What Makes Jonny Holland Tick

In ‘What Makes You Tick’ I get the chance to pick the brains of some inspirational people from all walks of life, in the hope that by sharing ideas we can continue to progress, push our limits, and inspire each other. 

Jonny Holland is a Cork native who played rugby at the highest level, rising through the ranks to represent his beloved Munster; for a young man having grown up around the corner from Musgrave Park, he was very much living the dream. That was until it all came crashing to a halt. 

Credit: ©INPHO/Billy Stickland

“I was forced to retire early at 25 due to a recurring hamstring injury, which obviously wasn’t part of the plan. The path was laid out, I played U-18, sub-academy, then into the academy. I then moved onto a development contract, before being offered a senior contract. When people ask me my background, that’s it, so how do you go on with your life when the main part of it was taken away? That’s what I’m working on at the moment.”

Coming through such adversity has afforded Jonny a unique perspective at such a young age, and he leads various health and wellness seminars through which he shares his insights, and encourages clients to pursue new heights.

“I work closely with clients to develop their nutrition strategies and adopt practices to change habits with regard to nutritional and lifestyle choices. Nutrition is an area I would have taken a keen interest in as a player, because I was a smaller fella and I had to do all that I could to put on a few pounds. I studied it during and after the transition of retirement, so my main area of interest would be sport and nutrition in general.”

Although his playing career has been cut short, he is still involved in the game in a coaching capacity, which he says brings its own unique set of challenges. 

“I’m involved in the coaching set-up with Cork Con; it’s difficult coaching fellas I would have played with, and working alongside coaches I would have played under, lots of different challenges at the moment. I grew up 10 minutes from Musgrave Park, which is a great venue steeped in tradition; obviously rugby is such a huge part of the culture here in Cork and Munster. It’s hard not to be still involved, for sure.

Jonny was kind enough to take time to share his insights and experiences. 

Would you say you are more introverted, or extroverted? 

From my understanding of it, I’m definitely an introvert. The way I look at it, when the pressure comes on, or when you’re hitting bad form, or if you’ve had an argument with someone, it comes out in your personality in terms of how you react. I definitely don’t go running- because I like an argument- but if something is on my mind, I’ll probably go to my room as opposed to going and finding people to chat with.

That’s my general understanding of it- that’s an introverted sort of way. I just need to be in my own head a small bit, to go through my thoughts and sort things out internally; I find it hard in social situations to sort out my thoughts sometimes. I like to go away and settle myself, and rebalance on my own.

I’m certainly a social person and I have no problem being around other people. I come from a family of four kids and I’m a triplet, so being in a group doesn’t bother me. But I would say I’m definitely an introvert when it comes to it.

How would you describe yourself when you are at your best? 

It’s always hard to give an opinion of yourself, but I’d like to think I would chat to anyone, I’m not that confrontational in groups. I’m an easy-going guy and I get along well with others; I’d like to think I’m driven and focused.

What is your passion? 

My passion? Well, my passion was taken away from me. It was very easy for me to say that rugby was my passion, but when you come out of it you have to look for your passion elsewhere. I’ve come to realise that success and achievement has to be always in the forefront of my mind; I need something to aim for. If I don’t have that, I freak out.

Credit: ©INPHO/Billy Stickland

I’m quite competitive, even if the board games come out at home with the family, or if I’m ahead by a few holes in pitch and putt (which doesn’t always happen); I always want to win. That element of competition is something I always look for, and it’s hard when you come out of such a competitive sport to try and find it elsewhere, you know?

I am always trying to find things that I can be successful in, and looking for different avenues of achievement, even if it’s just going to the gym and bettering my own numbers; I find I compete with myself more than I compete with others and that’s a dangerous thing in that, yes it can drive you on, but it can turn you into a nut-job sometimes too. But that’s what drives me mostly. It’s that competitive nature.

Success and achievement, and competition. That’s what I’m passionate about.

How do you define success?

That’s a good question. I suppose success is doing something that you enjoy. Obviously there’s monetary forms of success too. I’m 26 now, and I still have to find my way in terms of making enough money to have a happy life, but if I’m not doing something I like, it’s hard to be successful.

I suppose you have goals you set for yourself, and you try and achieve those goals you set, and that’s success in itself. That’s another thing, if you don’t write down your goals, you won’t know if you’re succeeding. It probably varies amongst people in terms of what they define success as, but if they go away and write down their goals, I suppose in that way they will know if they are successful or not, within their own self-defined limits.

You mentioned that your passion was taken away from you, how do you reconcile with that? 

People would have always said to me that you’re dealing with it well, but I don’t know if I always do deal with it well; I’m just over a year out of the game and I’m still dealing with it.

I like routine and I like structure. I go to the gym quite a lot, so that gives me some sort of release and fills the void somewhat in terms of feeling like an athlete, but at the same time nobody is thanking me or patting me on the back for it, and that’s something I find hard; that sense of achievement is not there at the moment.

Coaching gives me a bit of an out and provides me with access to that element of competition; the social side of it in terms of seeing guys I would have played with and against, that helps me to deal with it quite a bit too.

I tend to deal with a lot of things internally. I don’t really tell people what’s actually on my mind- until it comes out when I least expect it. I suppose I did deal with most of it internally, which is probably why most people say that I dealt with it quite well. And I did deal with it well, but I probably go through a lot more than people would think; I probably question myself a lot both in terms of my success up to now, and what’s next. I’m still trying find my way, I suppose.

Once I find myself realigned along the right path, and once I’m focused and driven towards a goal, that helps, and that’s what I’m working on right now. It’s about trying to make connections, and speaking with people; it’s helping when I go on the attack with it, as opposed to waiting around for people to contact me, because that doesn’t happen and you learn that lesson swiftly. People will always want to help, but there aren’t a lot of tangible things available unless you go after them yourself. Once it is on my terms, it helps me to feel better about it, you know?

You touched on coaching, how does your approach to the game differ now as a coach? 

I think you have to be a lot more relaxed as a coach, because it’s out of your control. I would have been, I wouldn’t say uptight, but certainly very focused as a player in terms of trying to get everything right. You can’t do that as a coach, because a lot of what transpires on the pitch is very much out of your hands; it’s just about trying to educate and facilitate the players as much as you can.

It’s a massive learning curve because I don’t know everything from a coaching perspective, but I do try to bring a player’s perspective to the coaching team, because that’s something that coaches can miss, especially after being out of the game for so long.

What are some of the challenges of standing on the sideline as opposed to being on the field? 

Trying to correct things live I suppose is quite tough. As a professional player you have coaches watching proceedings on screen and they can get the message across during the game, but watching it on pitch level makes it hard to get that perspective in terms of knowing when you need to change things. You might have players asking you what to do, and sometimes the answer is I don’t know; they just have to figure it out for themselves, there’s no point telling them something for the sake of it.

That’s another thing, I’m coaching a lot of fellas I would have played with, and a lot of them are older than me. I would have played at a higher level than most of them so they would respect me in that sense, but I’ve learned the importance of getting your point across in a concise way, and being confident in what you’re saying. I suppose it helps that I’ve played at a high level and they would generally listen to what I have to say, but at the same time Cork Con won four trophies from four last year- they’re one of the most successful teams in the country- so how do you rectify that situation?

I suppose you just need to try and better the group in any way you can, but it comes with its issues too; you’d think coming into a winning team is going to be easy, but it’s probably a lot harder. You know, there’s a hangover from winning everything last year, and you’ve to get the fires burning again. They’re 5 on the trot in terms of Munster Senior Cups, and they just won the league which was a couple of years coming; this group have tasted incredible success, and so it’s a massive challenge to try and add something of value to that, you know?

What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced to date?

Retirement has been tough, in that I feel I kind of let people down. Not that I’m feeling sorry for myself, but I hate the fact that people around me had a story to tell, and that story got taken from them. My parents- and my dad in particular- loved the fact that I played for Munster; not that they would have shouted it from the rooftops, but they certainly would have taken pride in it. Munster is a very proud rugby province and we supported them massively growing up. I was giving my family and friends days out when they would come and watch me play, it was great for me and great for them, and it was hard in that respect.

Credit: ©INPHO/Donall Farmer

In terms of my rehab, it was nothing like I’d ever experienced. I went through much shorter rehabs before, which were easier to deal with but still frustrating in that you’re missing out on opportunities and your progress in halted slightly, but this was a 13 month rehab. I was told initially it was going to be 6 months with no issues, and in my head I was going to make it 5; I was that way inclined, I was competitive and I wanted to prove people wrong, I suppose. It turned into 13 months, and I had a lot of issues after I made my return, so that was a huge challenge.

I looked at it as a massive opportunity at the time, because it was. I needed to get bigger as a player, and work on areas where I was weak, but it was an incredible challenge in terms of mental strength and resilience. You don’t know how you’re going to react until you are actually faced with it and fortunately not a lot of players have to go through a challenge of that magnitude.

It certainly is a part of the game dealing with injury, and how you react is huge. I feel I did react well, but I had no idea the extent of the gruelling journey I’d be facing into, even when I was told my hamstring was off the bone, you know?

What have you learned about yourself from that experience? 

I’d like to think that I’m mentally strong anyway, or maybe it’s just that I deal with things internally. But I found a strength within that I didn’t know was there. I think I just got myself to a place where I was able to find out a lot about myself in terms of having the grit and determination to persevere. I knew I was motivated, I suppose to get to a professional level in sport you have to be, but I just found an extra gear that got me back onto the pitch, when on paper I probably shouldn’t have been able to get there.

I know now that I am probably better equipped to deal with difficulty after having gone through it. But you know, you have to put it in perspective too. It’s a professional setback- a career setback- yes it changed my life but it could be worse. I haven’t lost anybody, thankfully.

What’s the biggest lesson that you’ve learned from your parents? 

My mum always said to be thankful that it wasn’t my neck. I didn’t always like to hear it at the time, but it certainly did change my outlook after I retired. I can still move; I can run around, although sometimes it can be painful; I can go to the gym and lift weights; I still have my health coming away from the game. My mum wasn’t always keen on me playing rugby I don’t think, she found it hard to watch. Although it was a nice career to have, she probably didn’t always want me involved just because of what is at stake. Her reaction was, It’s not the end of the world, and that’s certainly an attitude I take on now.

I suppose I’ve learned a great deal from my family as a whole, in that we don’t shy away from hard work. My siblings have always brought out that competitive side in me, especially being a triplet; you kind of have to fight for everything you get, even if it’s just a bit of attention. But that grit and determination runs through our family, and it’s something I’ve learned from the lot of them.

What’s the best book you’ve read and why? 

I don’t know if it’s the best book, but it’s certainly the most influential, which is a book called The Secret. Chloe my girlfriend got it for me around the time of my surgery, which was the 8th of December; come to think of it, she could have gotten it for me for Christmas.

It touches on the idea of positivity, and practicing gratitude; I know it’s a bit quacky, the notion that if you ask the universe for what you want you will you get it, but definitely it came at the right time for me. It’s easy to fall into a negative mindset when you are sat out in the rehab room, but those challenges and how you react to them define you, so whether she knows it or not that book had an incredible effect.

I’m reading another book at the moment- don’t ask me the name of it- but it’s about how small actions can produce big results, and that was certainly a small action on her part that had an immense effect. I don’t think any book will overshadow that one in terms of the influence it’s had on me.

It’s a powerful read for sure, and gratitude is a major theme throughout like you said. What are some things you’re grateful for? 

I write some things down every morning, using an app called Gratitude 365; I used to write in a notebook that I kept beside my bed during rehab. The things I write vary from day to day, it could be something that someone did for me that day, or maybe just the fact that the weather was good that day. I bought a car recently, and that kept going in there because every time I got into it, I just felt so grateful for it. I try not to be so materialistic with it, but it’s hard, especially at my age; I suppose I don’t have everything that I want yet.

I try to use it as a way of changing my perspective on things too. I would write things like, I know this didn’t go well for me, but.. and then finish the sentence. In that way I use it as a reframing tool, looking at best possible outcomes, and what I would do differently next time. I think when you’re thankful for the things in your life, you just find yourself in a better headspace.

You talked about adversity earlier, but what are some defining moments that you look back on? 

Positively or negatively? Well it’s hard I suppose. I’ll always look back on the Leinster match in The Aviva as a huge positive; it’s a testament to myself that I can actually get to that level, and it helps me to deal with the challenges for sure. It gives me reassurance to be able to look back and say that all the work I put in wasn’t in vain; it doesn’t get much bigger than Leinster in The Aviva and it’s something that will live long in the memory I’m sure.

Credit: ©INPHO/James Crombie

And the injury of course, but I wouldn’t even call the injury a negative, because it kind of defined me in that I came out the other side of it a better player. Saying that, I’d love to have seen what would have happened if I could have played on, or if the injury didn’t come about. Retiring was massive, just in terms of looking at how I dealt with it- how I’m still dealing with it- and my reaction to it at the time at 25 years of age.

I feel now that I have something to offer people in terms of that experience, and the perspective it has afforded me, even if it’s just to give some advice, or offer guidance to someone in a similar situation.

What advice would you give to young kids, who have aspirations to go on and play at the highest level?

I would say that yes, the talent has to be there and you have to be good enough, but you have to practice and work on improving your craft.

Another thing I would say is that it doesn’t come for free; people sometimes expect a handout, and it doesn’t always happen. It could be the case that you’re putting in serious work, and you have all the talent in the world, but it still may go against you for one reason or another.

You have to be proactive- you can’t sit around. There were times in my career where I thought maybe I didn’t do enough; I picked up a small injury in the summer while I was in the sub-academy, and looking back I felt I wasted a whole summer. It’s one I’d love to get back; it was a very negative summer. So get after it and go and earn it, because it doesn’t come for free.

What advice would you give to 16-year-old Jonny? 

Relax. I was very focused and uptight at that age. But yeah, it’s a hard one. I would probably say to keep the faith and relax more. Enjoy it a small bit more, enjoy the process; celebrate the wins, rather than dwelling on the losses. People who are driven and successful in a certain area find it hard to celebrate the wins, the loss lasts a week but the win lasts an evening until you’re thinking about the next one. So relax, and enjoy it.

Lastly, we touched on the path earlier in terms of your own journey. What would you say to people who come to a crossroads in life, unsure of what path to take. 

I probably have to take my own advice on this one, because I’m right there at the moment. It’s a tough one, I don’t really know. I would say to take more control, which I’m trying to do. Be confident. It’s generally the case that if you find yourself at a crossroads, there’s one way you actually want to go, and one way you think that you should go. I would say that you don’t always have to do what others feel is right, and you don’t have to shy away from what you feel is right.

Have the confidence to do what is right for you; explore the uncertainty, figure out why it is that you are unsure, and then get after what it is you want.

For more information on the work that Jonny does, you can check out his website. You can also follow him on Instagram and Twitter.