Self-belief the key ingredient of Stephen McDonnell's skillset

'I didn’t believe in myself, nobody in my family had played at that level, so I was beginning to doubt myself and doubt that I should even be there'
Self-belief the key ingredient of Stephen McDonnell's skillset

Glen Rovers’ Stephen McDonnell celebrates after winning the Cork SHC final against Erin’s Own in 2016. Picture: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Stephen McDonnell called it a day last week, ending almost a decade in the red and white of Cork.

He weighed it up carefully and found a lot of arguments for staying on, but in the end his decision was clear-cut.

“As I said in the statement, when you know you know. It was the right time.

“I did what you might expect, I made out the list of pros and cons about staying involved, and to be honest there were a lot of pros as well, but I came to the conclusion that at this stage there were more important things in life. I had to consider my partner Erika, we have a child now, and the commitment is huge for inter-county. You’re talking about 30 hours a week that you have to devote to hurling if you’re serious about keeping your spot and contributing to the team.” 

A decade at the top level gives him perspective on his own career, and how a player changes over the course of time.

“Obviously you’re in a different place in your life towards the end of your career compared to the start, so it makes sense that there are going to be changes along the way.

“For my first two or three of years it was just a matter of coming in and training and playing, the notion of pressure doesn’t come into it. Then you maybe become aware of that pressure, of what’s at stake, and that can affect your performances.

“You have to focus, though, and in the last couple of years, and particularly last year, I’d have backed myself more than ever. I felt the experience I brought to particular jobs, like marking a specific player out of the game, had made me a more complete defender.” 

Not all the experiences were helpful, necessarily: McDonnell’s body has been through the mill: “I’ve had all the usual injuries, broken bones in my hand, broken fingers, but I broke my elbow pretty badly a few years ago - I still can’t bend that elbow fully - but I recovered from that and was able to play on, at least.

“The last year or two I’ve had an osteitis pubis injury, which is basically a wear-and-tear injury in the groin area, and I also had an issue with my lower back. All of that came together and was a challenge for the last year or two, but it was also something I came to terms with in terms of preparing myself - I got a lot more efficient in the gym, for instance, getting myself right because I got to understand my body and what I needed to do to get myself right.

“Because of that work I was able to come back even stronger after injury. I was disappointed not to start games last season, for instance, but when I came on in those games I felt I contributed to the team.” 

McDonnell was always able to look at his performances and analyse what needed to improve. His improvement over the course of the 2013 All-Ireland finals underlined that ability.

Stephen McDonnell of Cork in action against John McGrath of Tipperary during the 2017 Munster semi-final. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Stephen McDonnell of Cork in action against John McGrath of Tipperary during the 2017 Munster semi-final. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

In the first game against Clare he knew he’d underperformed: “I got through the game but I knew, being honest with myself, that I wasn’t playing as well as I could.

“I wasn’t going looking for the ball and I wasn’t attacking the game the way I should. Some of that was down to nerves and being in a first All-Ireland final, but other things came into my mind as well - I didn’t believe in myself, nobody in my family had played at that level, so I was beginning to doubt myself and doubt that I should even be there.” 

In preparing for the replay McDonnell became much more positive in his outlook and reaped the rewards, being nominated for the man of the match award even though Cork lost. The lesson wasn’t lost on him: “The only real difference between the drawn game and the replay wasn’t that I suddenly became a better or a worse player. I didn’t work any harder in training either, but the quality of my mental preparation was better.

I believed in myself and what I was doing a lot more.

With that level of self-analysis it’s no surprise that his nine to five job as founder and chief partner of Live Unbound, a company that provides high performance and leadership support in both business and sport.

“In 2016 I got an executive coaching diploma and with the business I’ve partnered with organisations to create, sustain and embed high-performing and empowering cultures. I coach business leaders and teams - helping them to better themselves, to create better workplaces and to achieve better results. 

"We focus on leadership teams and project teams, helping them to realise their strategies, particularly when the pressure is on, but there’s also a resilience and connection programme, which applies in the current climate.” 

Pressed for a career highlight, the defender selects the county titles won with his club, Glen Rovers.

“Those were unbelievable days, given the background to it. The Glen is a great club, an unbelievable club with a history you wouldn’t get anywhere else, but we hadn’t won a county for so long, and we often heard people throw that at us - ‘ye’ll never win a county again, what are ye at’, that kind of stuff.

“Because of hearing that for so long, it was great to get to a county final in 2014, but we were absolutely annihilated by Sars the same day. Destroyed.

“I remember looking around 10 or 15 minutes into that game and thinking, ‘this is all over, we’ve lost’. It was gone.

“To come back the following year and beat the same opposition - and beat them well - showed the sign of the team and of the club. It was the exact opposite of the previous year’s final - in 2015 you could tell every player was in the zone. It wasn’t just a phrase that day, it was a reality - the whole team was just right and there was no way we were going to lose.

Doing back-to-back county titles was another great achievement, but then the Glen is a great club. Everyone knows that.

A great club needs great people, though.

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