The Big Interview: Cathal Sheridan better for the experience

Munster Rugby's mental skills academy coach Cathal Sheridan in UL.

Cathal Sheridan earned 35 caps for Munster before injury cut short his ambitions and saw him crawl into his shell.

He talked to a friend, a counsellor, and then the public about his mental health issues. Now, as Munster mental skills academy coach, he tells players: Take it seriously, but have a laugh.

In a week like this, things don’t just go up a gear in Munster; they get into different gear, so wherever they are at their UL base — weights room, meeting room, dressing room or training ground — the unspoken message is understood: This week, it’s Europe and this is Munster, this is what we’re about and this is what it’s all about.

Cathal Sheridan wasn’t involved in as many European weeks as he would have liked and considers it a privilege to have been involved in so many.

The tradition of wearing alternative training gear to distinguish a European week from others started around the time he broke into the senior setup proper, while there were other little triggers and routines that he observed and followed which signified how the stakes, prep and goosebumps had been raised.

“One of the things I’d have had in my sights the week of a European game was: ‘Just try and make sure you’re in the video room before Paulie [O’Connell].’

“I think only once I beat him in. He was always the first on the computers, but for me it was psychological as much as anything. Whether I really got a whole pile from watching that video or not, I just felt I was prepared.”

It’s 18 months since Sheridan’s time as a player with the province finished at the age of 28 through injury and it’s over four years since he last played a European match for them, but the former scrum-half is still a regular presence around the club’s training centre.

He’s now a mental skills coach to the club’s academy players, having studied a degree in psychology and a masters in sport psychology on the same UL campus that houses Munster.

The uptake and buy-in from the players has been high. He doesn’t force it upon any of them, it’s totally an optional subject, but enough of them have figured out the mental side is so important as to be virtually mandatory.

It helps that they can relate to him and he can relate to them. He was a student, just like most of them. He lived in student accommodation and so is aware of how impactful that can be on their performance when they themselves may not.

If he was to pick one model in psychology that has most informed his work, he’d be a lot like Jim Gavin and he’d champion Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

While the hope and the plan is to self-actualise at the top of the pyramid, first you must cover the base and the basics like food and shelter.

“For me, it’s all about the person. Are they happy when they leave training, or are they going back to a crappy house where they might be living with five other students and a few of those have a completely different lifestyle to that of a serious athlete?

“And with accommodation so hard to find, it’s not like they can just move out. So some of our chats might be about: ‘Okay, you’ve to stay in that house, so how do you change the situation? How do you find the best way around it?

“When I came down to the academy, although I was very careful about my diet, I still didn’t have the knowledge around nutrition. So, that’s a big thing: Where are you going when you leave here? Who else is in the house?

What’s in the fridge? The little things that I would never have thought about either until I heard their stories.”

That’s a lot of his job: Listening more than advising; as a wise person he read about once said, very few people have listened themselves out of a job.

“It’s not my time, it’s theirs. When I’m sitting down with a fella and he’s going between maybe a gym session and a pitch session, I don’t get to go in and hog that window: ‘Right, we’re going to work on visualisation today.’

"I don’t work for Munster — I work for the guy I’m sitting with and, if the best thing for him is to chat about something that’s on his mind and for him to vent, that’s what we do. It’s not my decision what we talk about.”

Of course, when they talk or vent what’s on their mind, inevitably his tool box of mental skills come into it. The big ones he finds are how they talk to themselves and how they reflect on performance.

“They’re all great young fellas, really hard working and humble, but that often means when you come in and ask them how did their last game or training session go, the first thing they’ll tell you about is their mistakes.

"Of course that can be a good thing, you need to be critical, but in a way that will build and not destroy your confidence, so when they start talking about what went wrong, I might say: ‘Wait. We’ll come back to that.

"Tell me about some good things you did.’ Then we’ll go: ‘Right, what are you not happy about?’ Then make a plan.

“Sometimes, they just want someone to talk it through with. ‘I missed three tackles in a row.’

"So then we reframe it. Right, before you missed that third tackle, were you saying to yourself, ‘shit, I’ve missed the last two tackles’ and could see yourself missing the third, or were you thinking, ‘right, I’m going to nail this next tackle’?

“Self-talk is massive. Ultimately, their thoughts are going to become their actions. What’s the difference between me throwing a pass off my left-hand side indoors in UL and doing it in Thomond Park in front of 26,000? The difference comes from what I’m telling myself about how important that moment is.

"You can become so worried about the next mistake without realising it that you start to go into your shell. ‘Don’t mess up, don’t mess up.’ Rather than: ‘Relax, just get your left foot in.’ Now, it’s easy to say that; whenever I’m sitting across the table with one of the lads over a cup of coffee, it’s great to say it there.

"When you’re fatigued and you’re seeing yellow spots all over your eyes, what’s going through your head then? But if you’ve rehearsed what you’re going to say and think and do so much that you’ve already been there, then things tend to happen that little bit quicker and smoother for you.”

Over the years, as a player, he’d see them come into the academy: The man in school who everyone loved and told was great, only to find himself a little fish in a big pool and fifth choice.

“Suddenly, they’re thinking: ‘How the hell am I ever going to get through?’ Then, they might get an injury and someone gets brought in. ‘Ah, I’m never going to make it. I’ll leave it here.’”

He didn’t. He stayed the course. He wasn’t a blue-chipper from one of the big Munster or Leinster senior schools.

He was from Sligo, played for the Connacht U20s, but didn’t get near the national U20s squad and when he came down to Limerick to study he found himself the fifth-choice scrum-half with UL Bohs, but by January, he had worked his way up to being first choice and, after they won the U20s All-Ireland, he was given a shot with the Munster sub academy.

“Starting out, I was just trying to get the gear. I rocked out to my first A’s session wearing my old Connacht gear just to make sure they gave me something else. Then you started to think: ‘I want a bit more.’ Everyone has a bit of imposter syndrome, even Paulie has spoken about it recently, how he’d think: ‘Do I belong here?’ But eventually you’re just doing it. I was in there training with these guys and I wasn’t being found out.”

He came through the Munster setup at a time when they already had three household names vying for the same spot: Stringer, O’Leary, Murray. Was it daunting? No, he says. It was inspiring.

“When I was a young fella I would have laminated the front page of the Sunday Tribune, which had Peter scoring the try in 2006, and put it on my bedroom wall, but then, when you get to train with him, you realise he’s just a normal fella and you’d realise that there were certain sides of the game that you could be better than him at. Obviously, he was an excellent passer, but I asked myself: ‘Right, what side of the game do I really enjoy?’ I loved defending.

"When I’d be in the line and see a number four with the ball, I knew they’d be thinking: ‘Right, I’m going to run you over.’ But I relished that, because all I had to do was hit them as hard as I could.”

That’s what he loved about Tomás O’Leary’s game; for a few years at the turn of the decade he was probably the best tackling scrum-half in Europe. Again, he studied his hero and later his competition.

The same with Conor. Around the time Sheridan signed a full-time contract with the province, Murray was selected for the Lions.

“I remember saying to one of my mates back home: ‘I know you probably think I’m mad, but I think at some point I could be better than Conor.’ Now, Conor would go on to be the best number nine in the world, but if I didn’t think that I could try and surpass him, what was the point?

“I didn’t mean I believed I was better at him at that moment. There’s a big difference between confidence and arrogance. If you’re arrogant, it’s just thinking: ‘I’m the best! Class!’ Confidence comes from work and actually earning it and I could be confident if I felt I’d earned it.”

In another set-up, such internal competition could lead to people being overly-territorial and protective. In Munster, the competition wasn’t so much a threat as a resource.

“When I was in there, it was the three of us: Me, Conor and Duncan [Williams]. And obviously Conor would have been away a lot [with Ireland], so the main competition was actually with Dunc, but I always loved the competition. If I knew he was hitting a box kick, I’d be going mad trying to block it down.

“But sport is bigger than whether you win or lose or get picked or not. Especially in Munster, the culture is everything. Munster is bigger than the 15 guys on the pitch.

"I remember [the late S&C coach] Paul Darbyshire had a line and Donncha O’Callaghan would regularly repeat it: ‘The work you do for the man beside you makes you a better man.’

"So, am I going to go passing now and do a session with my competition or go off and do it on my own? If he’s getting better, I have to get better and, if he’s a better player, then pick him! I didn’t want to be picked by default.”

Because he was honest, he was prepared.

When Murray was out through injury shortly after his first Lions tour in 2013, Sheridan stepped into the breach and thrived, most notably in a great late win in Perpignan, but shortly afterwards, he’d sustain a medial ligament injury himself, bringing an end to his longest stretch in the jersey, if you could even call it a stretch. If Murray wasn’t in his way, injury was.

Towards the end of the 2016 season, he was informed his contract wouldn’t be renewed. He could have pursued a contract in the English or French second divisions, but felt at 28 it was better to pursue his studies and career in psychology.

“You can look at a career like mine with my 35 caps and go ‘I’m sickened with that’, and a part of me is, but at the same time, I’m very proud of that. If you told me when I came to Limerick in 2007 that I’d play that often for Munster, I’d have bitten your hand off.”

It’s a testament to Sheridan’s professionalism that, within months of that Leaving Day, he was offered a short-term contract by Rassie Erasmus after a couple of performances back with UL Bohs, but six days after signing it, he found himself up in Galwegians once again prompting the medics to run on with the stretcher.

“I genuinely laughed before I got taken off. The physio came over and said: ‘What’s wrong with it?’ And by that point I had seen enough broken bones to know when something was wrong. I just said: ‘Ah, I broke my ankle.’”

By then, he was able to cope with the trauma of being injured. A few years earlier he had struggled, but even then he’d show his resilience by opening up about his experience as part of a mental health awareness campaign run by the Rugby Players Ireland (or IRUPA as they were known then).

 

Because he felt he couldn’t contribute to the cause, he ended up feeling useless, helpless.

“After rehab I’d go home and jump into bed,” he’d say in that Tackle Your Feelings campaign. “This was at four or five o’clock in the evening. I’d throw on an episode of Game of Thrones and ignore the world.”

Even when he’d return to the training field, he’d isolate himself. Instead of going for coffee with his Munster teammates after training, he’d avoid them in case training came up, even though training was usually the last thing they spoke about. He was avoiding his feelings, not tackling them.

A friend from home knew something was up with him. Like a naïve academy player, his fridge wasn’t consistent with that of an elite athlete.

So, they talked and, from that, he’d talk to IRUPA... and a counsellor... and then later to the public about his experience. Countless people contacted him, thanking him, especially from rural, non-traditional rugby areas. From expressing his vulnerability, they had gained strength.

The other week on Twitter he expressed his admiration for NBA All Stars DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love opening up about their own mental health issues, but if anything it increased his admiration for a couple of players’ unions in Ireland, not least rugby’s.

The NBA is one of the biggest leagues in the world, yet they were behind the curve on such a significant issue, or at least, well behind Rugby Players Ireland.

Sheridan is still tackling his feelings, while helping others tackle theirs. He regularly works with Bernard Brogan’s mental health promotion company Pep Talk, as well as former teammate’s Neil Ronan’s business in the same area, while he’ll routinely visit the counsellor, “a nice old man” in Limerick city, that he first called upon a few years ago for “a chat”.

“Sometimes it could be about absolutely nothing. Then, if there is something on my mind we’re able to talk about it, but it’s not any big psychoanalysis about something that happened to me when I was three or four. It’s just a conversation with someone educated in the field and can help me reframe things in a more positive light and that then helps me in my work with the [academy] lads.”

So, that’s how he can now look back on his career. Was he unlucky? Yeah. Was he lucky? Hugely.

He’s only recently being able to get back running, but at least now the pain is manageable, while he can still push and compete with himself doing kettlebells.

“It’s not as well as I’d like my ankle to be at 29, but that’s part of what you sacrifice. You put your chips on the table when you get involved in any physical activity, and especially in elite sport, and I was more than happy than I placed that bet and what I got in return from it.”

The game is still giving back to him. He coaches Castletroy College and UL Bohs and, while the club are in a relegation dogfight in the AIL right now, the platform is there for a bright future.

Though it’s true what they say, nothing quite beats playing, he’s been taken aback by how animated he can be on the touchline.

“I’m not able to keep my mouth shut,” he smiles.

“One ref I’ve known for years said at a recent AIL game: ‘You never kept up with the play this well when you were playing!’” That’s it in a nutshell: As he learned from his own playing days and tries to impart to the academy lads: Take it seriously, but have a laugh.

“People wonder where can there be fun in the pro game. It’s everywhere. On a bus, you’re having a laugh and a joke.

"Going in and lifting weights and rolling around, that’s fun. You take it very seriously, because there are standards and you make sure that you lift fully, but it’s still fun: it’s something other people do for a leisure activity, but then if you treat it just as a game and don’t value or take it seriously, you’ll stop having fun, because you’ll underperform. If you haven’t prepared as well as you possibly can to play the game, then you’ve let yourself down, you’ve let your teammates down.”

As long-departed colleagues said —a maxim Sheridan lived by in how he pushed a certain Murray — the work you do for the man beside you makes you a better man.


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