When the World Stops Watching: How Tony Óg Regan struggled to cope with life after Galway hurling

A new book - When the World Stops Watching - tells intimate stories of 16 Irish sportspeople, offering front-row insight into how elite sportspeople fare in the sporting afterlife. Damien Lawlor spoke to former Galway hurler Tony Óg Regan.
When the World Stops Watching: How Tony Óg Regan struggled to cope with life after Galway hurling

PAIN GAME: A dejected Tony Óg Regan after Galway’s All-Ireland SHC quarter-final defeat to Tipperary in 2010. He found the adjustment to life after sport challenging. Picture: Matt Browne/Sportsfile

Losing your identity. Uncertainty over what comes next. Withdrawing from friends, family, and activities, excessive time spent on social media and the internet, alcohol and drug use and over-eating, or binging on junk food.

The red flags are everywhere when it comes to life after the game. In rugby, a concerted effort has been made to get players to switch onto the notion of planning for their future from a long way out.

A 2019 Players Association report in England revealed that 95% of retired players need a second career, with salaries nowhere near what professional footballers, for instance, earn.

That survey also showed that 52% of respondents didn’t feel in control of their lives two years after they retire, 62% experienced some sort of mental health issue and nearly 50% had financial difficulty in the first five years.

Maybe these patterns emerge because the athletes are finally off a leash. Or have no structure anymore. That purpose they hold in sport, that rhythm they move to, that self-discipline they hold themselves to account to, those extremes are not typically demanded and required in the real world. The real world is a bit messier. A lot of issues can suddenly manifest themselves when the athlete is on the outside. And many sportspeople don’t know how to transition.

Former Galway hurler Tony Óg Regan is now one of the country’s leading sports psychologists and concedes that, initially, he didn’t know how to handle life on the outside either.

He was culled twice from the county senior hurling squad. The first time at the end of 2008 when he received a letter in the post from the county chairman, telling him he was gone.

"There was no discussion regarding what I needed to improve on. Nothing," he recalls. "I was 24 and had devoted the previous eight years to competing for All-Irelands with Galway. Suddenly then it was, ‘Thanks and goodbye.’" 

An abrupt end.

Off the field life had changed too. After leaving NUI Galway with an honours commerce degree and a post-grad in Economic Science, Regan had entered the world of chartered accountancy and was in the process of completing professional exams and qualifying fully.

"I tried to give up a hundred times," he reveals. "I found the professional exams ten times harder than college exams. Looking back, I was probably spending around 40 hours a week training and preparing, I was giving 31 hours a week to working full-time and trying to find time to prepare for professional exams outside of that." 

But there were no concessions made for his academic commitments.

"No wonder my form with Galway dipped," he says, shrugging his shoulders. "Sure, I was f**king exhausted with life. Ger Loughnane was our manager and we over-trained under him, in my opinion. He had us doing hard running for months, trying to break half the panel but only two of us dropped out."

Three times a week Regan would leave work in Connemara at 4 pm to make Ennis for a running session at 7pm, have the legs ran off him, before returning home at midnight, totally burnt out.

"I lost a stone and a half. And I had exams on top of that," he recalls.

"Ger and the others in his management set-up never asked how we were. They never saw the bigger picture. They were decent fellas, but not approachable.

I didn’t ever feel that any of the backroom cared how I was going off the field. It was more like, 'Why are you underperforming? Are you mentally weak?' 

"I felt like replying, 'No, I’m f**king exhausted because all I’m doing is training, running, working and studying.”’ Something had to give. His temporary contract as a trainee accountant ran its course and, having failed two exams, he wasn’t offered a new one. Around the same time that he was culled as a county hurler he was made unemployed too.

He had no work. And no inter-county career anymore.

"Unemployment assistance was all I had," he says. "€190 every Wednesday – that was it."

Three years previously, in the lead up to the 2005 All-Ireland final, the cream of the banking sector and chartered accountancy practices were trying to seduce him with appealing offers of work.

"But in 2008 no one was ringing me," he declares.

Self-esteem

His self-esteem and confidence took serious hits. Each Wednesday, he went to the local post office to collect his dole, peaked cap on, head trained downwards for fear someone would stop him.

"Going in afraid who might see you," he adds. "Shoving your social welfare card on the desk and getting out as quickly as possible. Sometimes even the person behind the counter, their body language, would tell a lot. They would shoot you a 'why are you not working?' look.

And you wonder are you contributing to society at all? Do you place a value on yourself?

"There you are collecting money and you haven’t done anything all week to justify it. But there’s more," he adds. 

"You also fret, 'Will I get work again? Will I ever earn at a high level? Will I ever pass my bloody exams?”’ 

While self-doubt gnawed away, Regan’s resilience didn’t allow the situation to fester for long either.

He started to control only what he could.

He picked up part-time work around home, just to get an extra few bob and feel worthwhile.

Gardening, painting, whatever. At night, Regan was back at the books, getting ready for the next exams. In the gym, he was upping the ante too, lifting more than he ever had. Mobilising his body again. Strengthening. Watching his nutrition.

"I leaned on people close to me, hurling coaches, sports psychologists and I worked relentlessly for eight months after being dropped," he remembers.

Regan was recalled the next season and started all of Galway’s league and championship matches, ended the season with a nomination for his first All Star and was appointed vice-captain of the team.

He passed all his exams too.

Five years down the road, however, the axe fell on him again. At just 29, only a year after playing in the 2012 All-Ireland finals and being nominated for another All Star, he was released from the squad for a second and final time.

Anthony Cunningham was manager by then and he rang with the news. While Regan disagreed with the call, he just didn’t have the appetite to live like a monk anymore, nor train like an ironman to get back in. That was what had been required the first time he was dropped.

REINVENTED MAN: Tony Óg Regan in his role as Limerick’s performance psychology coach. 	Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

REINVENTED MAN: Tony Óg Regan in his role as Limerick’s performance psychology coach. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Two years on Cunningham guided Galway to the 2015 All-Ireland final against Kilkenny and at that stage Regan was working as a sports psychologist with the county minors. The youngsters won their All-Ireland title and a delighted Regan took his place with the squad in the lower Hogan Stand, settling down to watch the senior showpiece.

At half-time the Galway seniors sprinted like cougars to their dressing room, storming past where Regan was sitting, the crowd erupting with tribal ferocity to greet them as they raced into the tunnel to reset. It seemed like his old team was poised to end a near three-decade famine and put Kilkenny away.

That’s when a cloud descended and perched right above.

'I hope they lose this'

"I suddenly felt I had to get out of there," he explains. "In less than an hour’s time there was a chance the Liam MacCarthy Cup would be presented 50 yards away from where I was sitting, and I didn’t know if I would be able to handle that without losing it." 

Regan thought he had dealt well with being left aside but had clearly misjudged how he really felt.

"When I sat back and thought further about it, I realised that I hadn’t attended a Galway senior game in two years before that final. I didn’t go to Blackrock (a popular swimming spot on the Salthill promenade) anymore for fear of meeting my former team-mates and not knowing what to say.

"I was afraid to go into certain coffee shops around town in case I’d meet the lads. I missed it very badly, still felt I could be in there helping them.

But the truth is I didn’t know if I would break down if I met them.

At the interval of that 2015 decider he came pretty close to doing just that.

He skimmed his surroundings for an escape, attempted to flee the stadium and head down the M9 to Waterford where he was studying, but two of the minor selectors began chatting to him and, as he tried to shuffle past, they stayed chatting and deflected his attention. 

Before he knew it, the Galway team was back on the field again, well ahead of their Kilkenny counterparts.

"I had to stay then. When Kilkenny eventually came out, they turned the screw and we weren’t able to respond or adjust.

"Afterwards I was so upset with the thoughts in my head. I wasn’t ready to contemplate my old teammates winning and not being part of it and that experience was like a death inside my soul. My spirit sank. A 30-second pitch of darkness. There were 82,000 people packed inside that stadium, and I have never felt so alone, so sad and isolated.

"This voice inside my head saying, 'I hope they lose this; I can’t bear this.' 

"I knew that was totally wrong. I was so embarrassed for thinking like that and I realised it was my shit to deal with." 

Regan has since gained serious perspective from that period mourning the player he used to be. He understood never to load all his eggs in the one basket again.

He also realised that life outside of sport was actually more important than what he achieved on a pitch. And appreciating that accountancy, his first chosen profession, was never going to sustain his lust for a career to be passionate about, he made a professional change too.

After undertaking a sports psychology introductory course, he qualified with a Masters in Applied Sports and Exercise Psychology from WIT, and now his days are spent helping individuals and teams in sports, schools and business.

Tony Óg Regan, Galway, in action against Luke O'Farrell, Cork in the 2011 National Hurling League. Picture: Diarmuid Greene

Tony Óg Regan, Galway, in action against Luke O'Farrell, Cork in the 2011 National Hurling League. Picture: Diarmuid Greene

As a professional, he wants to see managers and organisations show more humanity before they release players into the afterlife.

"I don’t say this lightly, but the grief of being dropped is akin to having a loved one leave you. That grief you feel at having your whole world taken away is traumatic." 

His message?

"Don’t let someone dictate your own future. Don’t lie down if you feel there’s more in the tank. Get on the road you feel is the right one and stay the course. Stay focused. Keep the goals in mind every day. Shit does happen but you can still change things," he says.

His counsel is straightforward – develop other interests outside the bubble. Regan has now taken a complete break from club hurling and simply cannot get over the free time at his disposal; time he has instead redirected towards family and friends. Some evenings he runs, sometimes he chooses to go out on a lake rowing. He likes to cycle too.

Regan works hard but also takes time for himself. Balance is his bible.

"As a sports psychologist, I am always looking for lights flashing when I talk to athletes. Are they over-absorbed in sport?

"What are their hobbies? If they can’t give name one, a red flag is raised.

"What do you do in your free time?" 

Regan knows that if the answer is rest, recover or analysis all he will see is a bubble.

A pedestal when athletes achieve. A slump when they don’t.

“That’s what being self- absorbed in sport is, not seeing the bigger picture. It’s the very same outside of sport. In business or in the marketplace there are workaholics who are completely absorbed with their jobs, and their roles. They are so obsessed that it dominates their life and takes control of their identity. Everything they do is measured by success or progress in the workplace.

"The truth is – in sport anyway – that success and failure are not something we have control over; it’s a dangerous thread we are selling to people. Coaches have to be conscious that it is healthier for everyone if their players are more rounded.

Players must have perspective on life outside sport.

"Volunteer at a homeless shelter for a few days or go into the Children’s Hospital at Crumlin and they will soon see what pressure is. Sport is never life and death and yet we make it seem so, losing and winning does not mean success and failure, you just experience these things at times along the way.

"But that buzz of winning won’t be there in 20 years’ time so put it in perspective. Move on. Don’t be boxed into one group – have different clubs, musical societies, theatres and gyms that you are part of. Be creative. It’s important to stretch yourself and give yourself that sense of competitiveness and performance elsewhere.

"When you leave sport, it will hit you. Am I done as a person? Am I sad? Am I grieving?

"Find out what’s causing all that. What’s broken? What you will miss most? Only then will you learn how to heal."

When the world stops watching cover

When the world stops watching cover

- When the World Stops Watching tells intimate stories of 16 Irish sportspeople, offering front-row insight into how elite sportspeople fare in their sporting afterlife. It’s published by Black and White Publishing and is available in all good bookstores and online.

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