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How Ulster rugby star was the 'unsung hero' of hockey World Cup silver

By Cian Tracey

Far from the bright lights of London's Olympic Stadium, Ireland based themselves in Cork for a mini camp last month that included three warm-up games against Japan.

On the face of it, a 2-1 series defeat against their higher-ranked opponents might have seemed like a disappointment, but it was during those few days on Leeside that Gillian Pinder describes as the "turning point" for the unforgettable journey that was to follow in the coming weeks.

It wasn't so much the tinkering of tactics on the pitch, but more so the fine-tuning of their mental approach.

The advent of psychology in professional sport has had hugely positive effects across the board, but the reality for amateur teams is it is merely another area in which they are playing catch-up.

The introduction of Gary Longwell as performance skills coach in 2015 proved to be an inspired decision, however.

The 26-times capped former Ireland lock, who was part of the Ulster side that won the Heineken Cup in 1999, has become a vital cog in the hockey team's wheel.

Not one for the limelight, the regard with which the players and head coach Graham Shaw hold Longwell in tells you everything you need to know about his impact.

It was in UCC that Longwell began to implement different mental strategies to help the players cope with the demands of playing at a World Cup.

The manner in which the 18 girls conducted themselves over the last fortnight has culminated in the country having yet another team that they can be proud of, and Pinder believes a lot of that is due to Longwell's influence.

"Gary is the most unsung hero," Ireland's semi-final heroine said.

"He just kinda sits in the background and when he decides to have an input into whatever it is we're doing, he just makes an absolutely massive difference.

"I think the turning point for us was down in Cork a couple of weeks ago when we played against Japan and he just started addressing loads of different things from how we carry ourselves and our body language to communication between players and staff.

"I'm so glad we had that discussion because we came to a World Cup a week later and did really, really well.

"It could be absolutely anything - from how to implement certain tactics that Graham had asked us to do, to the mindset of how we become more aggressive and not letting opponents beat us.

"It was everything like what are we going to do if we go a player down, if we're chasing a game. It was the mindset to everything that we do, on and off the pitch.

"That's a new element to our set-up. Gary has been with us for a while but I think we got the most out of him this year, for sure."

Pinder's comments were echoed by several of her team-mates, including Deirdre Duke.

"Gary has done wonders for us in terms of how we communicate," Duke added.

"It has changed the mindset of the group. Just the positive reinforcement and continuing to back each other and back ourselves.

"Gary has been working with us for a long time but it has really started to come right at the right time and the catalyst was probably Cork. It was good to have him."

For Shaw, it was the chance to bounce ideas off a hugely successful sportsman in another field and for such an ambitious coach, he certainly welcomed Longwell's input with open arms.

"I think Gary has come in and done a fantastic job - not only in being honest with the players but also with management, particularly myself," Shaw admitted.

"He has had a huge impact, and they are a very, very happy, together squad and that's very, very important if you want to succeed in a team environment."

Longwell was with the squad in London throughout the group stages before having to return home due to other commitments.

However, he made himself available at any time if players wanted to chat about any aspect of the game.

For an ambitious team who are so short on resources, it is these little extras that will help ensure that they are dining at the top table for many years to come.

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