The power of positive thinking in GAA
Tyrone football in 2008, Tipperary hurling in 2010 and Dublin football this year all had two things in common. They won senior All-Irelands and had Caroline Currid on their back-room team. Cliona Foley meets the 'performance coach' bringing innovative thinking to the GAA
Despite taking place late on a Friday night, when most of its target audience were just home from a week's hard work, a recent Kildare coaching seminar in Clane GAA club was surprisingly well attended.
Voluntary coaches from around the short-grass county came hoping to pick up some insights from experts like Wexford football manager Jason Ryan and hurling guru Paidi Butler.
And they were particularly interested in hearing the thoughts of one of only three women in the room.
They didn't know a whole lot about Caroline Currid except that "she's the wan who helped the Dubs this year, and didn't she work with the Tipp hurlers last year too?"
Given that their own footballers have a habit of tripping over at the penultimate hurdle, they were particularly fascinated to hear what Currid had done with the next-door-neighbours to help them finally get over the final flight, especially in such dramatic circumstances.
Some, naturally, came with a cocked eyebrow.
Currid, a petite 30-year-old from Grange who won a junior football All-Ireland with Sligo in 2006 after losing the two previous finals, immediately addressed the elephant in the room.
A former banker who quit after four years to do a psychology degree through the Open University and who has since obtained a Masters in sports psychology from UUJ, she never uses the 'p' word, which she reckons scares people off.
"I work solely on mindset," she began. "Some people think that's some kind of sugary, fluffy stuff, but it really isn't.
"It's not rocket science either!" she grinned, which helped to break the ice as she went on to explain what she does with individual athletes and teams to help them harness their mental attitude to maximise their physical potential.
Currid is refreshingly candid about her ideas and methods.
She first got interested in 'mindset' when she was laid up herself with a cruciate injury in 2005.
She prefers to call herself a 'performance coach' and what she takes is a particularly practical approach to the 'inner game'.
There's no talk of visualisation or 'triggers' or mysterious symbols on jerseys or wrist-bands. Currid concentrates largely on communication and building trust and team spirit, which, she reckons, are often neglected by over-stretched managers and players.
Ever eager to improve and having spent two months shadowing a rugby union team in New Zealand, she approached Mickey Harte in late 2007.
Harte had already led Tyrone to two All-Irelands and, like her, devours business and sports management books and is a devotee of famous US coach John Wooden.
Through her work with his players and management Harte quickly realised "that communication lines needed to be improved" and that Currid could facilitate it, largely because players would tell her things they wouldn't say directly to management.
She prefers to work one-to-one with players, believing men are less inclined to open up in group situations.
One of her roles is to find out what is happening in players' lives away from their sport that could be affecting how they train or play.
In the past five years she's heard the whole gamut of human crises: exam problems, broken hearts, unstable homes, a penchant for the drink and, increasingly, players stressed out by financial worries.
That doesn't mean she's some kind of decorative Gaelic games agony aunt.
A glance at some of her fundamental philosophies (see panel) indicates that Currid is demanding of players and only works with innovative managers who share her philosophy and are open to her methods.
She abhors the nation's natural tendency for pessimism and self-deprecation and encourages managers and players to speak only in positive language.
She also insists that players take complete responsibility for their own actions, at training, in games and away from the team and should confront each other if they're not.
But surely that can cause massive bust-ups and be divisive?
"It does, initially, I've seen players stand up and slate one another, but it blows over surprisingly quickly, especially when they accept it's the truth," she says.
So, how does this young woman gain the trust and confidence of players and managers in the ultra-competitive and still predominantly male arena of elite GAA.
"I couldn't do it without the support of the managers," she explains.
"Mickey (Harte), Liam (Sheedy) and Pat (Gilroy) were all extremely receptive to my ideas and once they'd endorsed me, the players accepted me.
"The other thing is that I become part of the team, they just adopt me into the group. They don't see
me as some kind of shrink that they talk to about their problems, that's not what I do. I get to know them on a personal level, have the craic with them, there's no barriers there, just normal chat."
To become part of a team's wallpaper Currid attends training regularly -- including the Dubs' 6.0am starts -- and always travels with them to matches.
She is particularly emphatic about treating all squad members equally, from one to 30, revealing that in the white-hot minutes before the 2010 All-Ireland hurling final manager Liam Sheedy spoke to Tipperary's 'second 15', while coach Eamonn O'Shea addressed their starters.
The subliminal message was that the subs were just as important as the starters and that's a self-fulfilling prophesy and self-belief that Dublin finally demonstrated this year.
"Without our subs, fellas like Kevin McManamon, Dublin simply wouldn't have won the All-Ireland," Currid stresses.
"Sometimes the second 15 were beating the first 15 in training matches, they pushed and pushed them so hard!
"Pat instilled that self-belief, he was constantly talking to those guys to make sure they knew they were wanted and needed. Okay, they weren't the first 15, but they knew they weren't far off it and were still getting the maximum out of themselves at training and whenever they were called upon," she adds.
Currid stresses that what she does is just one small part of a very large jigsaw, but she has, noticeably, also worked with Cork's first-time hurling champions Carrigtwohill and Galway SFC finalists Tuam this season.
In the cases of Tipperary and Dublin, the breakthrough came in her second year -- and with each and every one since Tipp's success, her mobile has been buzzing. She has not yet firmed up her plans for next season, but will be joining the Dubs in Florida for the second week of their upcoming holiday.
She started out in the corporate area, still works in it and notes that good sports managers, like Gilroy, are often also high-achieving entrepreneurs, with natural 'people skills' and the ability to think laterally. "I've never come up against a player who's said: 'Ah look, that's a load of crap!' They might be thinking it, but they haven't said it to me yet!" she chuckles.
"I just believe it's a huge strength to be able to come and chat about wanting to get more out of yourself. It's really just asking: 'How do I get that extra millimetre out of myself?' -- and, let's face it, millimetres are what decided this year's All-Ireland!"