What Makes Niyi Adeolokun 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.

Niyi Adeolokun emigrated to Ireland from his native Ibadan, a city in the south-west of Nigeria, with his mother and younger brother Lawrence in 2001. He first picked up a rugby ball in his first year of secondary school, at De La Salle Churchtown in Dublin, and he jokes that in the beginning it was “really just an excuse to get out of class”. 

He is currently in his third season with Connacht, and has just recently signed a new deal with the province, which will take him to the summer of 2019. Under Pat Lam he has flourished, and the team have risen to new heights, winning the Pro 12 title last year with an exhilarating brand of rugby. Niyi is enjoying competing against some of the giants of Europe this season; the recent defeat of French outfit Toulouse he says was particularly sweet. 

Photo credit: inpho.ie

“Yeah, the Toulouse result was awesome. You want to be testing yourself against the best teams and the best players. That’s what it’s all about.” 

An incredible journey has seen him develop into one of the most exciting talents in the country. Niyi was kind enough to take time to offer some insights, and share some of his experiences.

Would you say you are more introverted, or extroverted?

I lean more towards introvert, but I think I’m probably somewhere in the middle. I feel that I’m a pretty strong-minded and independent person. I like to chill on my own and watch movies, but then I also like to have the craic with the lads, playing FIFA or hanging out. I do enjoy my own company, but I find it’s good to have someone else around to have a good chat with.

I watch a lot of movies, I like to have naps, and love chilling with the lads. I enjoy the company of teammates, slagging each other off and just having the craic. Every now and then I get to chat to guys from school too, but most of the time it’s guys from the squad.

What drives you?

The fear of failure definitely motivates me to keep going, and to keep improving; that fear of letting my family down, and disappointing the people who have believed in me and kept faith in me from the beginning.

I am also driven to succeed in order to have something to lean back on in the future- to build a platform for myself which will make things easier down the line.

How do you measure success? 

It’s hard to say really, how can you measure it? It’s different for everyone. I guess some would measure success by the amount of publicity they attract, or by the number in their bank account, but I’m not so sure. In rugby terms, obviously you think about honours; you want to be considered among the best, and you want to win first and foremost.

Obviously getting capped for the national team is in my sights; you want to pit yourself against the best in the world and that’s where I see myself.

How do you prepare for the day ahead?

It’s pretty simple and straightforward. I like to get an early night, then a good breakfast. If needs be, I will get in to see the physio to prepare to get my body right for the day, and prepare for the week ahead. I’ll have a look at the schedule, and work around that. Everything is set out for us in advance so you know what to expect. Sometimes you might have some media commitments that you will have to take care of. Come 6 o’clock I start winding down, and begin to switch off from rugby.

Photo credit: inpho.ie

It depends on the day though; if it’s a training day for instance, at the start of the day you try to have a lot of focus on set plays, maps in your head of the lines you need to run and the different patterns. Or if you are reviewing video and there are certain plays that are highlighted, parts you need to work on and improve on during the week leading up to the game, obviously you need to keep those in the back of your head. There’s always something to work on and improve, and you always keep these at the back of your head. Towards the end of the week, the majority of the match preparation is pretty much done and it starts to taper off.

On days off you still have to see the physio, do some video analysis, watch some opposition tape, do media work like photoshoots and whatnot; there’s always something to look over in terms of the game.

Who had the most influence on you at a young age, and why?

When I was playing with Trinity College, one of the main things I learned was to be mentally tough and to believe in myself. Scott LaValla was one of my good mates who I played with in Trinity, and who also went on to play for the USA Eagles. He would have been a massive influence on me, on and off the pitch. He approached me like an older brother; he was always there for me and the stuff he said to me motivated me to succeed. I saw him playing with Stade Francais in front of a massive crowd a couple of years after seeing him line out for Trinity, and he played in the Rugby World Cup in 2011; that was massive for me to witness. Seeing Scott perform at the highest level really motivated me to want to get there, and pushed me to get me where I am today.

Obviously all the coaches that I’ve played under have had a huge influence on meLorcan Balfe was one of my coaches at school in De La Salle. I could easily have stopped playing in school, my Mum didn’t actually allow me to play but I remember the coaches always encouraged me, and wanted me to stick at it. I guess they recognised something in me from an early age; they believed in me.

Tony Smeeth in Trinity was a massive influence on my rugby career also- he always calls me and asks me how life’s going, and shows a general interest in how I’m doing. He always asks about off the field stuff, which is obviously great.

When I first got to Dublin I played Gaelic football in 6th class and was coached by a wonderful man named Martin Smith, I’d still keep in touch with him a lot. He has two sons and I’m quite close with them too. He always keeps in touch, and checks in. He’s always there with advice, or if I ever need help with anything. When I went back to Dublin after my holidays recently, I made it my business to go back and visit him. He’s a big influence on me; he’s just a lovely man. He’s very selfless in how he goes about things, always doing things for other people. I think secretly he’s a bit down that that I chose rugby over football, I think he reckoned that I could play for the Dubs one day. Initially I would have played a lot of Gaelic, but drifted away from it as rugby became more prominent. He still holds hope that one day I might go back and give it a shot!

One of my uncles in London- Uncle Solomon- was also a huge influence. When I was growing up he was always there to keep me grounded, and he used to always say it exactly how it was from both sides. He saw things from my perspective too, a bold and unruly teenager. He’ s always getting on to me to make sure I’m doing well, encouraging me to keep doing what I’m doing, to stay at it. It’s always nice to know that people like that are behind you, and they support what you’re doing, and to know that whatever you do, you’re never going to let them down. People that care about you, and love you, and not just because of the fact that you play rugby.

The people that have been there from the beginning- all along the journey- they keep you grounded. They were there when I was in school and I was being told off by my mum for playing rugby, they fought my corner and helped persuade her to let me play. They’ve been there since day one, and that is one of my big motivations. I want to do my best to make those people proud, those who believed in me from the start. I want to be able to justify their faith in me.

Photo credit: inpho.ie

What made you choose one sport? 

Definitely the big turning point came at the end of 5th year- during the summer before going into 6th year. I was 17 going on 18, and had just made the Leinster U-19 development squad, I was playing for Shelbourne U-20’s, playing Gaelic with the local club, and obviously still messing around in school. I figured that playing for Leinster would have been huge, and making Shelbourne would have been a big deal too. That summer I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but I felt myself start to lean towards rugby and soccer. At that stage it was a toss-up between those too, not knowing myself what I wanted to focus on. Both appealed to me, so I wasn’t too sure. But going to Shelbourne training was a bit of a trek- out past Santry- and I started losing interest. I’m a pretty friendly and happy kind of guy but I wouldn’t have been too close with the guys on the Shells squad either, and I guess I started to lean towards rugby.

Then at the end of that summer I got cut from the Leinster squad, and that really hit home for me. I said to myself, “Fuck it, I really like rugby. I want to make a go at it”. I remember going to my principal at the beginning of sixth year- who was also my senior team coach- and he just told me to focus. Focus on making the best of my final year, focus on rugby and see what happens. I stopped playing soccer and gave everything to my school senior rugby team after that.

Tony Smeeth- the coach of Trinity at the time- was friendly with my principal and was aware of my involvement with Leinster the previous summer, and at the end of the school year he invited me to come and train with them. Trinity had a good history of developing players; a lot of players who had played for them would have lined out with Leinster U-20’s, and other provinces, so that appealed to me. I felt it was the right choice to make. Although I was never involved in any academy environment, Trinity certainly felt like it; we had gym sessions in the morning and pitch sessions in the evening. Tony is big on video analysis also, and he is incredibly knowledgable. It was very professional setup. He has been around the game a long time, and has a few connections as a result, and that’s how I randomly ended up in Galway. I guess the decision to focus on one sport turned out to be a good one.

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

I’m not big into books to be honest. When I was in Trinity I had a mate named Dominic Gallagher, he would have been involved in the Irish U-20’s. He was a very tough flanker who studied Philosophy strangely enough; tough guy on the pitch but a deep and philosophical mind off it. He read a lot and he knew I wasn’t into books, but one day he gave me this book about the life of Oscar Wilde. It described his life, and his work, all the plays and novels that he wrote. I learned a great deal about him. It’s so random, people get a little weirded out when I tell them. Like I said, I’m not big into books, but I have to say I really enjoyed that one.

A funny story actually. A year later after reading it, I went to watch Scott Lavella playing in France, but while I was there I visited the cemetery where Oscar Wilde is buried, and I visited his graveside. I actually got in contact with Dom and told him about the influence that the book had on me, and I thought that was pretty cool too.

It fell into my hands randomly, sitting in Dom’s place in Trinity, surrounded by books. He said, “Ah, reading is quite good for you, you know”, and he handed me this book, “You’ll enjoy it”, which I did. I was quite proud of myself for finishing it actually!

Describe your perfect Sunday.

I’d have a lie in for sure, sleep until 12 or 1 PM. That would be ideal. Food with the lads, chill out around town. Hopefully it’s good weather, in Galway we don’t get too many nice days. Then settle down to play FIFA for the evening- of course- and have a bit of a chat. Some of the boys get a bit angry if they lose though, Tiernan O’Halloran doesn’t take the beatings well at all. Everyone loves FIFA though; you just get to switch off completely. Around 9 I’d head back to bed, watch a bit of a movie.

Do you have a guilty pleasure?

Watching movies in bed probably? Ah yeah, I eat a lot of junk food actually. I don’t eat many vegetables at all. I’d eat anything that’s bad for you really. Most of my diet consists of Chinese, Dominos, KFC, Supermacs. I struggle to put on weight, you know? At the start of my Connaught career my jump in weight was massive but I struggle now to push on, so the nutritionist is a bit more lenient with me. I just need to get as much calories into my diet as possible. I’m a bit lazy too, I don’t cook much at all.

I’m happiest when…

…at home watching TV.

What is your approach to training? 

Going in I try and keep at the back of my mind my work-on’s; catching the ball, bringing it across my body, staying out wide and holding my depth. I try and focus on running good lines, not dropping balls, you know, the little things that I need to work on.

I try to focus on executing the simple things, little by little, and hopefully at the end of the session it all comes together.

After training we use an app to record the session, which goes up online after. You get to see things that you might need to work on, things like decision making or lines of running or whatever, so you can analyse your performance in training, and look at things you need to work on the next day.

What was your most significant learning experience? 

When I got cut from Leinster 19’s. At that stage I was just training with them for the name and the gear; the status. I wasn’t too dedicated. Getting cut made me realise that actually, I love rugby and I figured I could make a career out of it. I was like, “Fuck this, I need to get the finger out”. I realised that if I put in the work, things could happen for me.

Photo credit: inpho.ie

What is the biggest challenge you face as a professional athlete? 

I’m a very laid-back guy by nature, and in a professional team environment you have to be mentally switched on all the time. The pressure in big games gets to some more than others, and in the beginning I found that to be a challenge. The build-up can be quite intense, and it probably isn’t great for your health in the long run. Wear and tear on the body is one thing, but that’s physical, so it’s not too bad. But I feel that mentally and emotionally, the build-up to big games can drain you. The best way to deal with it is to switch off, playing FIFA, chilling with the lads, doing things outside of rugby, these things certainly help. Winning helps too obviously, and the positive energy that builds with momentum. The build-up for sure though, it gets a little bit crazy sometimes.

In the beginning during my first season, I would have gotten quite tense about my role, my responsibilities, and the pressure of having to perform. As I’ve gotten more experienced though, I’ve gotten to know more about myself and I’m much less anxious these days in the lead up. I feel freer, and there is not as much pressure. I am much more relaxed, and I play a lot better when I’m relaxed.

Pat (Lam) always says to me, playing is like a celebration; all the preparation is done during the week, and game day is just a celebration of the hard work. Once you know that you have done your best during the week to prepare and put in the work, the match comes as second nature. That helps a lot; you just feel relaxed and you feel confident that everything will click on the pitch. I try not to get too wound up, and try to just stay calm. I try not to worry about the opposition, either. I try get my hands on the ball as much as possible during the game and stay busy.

What’s the most rewarding aspect of playing a team sport such as rugby?  

Without a doubt the friends you make, even going right back to school days. The bond that you make with guys is special, and it’s also nice reminiscing about the highs, and the lows.

What advice would you give to the younger generation, who may have aspirations to play sport at an elite level? 

It’s a cliche but I would say to never give up. Stay strong- physically and mentally. Don’t give up on your dreams, especially if someone says you can’t get to where you want to go. Keep on working hard, stay on the path, and things will surely happen for you.

You can follow Niyi on Twitter: @Young_niyisy