‘You lose your identity overnight. You’re not Johnny Holland the rugby player any more’

Former Munster out-half Johnny Holland was forced to retire from rugby in September 2016, two days after his 25th birthday, due to a recurring hamstring injury. Now, the Cork Con backs coach is launching his wellness and performance coaching workshops.

‘You lose your identity overnight. You’re not Johnny Holland the rugby player any more’

Q: Looking at the workshops you’re offering, “resilience and psychological strength” and “the power of personal wellness”, I’m struck by how you’ve embraced your injury rather than block it out. Has that helped you deal with it?

A: I learned a lot from my injury. I don’t think I would’ve got where I am now or where I got to on the rugby pitch without it. My career progressed massively while I was off the pitch. I learned a lot about myself, my mentality and whether I could get through something like that. I came out the other side a more mature player. There were parts of it done completely on my own, which tested your mettle in terms of how much you actually wanted something and how long you can stay in the battle when it’s going against you.

Q: With the isolation of the injury, had you time to consider life after rugby?

A: I didn’t think much about life after rugby. I mentioned the idea to my girlfriend, Chloe, ‘Imagine if I’d to retire’. She’d say, ‘shut up’, and I’d laugh about it and say, ‘What am I on about? I’m not retiring.’ I was told it was a six-month injury. I only mentioned the R-word a couple of times while I was rehabbing but I did start my postgraduate in nutrition. I was lucky I had something to give me a routine and focus while I was going through one of the tougher periods in my life.

Q: Did it take you long to decide on starting coaching and workshops?

A: (Chuckles) I’m still toying with it, to be honest. It does take a while. It’s putting myself out there and being confident with that that’s the harder part for somebody coming out of a career where it’s all just taken away from you suddenly. You look at people online and you don’t always agree with what they’re doing, but anyone that’s putting themselves out there and open to be ridiculed, it’s a brave step. That’s something that definitely stopped me for a while. It still stops me practicing online. I wouldn’t always be the one that’s all over social media so I find posting about myself a challenge. But I do have experience of sports nutrition, the practical side through rugby and the educational side now, so I do have something to offer.

Q: Your former team-mate Stephen Fitzgerald said: “Johnny told me, even on the terrible days when you have training and the last thing you want to do is train, he would give anything to be able to have that opportunity to be with the lads in training and be enjoying rugby again. Ever since he said that I have enjoyed my game that bit more.” Is that the impact you want to have on people as a coach?

A: That’s what I said to the lads when I had to retire but I said it to myself as well when I’d go to bed – I’d a notebook next to my bed and I’d write down my goals for the next day. To enjoy it and keep smiling was one of the things I kept doing. You get a realisation factor. I didn’t think my career was over but I thought I got a second chance. I remember my first day back on a pitch was lashing, cold, one of the days people are tucking their hands into their sleeves trying to play rugby. I’d a smile on my face. I was nearly jumping in the puddles and delighted to go back into a bit of contact on a nasty day. It definitely changed my outlook.

Q: Did you learn that from anyone in particular?

A: Yeah, Fitzy learned a bit from me, but I learned a bit from Felix (Jones) because when he retired I felt terrible. I saw the amount the guy put into his profession and anytime I felt I didn’t want to get out on the training pitch, I just thought ‘What would Felix do?’ It was nearly a guilt if I wasn’t enjoying myself because Felix would take my head off to try to replace me.

Q: How do you look back on your rugby career a year later?

A: It’s one of the greatest things that’s ever happened to me. One of my dreams was to be a rugby player, especially with Munster. It’s something that people don’t get to do and it gave my family something to look forward to every weekend, something to boast about in their own quiet way and have that smile on their face when Munster Rugby was mentioned. Look, I’d love to have done a lot more. I look back at some of my stats and I don’t think it does me justice for the amount of effort I put into it. I was just about to get going. If I’d another six months to a year, my stats would be doubled. That’s the reality of it. It kills me sometimes seeing lads get onto the pitch, a lot of friends my age-group are starting to get Irish caps, and that’s not to say I’d have got them, but sometimes you’d wonder how close you’d have been. At the same time, I don’t have any regrets with what I did personally and how I managed myself. There’s definitely a lot of learnings in there and it’s changed me going forward. It’s bittersweet. It’s not all negative, but it’s a tough thing to take at times.

Q: What was the toughest moment since your retirement and how did you manage that?

A: The hardest part was you lose your identity overnight. You’re not Johnny Holland the rugby player any more. You’re wondering do I tell someone I did play rugby? What’s my actual job now? Do I introduce myself as that? No-one cares if I go to the gym anymore – that’s not my job. What do you tell people when they ask you what you’re up to? It’s probably the question you get asked most. I’d say to someone ‘I don’t know. I’m not doing anything that’s worth talking about because I’m looking to achieve something and it just doesn’t always happen.’ Answering that question was very hard for the first couple of months.

Q: How did you get into coaching with Cork Con so quick?

A: I came out of rugby, I never thought I was going to coach but you feel like you’ve a bit more to offer. The 20s in Con were asking me to do a bit and I nearly backed out of it because of the commitment — I didn’t know what I was going to be doing. I was slow to do it but Jerry Holland used his persuasion to get me out there one day a week and someone like me, one day a week is going to become two and three. I stepped up to the senior set-up this year, working with Brian Hickey, who coached me as well, and Paul Mc(Carthy). I’m enjoying it more than I thought I would even though I was excited to try it.

Q: You’ve caught the coaching bug so?

A: (Laughs) I still don’t know if I’m going to be a full-time coach at any stage. Life might take over at some stage and I won’t have as much time to do it, but I’m enjoying bits and pieces of it at the moment.

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