is to create a culture of compassion and a safe space for people to take off their masks and be themselves for a few hours. And it helps people to be more conscious of others who might be under pressure and be aware of the power and the beauty that comes with helping others.

“Something I’ve taken from one of the clinical directors in Aware is that too much of the talk around mental health can be about what people are thinking and feeling at a particular time and not enough about their actions. So what are the helpful actions you do to improve a person’s mental health? That’s the stuff I’m trying to go after.

“Some people might have a gratitude journal. Some people might meditate.

“Me? I like to jump into the sea. That’s what I do.” Jump into the blue.

And, of course, play for the boys in blue. too makes him feel fully alive as well.

I take a few shlugs on the kisser

I’m comin’ back wailin’, big right sailin’

’Cos you know, I got no brakes

It doesn’t matter how long that it takes

My luck, I’m gonna make

Patience, give me some of that patience, Lord

I will keep my eye on my goal

Patience, give me some of that sweet patience, Lord

I will keep my eye on the ball

DAMIEN DEMPSEY, PATIENCE

He’s on four All-Irelands now. And four leagues. Six Leinsters.

It all seems so straightforward now, the winning, the journey, devoid of any real struggle.

But that’s not how it’s been. It has been a struggle. Just like it was for Paul O’Connell, the real battle was internal, wrestling with his own mind. And like O’Connell it took the intervention of Caroline Currid for him to start winning that battle. Players from older generations, especially a few prominent ones from the 1990s, have been loud recently in their scepticism of the benefits of sport psychology, but McManamon strongly believes that view is outdated.

“If I hadn’t worked with a sport psychologist, I don’t think I’d still be playing with Dublin. I definitely wouldn’t have had the year I had this year. I wouldn’t have had anywhere near the success I’ve had.”

He first got called up to the Dublin panel at 23, around this time seven years ago. His club St Jude’s were just coming off reaching their first county final, Dublin were just after coming off a 17-point hammering to Kerry. “I felt I could have been in there a couple of years earlier but I might have just sat around the edge of the panel. When I did get in, I was playing. Gilroy gave me a chance.”

That first league of 2010, he was a fixture in the team. Played well, enough to get the nod to start in the first round of the championship. Against Wexford. In Croker. Dublin needed extra-time to scrape past. McManamon had been taken off long before then.

“Coming up through the ranks I’d have always seen myself as a big-game player. But something changed when I got to Croker. It had always been my dream, to get just one game in Croker with Dublin, just one championship start, and no one would be able to take it away from me. It was only a few years later I’d cop that my dream was never to play well in that game. I’d built it up so much, into this huge thing, and I had never pictured it going well.

“For the next few years, I wasn’t trusted as a starter because I just wasn’t consistent in Croke Park in the big games. I had to kind of go away and reinvent myself as a sub. For some reason, I rarely felt nervous as a sub. The only time I was nervous was against Kerry in 2011 (the All-Ireland final). I was brutal when I first came on. I picked up a yellow card, gave away a free, dropped a ball short, double-hopped on our own 21. Then I scored the goal and everything just changed. I finally calmed down and played well.”

Even being the hero of that breakthrough All-Ireland win didn’t quell the doubts. In 2012, he was again plagued by them and after a subdued All-Ireland semi-final loss to Mayo, he sought a coffee with Currid, even though she was a year out of the setup. Over that chat, it clicked with him. The key to winning The Battle.

A voracious reader, he’s come across a few of those Players’ Tribune pieces in which an established superstar, like a Pete Sampras or Kobe Bryant, writes a letter to their younger self, advising them of what they know now that could have helped them then. What would he tell the younger Kevin McManamon?

“It’s about understanding the nerves. I thought these nerves I had were a bad thing. I was thinking, ‘I’m not good enough, I’m not fit enough, I’m not ready for this.’ Then when the ball would be thrown in, I’d be absolutely wrecked tired from all the over-thinking and doubts.

“One of my favourite TED talks is the one by Kelly McGonigal. How To Make Stress Your Friend. That when your heart starts beating a bit faster, go ‘Oh deadly, that’s getting blood around my body.’ Or your breath goes a bit faster. ‘Great, that’s getting oxygen to my brain.’

“That’s the message I’d be sending back to that younger guy — try to understand what your body and brain is going through during these games. I was misinterpreting the nerves when I should have been seeing them as excitement, my body and brain’s way of telling me, ‘Hey, you want to do something extra here.’

“It took me years to understand that. I don’t know which it was first, the chicken or the egg: whether I used not perform on the day so I’d lose my confidence, or I didn’t have enough confidence and I wouldn’t perform on the big day. But it was eventually pinpointed to me by Caroline that I needed to work on my confidence.

“I could tell you I’m good at running events or I’m good as a sport psych because I am but I would never have felt comfortable back then saying I’m a really good footballer. I wouldn’t have a problem saying it now because I’ve worked on it. Confidence is a skill, it’s like a muscle; it’s something you need to work on the same way you would work on a muscle physically.”

little while ago there he went back through his journal of his first year in with Dublin, 2010, and found himself shaking his head, smiling. His younger self had it all wrong. He’d been reared to be his biggest critic, without being told he also needed to be his own biggest fan. By making sure not to get ahead of himself, he was leaving himself stay way behind.

“Our last league game was up in Omagh and I was playing inside with Berno [Bernard Brogan] for the first time. I was still star-struck playing with some of these guys. But I remember I really teamed up well with him that day.

“I must have had four or five assists in the first half as well as kicking two points myself. Yet when I looked back on my journal, I was so hard on myself. I had given myself a five out of 10 or something, when it had really been an eight out of 10 performance.

There was a full page on all the things I had done wrong, and then on the next page there was just a small paragraph, ‘Oh yeah, in the first half I had two points and five assists.’

“I thought the negative self-talk would motivate me to try harder, whereas I was already so committed, so motivated. I didn’t need to try any harder. I just needed to realign how I was talking to myself.”

The self-doubt led to hesitation. And he who hesitated got dropped. By being afraid to make mistakes, he was only committing more of them.

“There were years there when I was trying to make sure I was taking the right option rather than being instinctive. You’d be there, ‘should I shoot?’ and something would pop into your head. ‘There might be a pass over the top.’ And you’d hesitate and then get blocked down when you might have had a perfectly good opportunity to shoot.”

In time he’d learn to just do it and feck it and deal with it after. Although he would maybe still make the wrong decision, it would be a rare one and one he’d cope with.

“I would have done a lot of work in trying to respond better after kicking a wide. I know now that I have in the locker that I’ll react well when the ball goes wide. It’s something I say to athletes now when I’m doing some sport psych with them: the power of overcoming mistakes triumphantly. Seeing yourself as a guy that isn’t negatively affected by them. As if ‘That’s like me. That was the odd one out.’

“I used to dwell on misses for ages. I missed one against Mayo in 2012 near the end. There was hardly a word about it because [Bernard] Brogan missed the goal chance that [David] Clarke saved but that miss of mine wrecked my head.”

Well, was it not supposed to, since it was in the last few minutes of the last game of your season?

“Look, for me spending time on these things doesn’t work for me. It might work for some players but not me. My self-talk needs to hear more of the good stuff.”

He still needs a certain level of tension to perform. Every league game he plays for Dublin he treats like championship, he says, not just so he becomes immune to over-anxiety on the big days. “Potentially they could be my last game if I don’t play well.”

But what he’s learned is a more relaxed approach works best.

Starting out with the Dubs, he’d spend the night before games running them through in his head for hours, thinking of all that could go wrong.

“I play my best when I’m instinctive. It can be so tempting to over-prepare but it’s like cramming for an exam at the last minute. It doesn’t serve me. My consistent performances come from doing less rather than more and just trusting my stuff.

“The day before a match I might do a bit of stretching and then do about 15 intense minutes of mental preparation. I might do some mental imagery or I might just take out the diary from that week and see I’ve all the boxes ticked and that’s it.”

Then, knowing he’s right, he’ll head out. To get outside of his own head. Instead of fretting about how he might fare the next day, he becomes absorbed in something. Like a gig. A film. A play. Depends. The night before this year’s league final against Kerry, he went along to Vicar Street with his housemate Danny to see Bell X1. Before the Leinster final, he caught the play The Constant Wife in the Gate Theatre. The best of the lot though he says was The Fringe Festival.

“I went to a show called Riot. Panti Bliss was in it and this brilliant talent called Emmet Kirwan who did this poem-rap. It was a kind of a variety show, with all these, acrobats and all. It was brilliant. Now, maybe it put me off because I had a brutal game in the drawn All-Ireland final the next day but....!”

Dublin, are you dynamic?

Struggling with identity, changing for the better, changing for us

Dublin, don’t be scared to change. Don’t be scared

We are with you, always my friend, my home

Mentioned 50 times in this poem

We live in you. My city. Mo chroí. I love you

See, most of the time, Dublin, you are me.

DUBLIN YOU ARE, STEPHEN JAMES SMITH

Being Kevin McManamon, the man who’s all go, he has to go shortly now, but not before asking how you are and what you’re currently reading. When you, in turn, ask what he has by the bedside, the choice shouldn’t surprise you. You know by now that he’s fascinated by the mental side of sport.

Timothy Gallwey’s The Inner Game of Tennis and The Inner Game of Golf were devoured a long time ago. Now he’s reading The Inner Game of Music, written by Gallwey’s associate, Barry Green. That’s how much the mind and music fascinate him.

He’s gigging in town with the brother this particular night. It’s mostly Irish material they play, jigs and reels, the Pogues, The Dubliners, ‘I’ll tell me ma’, that kind of stuff, before in the second set they maybe pick 20 songs they just love playing themselves. It was supposed to be just a summer thing, a way to unwind on Mondays after maybe playing a big game in Croker against a Donegal or Kerry in front of 82,000.

“But now I don’t want to stop! I enjoy it too much!”

He rarely gets recognised in the bar. It’s one of the great things of living in this city, where on a Sunday you can be a Boy in Blue cheered on by 20,000 on the Hill and then the next day, just playing a banjo and mandolin in a bar in Killarney or Castlebar, virtually anonymous to the punters foot-tapping and singing along, a freedom you wouldn’t think that Gooch or Cillian O’Connor could enjoy in a bar in Killarney or Castlebar.

The idea of having another side to you, another way of expressing yourself, is a big thing with him. The proceeds from the second Warriors of the Light gig held this month is going to SOAR, the foundation established by the former Clare hurler Tony Griffin to help develop the wellbeing and confidence of young people. McManamon has seen them at work and found his own soul soar.

“I was at one of their workshops with a group of 16-year-old lads in which they basically challenged the whole concept of masculinity. ‘Right, well what are the man rules, like?’ And I just loved the way they challenged the old conventions. I could see kids change right in front of me.

“At the start it was ‘So right, you’re saying it’s a man’s rule to be strong, to be the breadwinner, to not show your feelings.’ But where they got the kids to realise was that yes, there’s days where you have to show strength, but there’s also days where you have to show vulnerability and let people in as to how you’re feeling. To me, that’s the skill of masculinity.”

It’s a skill he’s trying to master. On Sundays the guy who used to get so overwhelmed by nerves will now bury Peter Crowley with a thundering shoulder in the closing minutes of an All-Ireland semi-final; then on a Monday, be there for the vulnerable to say they can lean on him or someone else.

“I suppose I just really enjoy trying to figure people out,” he says as we both get up to leave. “To have real conversations about real things and find ways to help someone who is under a bit of pressure, whether it’s in sport or in life.”

Like Dublin, the city and the team, he’s a tough bastard.

Yet full of softness.

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