Brother Colm O’Connell is an athletics coach with credentials. He has led five Kenyans to Olympic gold medal glory, most recently David Rudisha at London 2012. A Catholic missionary, he is also a proud Cork man. He spoke to Nicola Corless about bringing the best out of athletes and the Banner’s ambition to beat his native county in the All-Ireland hurling final replay
ACCORDING to Brother Colm, Davy Fitzgerald and his charges already have the hard work done but some last-minute nerves are to be expected.
“Getting an athlete ready for the biggest day of their sporting career is a long-term preparation. It is not something you do at the last minute. It is something you do for a couple of months before a big competition. It is the way you prepare your players, or in my case your athlete, for the fact they have to face a pressure situation. Sometimes you have people who can perform fantastic in training but they fall asunder on the day. Expectations are very high and you are carrying the weight of your county, the weight of your country, into a major competition and many athletes and sports-people are a bit nervous when it comes to a major occasion and that is fairly natural.
“Nerves in themselves are not negative. I think sometimes they can have a positive impact. It shows very often when you are a little bit nervous facing any trial in life that you understand the situation. If you have an athlete who doesn’t get nervous at all you begin to wonder is there something wrong with them,” he explained.
In terms of controlling those nerves, Brother Colm believes he has an easier task than Davy, or Jimmy Barry Murphy for that matter.
“It is a little bit easier to work with an individual than it would be to work with a team in the sense that it is easier to gauge the ups and downs of one person than trying to blend them together as a group. For David [Rudisha] I think the fact that I coached him since he was 14 has been a big advantage so I have got to know him very well. Then I think the fact that all the preparation activities all centred around that occasion, facing that eventual trial and I brought David on board in terms of his training in the sense that I shared an understanding with him about why we were doing a particular type of training. So for many months he was able to go through in his head what the eventual race was going to be like. Then, when you actually go into the competition, this happens hurlers and footballers as well, it is the few days, the weeks just before the match that get to them, they wish they were in Croke Park, just throw-in the ball and get going,” he said.
“Your training sessions for the last couple of weeks have to be very positive and very confidence-building so I don’t nitpick any faults in training, even though as a coach I might see them. You might say ‘God there is a problem there that I didn’t notice before’ because very often, in athletics anyway, it is very difficult to correct a last-minute problem. You have to turn it into a positive and learn to handle it. When he would do a certain training session, we’ll say, a week or two before the Olympics, I would devise the session in such a way that he would feel very comfortable and very confident when he came off that session and say ‘I feel good. I can handle that’. Now, I might have seen little things that he could have done otherwise but I reserve them. It is too late because you start creating a negativity in his mind,” he outlined.
Nerves, of course, are not limited to just the athletes. “I get nervous, well a level of nervousness, but David was running well before the Olympics and before the world championships so that does keep you a little bit grounded in terms of becoming nervous. At the same time, you are naturally going to become nervous because, as much as you do as a coach and in preparation, there are a few factors beyond your control. When the athlete or sports-person goes out there on the field, in a sense it is very limited what you can do. When he stands on the starting line or once the ball is thrown in, you can do a few things in terms of changes but you can never have real control,” he warned.
Brother Colm believes to motivate an athlete and to help control their emotions, you must learn to control your own.
“As a coach, having been with David from the beginning of his career, I think you must always somehow take an even keel. Sometimes, they come off the Olympics and they are on a high; you must ground them. You are disappointed, like in 2009 David was beaten in the semi-final, and you have to lift the spirits so, as a coach, you will have to somehow operate in the middle, you bring someone down to earth or up when they are down,” he said.
Brother Colm admits this is a tough part of his role, recalling in particular the 2009 World Championships defeat. But, he says, studying the performance, analysing it and trying to identify areas for improvement is key to any managerial or coaching role.
“It was difficult. David came back feeling ‘I should have done better’, ‘I made too many mistakes’, ‘I ran from behind’, ‘I misjudged the pace’ and so on. All these things go through your mind. I mean Davy [Fitzgerald] when he came back the next day, or that night, must have gone through the match a hundred times and said ‘we should have won it’, ‘should I have used the sweeper at the back when we had a five point lead?’ all the things you could have done when you lose or draw.
“You have to question your coaching and your approach. Remember for Davy between the time you draw a game and the time you have a replay, you can’t change too much. You can’t have radical changes because this is a programme and a system you have worked throughout the year that is now part of the psyche of the players, so all you can do is a little tweaking here and there. It is the small things that will make the difference in the end,” he said.
Unfortunately for Davy Fitzgerald, and Clare Champion readers, Brother Colm doesn’t know exactly what these tweaks should be. “It is only someone who is with the team and would know if they are playing up to what they visualise for them that could say. Davy will know that in his head. He will know how to move the pieces around.”
Brother Colm went to the All-Ireland final earlier this month but will, unfortunately, be back in Kenya, his home of 37 years, for the replay. He believes Clare should focus on their strong performances this season ahead of their next outing.
“Clare shouldn’t concentrate on the fact Cork has beaten them before. Don’t concentrate on the negativity. Concentrate on the semi-final, the quarter-final, the matches where you are really getting your team together and you are improving every match.
“Forget about what happened three or four months ago. They were different conditions, a different time of the year and concentrate on where you are now. If you think too much about the negativity, then you’re in trouble,” he advised.
Brother Colm believes the standard of hurling in this year’s championship has been good and expressed his delight to see a variance in the teams making it to the competition’s final four.
“The championship this year has been a breath of fresh air in terms of new counties. Who would have thought four or five months ago that it would be Clare and Cork?” he commented.
The Cork man doesn’t believe Clare should be underestimated but is leaning towards a victory for the Rebels on Saturday.
“I would have a feeling that Clare missed the boat. They got a great chance to win it but that could be your downfall. You might think ‘oh Clare won’t get a second chance’ and that is very often your mental weakness when you think Cork are going to play better the next day or they are going to correct their mistakes. That is the biggest danger. On the day, everyone will have done the same preparation leading up to the game.
“On the day it is the team with the passion, the team who are up for it that come out on top. It happened the last day, Clare were just up for it, they tore into the game and played with a passion that impressed everybody and I think that is what made it a great game.”
A replay, Brother Colm believes, is not the best result for fans, or for Clare’s hopes of carrying Liam MacCarthy across the Shannon.
“I was at the last match. I don’t think Clare could ever finish them off. They were never able. Cork were always just lurking there and likely to come back but I think people would have liked to see extra time on the day when everything was in place for a good game.
“We had a reply last year with Kilkenny and Galway and it never matched the draw. That is the fear. Putting it on a Saturday, I know it is decided, what is done is done now. I would have liked if it had been given its own Sunday. I think [it’s hard] for a county to come back again and serve up the same level.”
While Brother Colm won’t see the replay from a seat in Croke Park, he hopes to follow it puck-by-puck in Iten where he has coached athletics at St Patrick’s High School since going there for three months in 1976.