EXCLUSIVE: Galway GAA legend Joe Connolly on United & Sports Psychology

”The day you aren’t going to be all-star: make sure the man thats marking you isn’t going to be an all-star either.” There is no doubt that this inner steel sums up what Joe Connolly was about every time he lined out for Galway. His speech, as Gaeilge, will go down as one of the true great Irish sports speeches as he lifted Galway’s first Liam McCarthy in 57 years.

Joe made his championship debut in 1976 and he went on to make 22 championship appearances for the Tribesmen. In addition, he captained Galway to All-Ireland glory in 1980. He states that growing up in Castlegar with seven brothers was what toughened him up and that sports psychology was pretty much unheard of in his time as an inter-county hurler. In spite of this, Joe shares my view that psychology in modern sport is now a fundamental aspect of one’s preparation in order to achieve success. There is no getting away from it in my opinion. The best athletes are the one’s that can cope under the most severe pressure in competition. Joe is also a passionate United man and an avid fan of horse-racing and rugby. Here is our chat.

What are your earliest memories as a Man Utd supporter?

It would have been around the mid sixties, and of course the 1968 European cup winning team. I think putting a team out to win it ten years after the Munich air crash all added to the romance of the club. As well as that, the draw of Best and the film-star looks, it was easy to be attracted to the club at the time. I was a huge fan of George Best, Bobby Charlton & Alex Stepney & I have a very vivid memory of the team that won the European Cup. From the age of about 9 or 10, United were always my team, even in the worst of times. The 70’s were tough years; they were relegated to Division 2 for the first time in 36 years in 1974.  I remember the likes of Jimmy Greenhoff, Brian Greenhoff and Gordon Hill around 1975 who joined United after the end of the Best, Law and Charlton era. They are my earliest memories of supporting United.

Who were your sporting heroes growing up Joe?

For me, growing up in the 1960’s, it would have been the Galway three in a row football team that won the All-Ireland in 1964, 1965 & 1966. I can still recall the teams that started every game and every score to this day. Some of the big heroes of my life would have been the players on that team. They were an extraordinary football team. I remember they lost the 1963 final, I was about 6 or 7, but even then I completely bought into everything they were about.

Another one of my heroes in the 60’s would have been Arkle, the racehorse. He won 3 Gold Cup’s in a row. He was rode by Pat Taaffe and trained by Tom Dreaper. He was an incredible horse. He was running in handicaps at that time, carrying about 13 stone, way more than any horse now. He was conceding about two stone to other horses and still beating them. He was the great horse of the Irish at the time. Outside of GAA, in an Irish context, he was certainly a sporting hero.

Which current sportsperson do you feel epitomises the word leader?

I don’t think i’d look beyond some of our top hurlers to be honest. I really believe that for amateur sportspeople, to get to the level that they can: added to the fact that they have jobs to go to on a Monday morning, is absolutely amazing. They deserve a massive amount of credit for it. I think that the likes of Seamus Callanan and Joe Canning, with a ball coming at them at at 120 mp/h, to control it with a stick, are just such phenomenal men. That takes true skill. I also have a great admiration for people like Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell. Outside of GAA, I love rugby and have such high regard for men like them. They are great leaders on the field, no question about it.

Do you think that in order to be successful in sport, the mental side is as important as the physical side?

Yeah, it is. Without a doubt. Im a big believer in the saying, ‘the will is stronger than the skill’. I don’t think the likes of Canning, Callanan, TJ Reid, Gleeson can go out and do what they do on a Sunday if they don’t possess an incredible amount of mental strength. Those Kilkenny teams that won the All-Irelands are a prime example of what you can achieve when you have the right mindset and mental strength. They produced year in, year out and were never satisfied with what they had won. That is a sure sign of a great team. I think that performance against Waterford in the 2008 All-Ireland final is one of the best performances I have seen. To score 33 times over 70 minutes is just incredible.

Another great example of mental resolve for me was when Johnny Sexton took on that drop goal against France. They were down 2 points and I think it was just incredible.

I think only certain characters can do that under pressure.

Exactly, that takes an incredible amount of mental strength, and courage, to do that under the highest levels of pressure being watching by thousands of people. Not only that, how many times did he practice that kick in training? Probably hundreds of times. Having said that, the skill set is nothing without the mental resolve he has to even take that on. You cannot achieve greatness if you haven’t got the mentality to do so.

Recently, Dublin footballer Kevin Mcmanamon has advocated for the benefits of sports psychology. Do you see this new idea taking off in the future?

I do. I think it is inevitable to be honest with you. It’s a concept that has grown massively even in the last ten years. I think there is no doubt that in the coming years, sports psychology has to be an important part of team preparation. I strongly believe that in an age where social media is so prominent, less and less players will have the mental strength and ability to deal with the pressure naturally.

Who do you think is best equipped to win the Liam McCarthy this summer?

I think Galway have a great chance again. I have a great confidence in the management and there is good vibe about the place that we can do it again. As well as that, you obviously can’t look beyond the teams in Munster. Limerick are definitely going in the right direction. I think their tackling is superb, which is huge. They are really benefitting from a number of years under the management. Tipperary will be there or there abouts but the question is can they do it for 70 minutes on a Sunday. I still think Kilkenny have a phenomenal resolve about them, despite what people may say regarding their lack of quality; but what they have is the attitude and the mindset that Cody has instilled in them. Its really difficult to call and I think the next ten years will be exciting for the hurling fans.

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