Grace O'Sullivan managing more than Irish expectations ahead of opener

By the time Ireland tips off this evening against Norway in the FIBA Women’s European Championships for Small Countries (Mardyke, 6.15pm), team manager Grace O’Sullivan will have most of her work done.

Grace O'Sullivan

“The girls slag me about it, but I send out an email very early, around 7am, just to say where we are, what time we’re meeting, asking them if they’re all okay and, if not, to check in with me.

“I’ll have the gear ready from the night before, basketballs, all of that. I’ll have checked with the venue officer to make sure we’re good to go in to the venue. From that perspective, once the girls get to the venue, I have to make sure their area is ready — the dressing rooms, the basketballs, the kit — because they’re used to a routine.

The only thing then they have to worry about is playing. That’s my job, in a nutshell, to ensure that’s the case, and I’d take that very seriously; I can’t have them worrying about anything else, or the coaching staff. If they are, then that seeps through the group, which doesn’t help.

“All of that is done quietly and discreetly, so they know they’re ready, that I’ll look after those things. We have a fantastic physio as well in Maura Murphy. She’s very experienced, but during a game she’s on the sideline and if I need help she’s always there.

“It’s a whole-team effort between the manager, the coaching staff, the physio, the strength-and-conditioning people, and the girls are
always the top priority.”

O’Sullivan has been in the role for the last four years and her responsibilities extend beyond game day.

“I look after everything that happens with managing practice, managing travel, managing the money side, managing gear. My work is done behind the scenes and, as a school principal, that’s been a bit difficult, finding time for that in the evenings.

“During a tournament, the work involves making sure the girls are well hydrated, that they’re geared up properly, that the laundry is done, travel and accommodation, their general well-being. They’re adults and they can look after themselves, obviously, but you have to make sure they’re there at meal times, at practice, that everything’s okay. That nothing is overlooked, basically.”

In that sense, laundry is a more significant issue than might first appear. It’s a truism in all sports that being properly and professionally togged out is a key indicator that an athlete has the right attitude.

“When you’re dealing with women, it’s very important,” says O’Sullivan. “The proper gear, the nice gear, looking good and feeling good, that’s all very important. One of the players, Sarah Woods, that’s a mantra of hers: ‘Look good, feel good, play good’.

I truly believe that too: That when the team looks good, that they play good. For me, it’s really important that everything is just right for them. It’s certainly not a chore for me, I get a great kick out of seeing them looking well out on the floor.

“The arena (in UCC, where Ireland train) is a very public place; there are people passing through all the time and they see the players, so when they see them in their proper kit, looking well, that’s very important. If we do that, then that’s the job done, and job done properly.”

Other responsibilities fall into her lap.

“At times, I might have to say to Mark (Scannell, coach) ‘they’re tired, they need a break’. I have to be their advocate on the staff, even though they’re grown women. They want to be the best they can be, absolutely, but we also have to bear in mind that they’re not professionals. They have jobs, they’re working eight or nine hours a day and then come to practice all weekend, so you have to keep an eye on that.”

O’Sullivan’s nine-to-five as a principal isn’t at any ordinary school, either. She helms the North Monastery, one of the great names in Irish schools basketball.

“Obviously, the most important thing is the education of the children, but there’s also their all-round education, not just the books and academic side, but the sport as well.

The Mon has a great history in sport, particularly in hurling, but also in basketball. Paul Kelleher is one of the assistants on the team, and he moved into the AG (the all-Irish school in the Mon) a few years ago. He’s moved the basketball schools teams on.

“For me, it’s all about the students engaging in sport. That’d be the first thing, and then engaging them in something that makes them feel good about themselves. It’d be about challenging the staff in going down that route, making sure the children are challenged in the best way possible.”

From last Sunday, Ireland were accommodated in University Hall as a team, as were the other countries in the tournament.

“It’s very centralised, all together,” says O’Sullivan. “There are five or six girls living in Cork, just a few minutes from the university in some cases, but they won’t go home, we’re all based here.

“Playing in Cork in front of the Cork basketball crowd, who really know the game, it’s important to have the team ready. The work has being done on that by everybody: Coaches, staff, players. The girls take huge pride in that.”

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