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From Croke Park to Tokyo and the RDS - Kevin McManamon’s sports psychology journey

Eight time All-Ireland winner is now a sports psychologist working with rugby referees, boxers and other GAA athletes

Twelve months ago, Kevin McManamon brought in the New Year by taking in Leinster’s interpro with Connacht at the RDS. His outfit, an IRFU tracksuit paired with an ear-piece connected to the ref mic, gave away that he wasn’t there for festive revelry. A puzzled passerby more used to seeing him on Jones’ Road asked what he was doing in Ballsbridge.

Now a full-time sports psychologist, McManamon was on the clock, supporting the referee that evening as part of his role with the IRFU’s panel of officials. Referees, it turns out, need help with the mental side of the game just as much as players.

“I wouldn’t differentiate between referees and athletes,” says McManamon. “I’m just trying to support them [referees] with pre-game preparation, making sure they’ve done everything to put themselves in the right place to perform. Staying calm, composed, focused on the right thing during games.”

McManamon has been working with the IRFU for just over a year now. In the current climate where scrutiny on referees is as high as ever, culminating in the spike of online abuse suffered by the likes of Wayne Barnes during the recent World Cup, perhaps it’s no surprise that referees want plenty of off-field support.


“There are times when officials are isolated, people don’t appreciate how hard it is to be a referee,” explains McManamon. “There’s a reason why they’re the best in the world, they’re used to dealing with it. I don’t think I could. Even seeing some of my own teammates over the years getting stuff said about them online, I never got a red card in a big game or got caught digging someone, no one was calling me x, y, z online, I never dealt with it personally.

“It’s trying to build awareness of who you give access to. Whose opinions matter? As a performer, you write down the people whose opinions matter on a stamp, that’s all you give access to.

“These trolls online, is he in your inner circle? Let him at it. Some of it is disgusting. You can’t just be saying this stuff, they’re people. I have so much admiration for what referees do.”

It’s not just offering support when off-field scrutiny crosses a line.

“One of the things we found was trying to figure out what ‘playing’ well was, it’s very hard for referees because it’s so subjective. It’s about expectations. The reason why everyone is frustrated at referees is they expect 70 per cent of the decisions to go their way. If you’ve two teams that want 70 per cent. . . do you know what I mean? We all have these cognitive biases that make us search for injustices even when they’re not there.

“For referees, reviewing games can be really powerful but it can be something people are thinking about for days. We did a load of work on making sure the reviews were more effective.

“What we’re asking athletes and performers to do is the exact opposite of what humans want to do. We want to stay safe, not be judged. They need tools and skills. They need to be able to control their emotions, they need to regulate themselves, be self-aware, know where their confidence comes from.

“It’s gas, when I was playing GAA I would have always been talking to refs, ‘Ah ref, Jesus give us a free’ and looking back, why was I bothering? You see it from a different view. I would deal with referees a lot differently now.”

McManamon’s interest in sports psychology started during his playing days. He says he’s lucky he found it at a relatively early stage.

“I believe if I didn’t engage in sports psychology, I would have had, maybe a three- or four-year Dublin career. Instead, I had a 12-year career.

“My problem was I couldn’t perform at Croke Park when I started, I got too anxious. I learned what it was. Same way if I kept pulling my hamstring, the physio would say ‘Do these exercises, get a massage once a week, loosen your hips, your back and you won’t do your hamstring.’ It’s the same with mindset.

“I was able to do that, but in 2010, 2011, 2012, I wasn’t. It was only 2014, 2015, 2016, I was able to go, ‘I love Croke Park.’”

McManamon’s notorious goal off the bench that went a long way to ending Dublin’s All-Ireland drought was in 2011. Right in the middle of his spell of anxiety.

“My problem was I didn’t have a toolkit for confidence. You would think that if you play well in an All-Ireland final, you should be confident going into next year. When I was playing well, I would have said ‘Sure the best players were marking Brogan or Connolly, it was handy for me.’

“Instead of going, ‘No no, I played well because I did six months training, eating and drinking everything I should be, going to the gym, that’s why I played well’. It’s gas when you look back, it seems so simple.”

That process of building a confidence toolkit started shortly after he was called up to the panel and first exposed to Dublin’s sports psychologist. It took time, and hasn’t really stopped, McManamon studying at Ulster University before becoming a licensed sports psychologist while he was still playing. The day job of supplying fresh foods was soon parked as his new business, KevMcPerformance, was born.

He helped out with the Dublin minors and underage sides. Within a week of retiring, McManamon was working with the senior panel. The familiarity allowed him a unique role on match days.

“In my first Dublin session, I said ‘Throw your hand up if you’ve done something with me before’ and nearly half the group had. The other half were my 20 best mates. I know the players. For example, a player might have spoken to me saying, ‘If I make two mistakes in the first half I go a bit quiet.’ They might have said that to me in a one-to-one, so I just wink at them at half-time, it’s as simple as that.

“One of the big things in Dublin, we’d review games through a mindset lens. You’d put on the video. ‘Why were you standing there, why didn’t you move that ball?’ It’s the same in rugby. A lot of it is tactical stuff. What I found is within the GAA, they give equal weight to, ‘How did you feel in that moment? How did it affect your behaviour? What do we need to do next time?’ Gradually they’re more consistent. It’s harder to move people off their game, they let the opponents make the errors.”

What about other sports where he doesn’t have the same expertise? As well as rugby referees, McManamon has worked with the Irish boxers since 2017, a stint that included a trip to the Tokyo Olympics. Did his All-Ireland medals make it easier to be respected by different athletes?

“I always think about it. Yes and no. If you’re crap, you can have done anything in GAA but if you don’t know your stuff. . . at times I was afraid of it, that people would think you’re spoofer.

“In boxing they didn’t know the GAA world, they weren’t saying ‘This is cool talking to someone who played in Croke Park’. I tried to go in with PowerPoint slides and they were like, ‘What am I doing in school, I’m a boxer?’ I had to find unique ways of getting my message across. I didn’t need to know the rules of boxing but I needed to know how people learn and how you get through to boxers. A lot of it is building trust and just being there, they know that you have their back.”

Despite the challenge of a Covid-era Olympics with strict quarantines in Tokyo, McManamon labels the experience as “magical.” He was ringside for Kellie Harrington’s gold medal victory.

“She was down after the first round. 99 out of 100 people would panic in that situation and she stayed cool. She’s lost fights like that before, but she won the last two rounds and became Olympic champion.”

Harrington’s psychological poise mirrored the team-wide growth McManamon observed, if not oversaw, after he started working with Ireland’s boxers following a disappointing run at the Rio Olympics in 2016.

“There were a few issues around Rio time. People would become overcome with nerves, give their opponents too much respect, just general mindset errors from inexperience.

“People had all their eggs in one basket, boxing was all they had. So if you’d qualified, you’re on cloud nine, you lose. . . where are you then? Bernard [Dunne, former IABA high-performance director] did a lot of work on supporting them to do stuff in college. Encouraging them.

“I was getting lads to go out and go fishing, get away. Make friends outside of sport, have conversations outside of boxing. We did loads of prep around, who do you call in your life if you need a laugh, who do you call if you need a shoulder to cry on?

“A lot of the stuff I did in the [Olympic] games was mental imagery work, tactics in their head. A couple of the boxers were injured so they couldn’t throw [punches] until fight day, so we did that stuff. You’re just checking in to make sure they’re not making any mindset blunders.”

Unsurprisingly, McManamon’s own career informs his work. “I had to learn that the hard way. We lost a semi-final to Mayo in 2012, I was down in the dumps for a month. It took me a while to get back going. That’s when I started studying sports psychology.

“Jim Gavin was very good at saying ‘Yous are people first, brothers, husbands, boyfriends, staff members, footballers second.’”

As for what’s next, McManamon lectures in SETU Waterford but wants to still work in sport. “I’m trying to get more elite athletes from around the world. It’s important to have things to supplement your lectures so they’re based on real stuff, not stuff from five years ago.

“I love the job, I love the conversations so much. In sports psychology, it [validation] comes through reviews, text messages thanking you at the end of the year. Someone sitting here saying ‘You helped me get out of my own way.’ There’s been a lot of wellbeing stuff I’ve been proud of, people saying ‘I had this experience in my private life but I didn’t have a place to go because I wasn’t comfortable.’

“I love being that person in the system that fulfils that role.”

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