What Makes Seán O’Sullivan 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.

Seán O’Sullivan is a native of Cromane- a small rural village situated eight kilometres west of Killorglin, in Co. Kerry. He is a Personal Trainer, and owner of SOS Personal Training, and has represented his beloved Kerry at all levels, achieving huge success in the sport of Gaelic football.  He enjoyed a 7 year career with The Kingdom at senior level- from 2002 to 2009- taking home 4 All Ireland medals, and an All Star nomination in 2006.

Seán’s involvement in the sport has shifted towards coaching in recent years; he took on the role of player/coach with his local club Réalt na Mara, Cromane this past year, as well as being heavily involved in the development side of the game in Kerry since 2013. This is where he says his passion lies. 

“Right now, my love of the game is coaching the young up and coming talent in the county- the 14-17 year olds. Seeing them improve, that’s what it’s all about for me. As an underage coach, improvement and development is the main thing. Don’t get me wrong, the winning is great. But seeing a guy develop is the most important. You get a guy who at 14 is weak off his left foot, and then you see him at 16 kicking points off his left foot. That’s as good as a medal for me. That’s where my love of the game is at right now.”

Although he admits to seeing himself coaching at senior level at some stage in the future, his focus at present is on developing the underage talent in the county. 

“If you asked me in the morning where I saw my future in coaching, it would be with underage. I think that’s where my strength is.”

He has been married to his wife Mary since 2010, and they have 3 young boys, Ryan, Dylan, and Aaron.

Seán was kind enough to take time from his busy schedule, to offer some insights, and share some of his experiences.

Would you say you are more introverted, or extroverted? 

I’m certainly more of an extrovert; I’ve been an outgoing person all my life.

In saying that, there are times in private moments, and when I’m with the people I love, when I would question myself and have doubts about myself. I’ve never had problems interacting with people, whether it be in a professional or social setting, and I would always appear extroverted in that sense. But, I think everyone has doubts about themselves, and questions themselves from time to time.

I went for the Kerry minor job recently, for example, and I didn’t get it. I was disappointed I didn’t get it. I did a fantastic interview, and I thought I was tailor-made for the role. Even though I knew I had all the boxes ticked, and I was relatively confident in my abilities, that element of self-doubt was always there.

But definitely, I would say I am an extrovert. And anyone who knows me, if you were to ask them about my personality, they would all say the same, no doubt about that. Of course you have times where you question yourself, and I think that’s healthy. It’s how you deal with those questions, that’s what counts.

I think having those moments of self-doubt steady you, they keep you in line, keep you focused. If you just dove straight into things with the attitude of “I can do anything”, without asking questions of yourself, you’re going to fall short.

I relate everything back to football, at least I did, but as a parent you constantly ask questions of yourself too. Am I raising my children right, am I doing the right things for my 3 boys, am I doing the right thing as a dad. If I wasn’t questioning myself, it would suggest that I didn’t care.

Asking questions of yourself is healthy, and opening up to loved ones during those moments of self-doubt is crucial.

What is your passion?

Trying to help people reach goals; I would see myself as a facilitator. I love helping people to reach goals in any aspect of life. In coaching, seeing young guys improve on the field. As a personal trainer, seeing people hit their targets. The biggest reward is hearing that I’ve helped someone.

Your influence as a coach can be felt far beyond the boundaries of the white lines, particularly with underage players. I had a young guy come to me one day some time ago, around 14 years of age, who felt he was going down a wrong path. He was hanging out with the wrong crowd, experimenting with cigarettes and alcohol, which unfortunately is all too easy to acquire for young people in Ireland. I tried to help him understand that if he wanted to get to where he wanted to be as an athlete, and as a footballer, he had to make better choices. Taking football out of the equation completely, and looking at it from a life perspective, he needed to realise that if he continued down that path, things would not turn out well. I confided in his parents at the time, who were aware of the situation. They sensed that something wasn’t right. I felt the need to invest a bit of time in him; time that to me would seem insignificant, but to a young person, could prove invaluable.

I see him now and he’s a completely changed character, playing great football, and loving life. I was walking out of mass one Sunday morning, and out of the blue an elderly woman grabbed my hand and pulled me in to the seat beside her. I didn’t know who she was, but she told me that she was the boys grandmother. She thanked me with tears in her eyes, for making time for her grandson.

I think it shows that when you take an interest in a young persons life- you can really make an impact. I could have turned a blind eye, and taken a single minded approach from a coaching perspective, focussing solely on whether he could be of service to me as a footballer, but football was secondary at that stage.

It was an encounter that really opened up a new view on things from a coaching aspect.

One line in particular that I’ve carried with me in recent years, is get to know the person first, before you get to know the player. You have to look at the athlete- or the client- as a person first. It inevitably makes your job as a coach easier, and it goes a long way.

That is my passion- in both football and personal training- I love being a facilitator. Did I think that was my strength or my passion when I was younger- at 17 or 18 years of age- of course not. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. But certainly, as the years have gone on, that’s how things have developed.

How do you measure success?

Success is in the process- how you’ve gone about it. If you can get into bed at night knowing you’ve done everything you can to the best of your ability, you’ve left no stone unturned, and have covered every angle, whether you win or lose, that to me is success. Have you been true to yourself, true to your methods, and have you been true to the person or the people who have been supporting you along the way. Of course, if you are passionate about what you are doing you will question the process at times, but if you’re true to yourself, you can rest easy when you close the door behind you. Medals and accolades are a bonus. Success is in the process.

What is your approach to daily life? 

I suppose you just wake up in the morning and try and take each day as it comes.  I would regard myself as being- or would like to think of myself as being- a structured person. I’m looking over to my diary on the table as we speak, but at the same time, I don’t get flummoxed if things take a wobble throughout the day, or if things don’t go according to plan. So, as much as I try and build structure into my day, I think it’s important to be flexible to an extent.

At the stage of life I’m at now- a dad of three young boys under the age of four- I don’t think you can approach life any other way other than to take every day as it comes. Every day is new, every day is different, and it’s a joy.

Another thing I try to adhere to is punctuality. If I say I’m going to be somewhere, I will be there, and perhaps it’s a weakness of mine that I have to work on, but I expect it in return. Stay true to your word, if you say you’re going to be somewhere, be there.

Do your best every day, in all aspects.

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

I would find it very hard to look past my parents, to answer that question. I’m sure a lot of people would say the same. I’m actually looking out the window across at the family home as we speak. Myself, my brother, and my two sisters were blessed growing up, and still are. We never asked for anything. They instilled a lot of good values, respect being a major one. In terms of football, if ever I needed to be brought to a match, or training, they were always there.

Mom and Dad were always there with a word of advice, to put me in the right direction. There were times I let them down, for sure. In 2001 I went off the rails a bit. I was after having a great minor career with Kerry, and had broke onto the seniors at aged 19. I was in college in Tralee; the craic and the good life became more important, and I thought football would take care of itself. I fucked around, and I drank a lot. It affected my football  and my studies, and I failed the year. I got a job soon after, and quickly got fired for something stupid. I let a lot of people down, including my parents. When you disappoint your parents, you think at the time that it’s the end of the world, but since becoming a parent myself, I’ve realised just how important your kids are to you, and you’d do anything for them.

It took a bit of repairing, but it was with their advice and support, that I was able to get back on the right path. I did a lot of growing up and it was tough on them, but without them being the people they were, I could have easily continued down the wrong path.

My father’s brother Patrick, who sadly is not with us anymore, had a huge influence on my football career. He took an interest from the very beginning, starting with Cromane at underage level. He helped me with the skills, he kicked around with me, and invested a lot of his time in me. I still think of him to this day, and there are pictures of him in the house. When we won the All Ireland in ’04, and after the celebrations simmered down in the dressing room, I grabbed my phone out of my bag, went into a toilet cubicle, and phoned Patrick. He didn’t come to Croke Park at all for the matches- he wasn’t a fan of big crowds. I wanted to share that moment with him.

He fell ill in 2005, and sadly passed away. I was in Australia at the time and returned home for the funeral; I decided to stay put, and get back on the Kerry team.

He remains a huge influence.

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

It’s a funny story, but I have a real interest in the mafia. When I first started going out with Mary I would have to take the train to see her, as she is from the North. I got on the train one Christmas, and realised I had nothing to read. I was bored off my you-know-what, and it was before the time of the smartphone. The train was dead, and as I got off at Mallow to switch lines, I noticed a book sitting on the table behind me, left unattended. I picked it up, and held it in my hand, waiting for someone to claim it, but nobody did. In a way, I suppose, you could say that I stole the book.

It was a book written by Philip Carlo, entitled The Iceman. It told the story of Richard Kuklinski, a Polish man who was born and raised in America. He was one of the most infamous hitmen to be employed by the mafia. It’s a true story, and is a fantastic, absolutely brutal read. I even emailed the author after reading it, to say how much I enjoyed it, and he got back to me.

People will ask, what the hell attracts you to that kind of story. I don’t know if there’s a sinister side to me, or not. Why it interests me, I don’t know. I couldn’t answer you. But it does. I find it interesting that he had this whole secret life; he was a family man with a wife and kids, yet he was one of the most feared men to walk the earth.

The same author later brought out a book entitled The Monster Within; he contracted ALS and wrote the book during his last remaining months. His assistant had to write the last couple of chapters, as he was losing the battle with the disease and couldn’t write any longer. He brought you along with him, right up until his final breath.

Describe your typical morning routine.

My day usually starts around 7 AM. My routine is dictated by the three boys, I build my morning around them. I get up and get going, make breakfast, do the school run. I try and have a good breakfast myself, I look to start the day right from a nutrition point of view.

Later, I will start ticking things off the list in the diary, designing any sessions that are scheduled, and preparing for the day ahead. I’d be a big believer in having your preparation done and sessions lined out; you have to take pride in the work you do.

When you’re self employed, it’s important to not let the day just go by. I try to keep structure in the day, as much as possible, so I can be ready for what’s coming down the tracks, ready to attack the day.

Describe your perfect Sunday.

A lie in would be nice, for sure! There’s nothing more I enjoy than having a day with the family. Breakfast together is a perfect start to any day. We live in a beautiful part of the world, and there’s always something to do. We’d pack the car and head off to Killarney or Tralee, have a nice lunch. A bit of sport on TV would never go astray either.

Just having your nearest and dearest around you, and being able to enjoy a stress free day, that’s perfection. Pulling out a good book, maybe. I enjoy a pint with mates too, I won’t lie. Nothing that any other guy my age wouldn’t like to do, I suppose. Your life changes as you hit different milestones, and I suppose your perception of a perfect Sunday changes with it. Get the boys down early, watch a movie with Mary later that evening, that would be as good as it gets.

I am happiest when…

It’s 8 in the evening, you look back on a good day and think to yourself, I achieved what I wanted to achieve, and you can put the feet up and relax.

You’ve the door closed behind you, and you can look back and say, “Yep, that was a good one.”

Do you have a guilty pleasure?

I like to grab a latte or a coffee, sit by the window in a cafe, and people watch. I love to watch the world go by, watching people go about their business. You kind of wonder, what are they doing and where are they headed. I don’t get to do it too often, mind you.

But yeah, just taking a half an hour with a coffee and watching the world go by. I think it’s a great thing to do, and I think everyone should try it. You can’t explain what it is you’re getting out of it, but it almost gives you reassurance. Everyone is just trying to get along, and you are there relaxing, watching it all happen.

I think you put on the blinkers sometimes in life, and you become a little self-absorbed, and it’s nice to just take a step back. You look out the window for a half an hour and you realise everyone is on their own journey. I think you walk away from it and realise that actually, it’s not all about you, and I mean that in the best way possible.

Watching Liverpool, too. I’ve been to Anfield more times than I care to remember. They drive me mad most of the time, but I think we have a good manager now. He takes no nonsense.

How does your approach to training differ as an athlete, and a coach?

As an athlete, you just worry about getting the best out of yourself. You are competing against the guy next to you, and you need to ensure that you are on top of your game, and are able to get the best out of yourself, so that he doesn’t get the better of you. You just need to worry about yourself, on and off the field. It’s a very selfish existence.

With coaching, you need to worry about everyone. You’re dealing with a group of players. You’re trying to design a session, and have to think about how to get the best out of the group. That element of selfishness gets parked and you have to open up to the group; you almost have to have eyes on the back of your head in terms of who is going well and who isn’t. You also need to think about how to get the best out of guys, to find ways of motivating a range of styles of player. A major thing in coaching, in particular being a manager, is having a good team around you too. Picking your own people is crucial, guys with a similar philosophy, but at the same time, guys who you know will challenge you. It’s very important to have a good team around you.

Do you have a coaching philosophy?

It’s all about the team, it has to be about the group. Every team will have stand out individuals, that’s just the way it is, but for me it has to be all about the team first and foremost. It’s no good being a stand out individual, unless you’re doing your best for the team. That has to be top priority. After that, you can break down your systems and look to implement your ideas of how you want to play, but the foundation has to be built on team ethic, and work rate for the team. If you don’t have guys that are willing to work and make incredible sacrifices for the good of the group, no matter what their ability is, you’ll struggle.

Take the Kerry minor team that won the All Ireland this year for instance, would they have the individual ability that the teams that came before them had- probably not- but they had an insatiable work ethic. That is what won them an All Ireland. If they didn’t have that desire to work for the team, and if they tried to rely on their individual talent alone- which they had in abundance- it wouldn’t have been enough, I don’t think.

Look at the Donegal team that won the All Ireland in ’12; a driven group that were willing to die for each other. Did they have the individual talent that let’s say Kerry or Dublin had at the time, probably not. They had some individual talent, yes, but more importantly they had an excellent manager who sold them an idea, and told them that if they bought into it they’d go places. They believed in him, bought into it, and they achieved success.

Work for the team, that’s paramount; you have to buy into the group dynamic.

What was the most rewarding aspect of playing a team sport such as Gaelic football? 

That feeling when you come in after a game, win or lose, and you can look a guy in the eye and say, “Yeah, I did my best for you.”

Coming in under the Hogan Stand, you close the door behind you before the journalists get in, and it’s just you, your teammates, the backroom team, and the Sam Maguire. You know that everyone in that room has burst their balls for the common goal, and you got your reward.

Now there were days when we didn’t get our reward, and we’d come in to that dressing room empty handed, but you could still look at the guy next to you and say I did everything for you. OK, you came up short, but you soldier with these guys, and you do it for each other.

Of course the victories are remembered and celebrated, but you don’t forget the losses either. It’s what you share with fellas along the way, while working towards that common goal.

What was the biggest challenge that you were faced with as a county footballer? 

I happened to be playing at such a time, and within a group of players with such immense quality, that the level of competition within the squad was such that it really got to me. That element of self-doubt, that we talked about before.

It got to me when I was starting on the team. I would be questioning myself and pushing myself, because I knew there was fellas on the line who would love to be in my position, and would do anything to be there. Then on the flip side, if you’re not starting you’re doubting yourself, and asking yourself, what do I need to do here to get on.

The competition was so intense, that you just couldn’t rest for a second. I remember coming up to the ’06 final, I was playing well all year at half-forward. The Saturday before, we went to Cork and trained in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, and had a 15 v 15 match that didn’t go well for me. The whole week, I was convincing myself that I was going to be dropped. Every time the phone rang, I was expecting it to be Jack O’Connor, calling to tell me the bad news. I went through a desperate week of self-doubt.

The team was named on the Thursday; it turned out that I was in the team, and I ended up having a good final. But that’s where it got to. That’s the type of intense environment you’re dealing with at that level. The level of competition was unbelievable, trying to prove your self-worth every single day. What can I do to stay put, or what can I do to get in.

In ’06 I was keeping Darran O’Sullivan out of the team, a quality young player who went on to captain Kerry and win an All Star. When you have guys of that level pushing you every evening in training- that calibre of player trying to get in ahead of you- it eats away at you. In ’07 I was out of the team, Eoin Brosnan and Paul Galvin were keeping me out, and I actually felt I was playing better football than in ’06. I’m sure if you asked those guys, knowing that I was there behind them, that they would say it drove them on. It’s incredible really, and I suppose you build a sort of mental toughness as a result of being surrounded by such a fierce array of talent and competition.

It’s a coaches dream to have that type of scenario, but it’s a players worst nightmare. You drive home from training at night, and the session might not have gone well, you’re thinking “Jesus, I was poor tonight”, and you look down the other end of the field and the lad you’re competing with for a jersey might have gotten 1-01, and you’re thinking “Fuck it, he’s flying”. Then the opposite might happen, and you might have a great night and you’re thinking, surely I’ll get a chance now the next day. This is the type of thing that goes through your head, constantly.

What was the most significant learning experience you can recall having? 

From a personal point of view, it has to be becoming a parent. Nothing prepares you for it. You can do all the research you want, but there’s nothing greater in the world from a learning perspective, than being a parent. You’re learning every minute. It’s tough at times for sure, but it’s incredibly rewarding.

From a football point of view, I don’t know. I think you learn more from the bad experiences, and I know that’s something that’s probably spun off a lot. You listen to Conor McGregor’s coach John Kavanagh, who says you win, or you learn. There were certainly one or two situations within the last 18 months, where I felt I should have been treated better. I was dealt with by people in such a way, that it left me feeling disappointed. I suppose you just go in with pre-conceptions, and for whatever reason, your expectations aren’t met. I think you learn a lot from bad experiences, and they teach you how to go about things differently the next time. It teaches you to be a bit more wary of certain circumstances, and to not to go into certain situations with expectations of how things are going to play out.

But certainly, it’s only by going through these bad experiences, that you learn from them.

What advice would you give to the younger generation, who may have aspirations to one day represent their county, or indeed play any sport at an elite level?

If it’s what you want to do, if it’s the road you want to go down, you have to make it a priority. It’s difficult, and you’ll come to a lot of crossroads.

I say this a lot and people disagree with me- but I went to school with a lot of guys who were much more talented than me in terms of footballing ability. I’ve no problem saying it. But when they reached a crossroads, they went  down a certain road. They may have gone off doing other things that young people do, which is fine, but I decided against it. I kept on the path I wanted to go down.

I wanted to play for Kerry. That’s what I wanted to do, nothing else mattered and nothing was going to stop me getting to where I wanted to go. I told myself that I was going to give myself the best opportunity to achieve it. Yeah, I missed out on holidays abroad, I missed out on 21st’s, and I missed out on weddings.

Do I regret it? Not one bit, absolutely not.

If you want to play at that level, you need to make some tough decisions. If you want to get to where you want to be, whether it’s to play at the top level in sport, or whatever it may be, you’ll be faced with some tough decisions along the way. You have to go for it wholeheartedly, and work at it every single day.

I would also say- especially now being a coach and although I’m still very inexperienced- don’t expect to become a better player from just a couple of training sessions a week. There’s so much more to it. It has to be a personal thing, you have to be single-minded in your approach and incredibly driven. You’ve got to be willing to do things that nobody else sees you doing.

You can check out the SOS Personal Training website and Facebook page, and you can also follow Seán on Twitter @SeanTheBawn