What Makes Steven McDonnell 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.

Steven McDonnell is considered among the greatest Gaelic footballers Armagh has ever produced. He played at the highest level on the inter-county stage for over a decade, and during that period claimed every accolade in the modern game, including an All-Ireland Senior Championship in 2002, a National League Division 1 title in 2005 as well as a remarkable seven Ulster Senior Championship titles.

Although his boots were hung up almost 5 years ago, he is still heavily involved in the sport.  

“I have retired from playing for 4 or 5 years now, but I am still involved in the game in a coaching and management capacity; I coach Burren in Co. Down, and my own club Killeavy at U-12 level. I would do quite a bit of media work also, with BBC radio covering the Ulster Championship, National League and club football, and I do a weekly podcast with SportsJoe.ie, alongside your fellow county man, Colm Parkinson.”

In addition to his success at county level, McDonnell has played and won at both provincial and international levels within the game, winning two Railway Cups for Ulster as well as the International Rules Series with Ireland in 2004, 2008 and 2011. He has captained his club, county, province and country during his playing career, and his personal achievements single him out as one of the most decorated figures in the game. He achieved All-Star status on three occasions in 2002, 2003 and 2005 and was crowned Player of the Year in 2003.

Since retiring from the inter-county scene in 2012, his time has been devoted to sharing his vast experience as a means of motivating and leading others in various fields from sport to business.

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

Would you say you are more introverted, or extroverted? 

I’m probably extroverted so I am. Yea I would be, I definitely would be. I probably have many different characteristics as a person and an individual; I can be quiet at times but when I’m in good company, I can be very outspoken. I would say when I look at it and analyse it, there’s a bit of both in me, but probably more extrovert.

What would the people closest to you say are your defining characteristics? 

Jesus. Well, I know what I’d like them to say! Listen, at the end of the day. What would people closest to me think of me? Probably someone who enjoys life. Someone who can be serious, but can also be lighthearted and see the funny side of things too. You know, the people closest to me would be family members, and people from a sporting capacity so, I’d like to think that I’m good craic to be around, but then I suppose from a coaching and management side, players probably see another side of me too. That’s what I mean when I say that there’s many different characteristics- and I suppose sides- to me.

What would you say is your passion? What gets you up in the morning? 

Well my passion is my family, having four great kids and my lovely wife. My wife is also from Killeavy, which is great as all of our extended family is close by. Family and friends is very, very important to me.

I get up every morning and try and do the best that I can, on any particular day. My passion is certainly sport. Any type of sport at that, not just Gaelic football; soccer, golf, any type of sport at all.

I’m very interested in success. I like reading about successful people, reading up on how people have made it to where they are and what it took to get there. That really intrigues me. I love to see people being successful in their lives and it’s something that I always strive for in my own life; it’s something that I encourage anyone that I’m in close conversation with, to strive to be the best that they can be.

How do you measure success? 

I suppose when you come from a sporting background, you are always basing success on set goals and targets that you’d put down both collectively, and from an individual point of view. It’s the same for me now in business. I set goals on a regular basis and then work to achieve them, that’s how success is measured I suppose, and I would see it as a failure if I don’t achieve the goals I set for myself. So, I’m probably pretty firm and strict in that capacity, in that I do really want to achieve my targets and ambitions in life. I want to go the whole way, I don’t just want to go halfway there and be satisfied with it.

It was the same when I was a player. To win an Ulster final for example, and then to go and lose in the quarter final of the All-Ireland, that was never the end goal. It was always a disappointment at the end of the season, because ultimately the dream and the goal was to win the All-Ireland. It’s the same in life. You have to have ambition, and you have to have goals and targets to strive for, to ultimately make yourself better and to improve. If you have that, certainly you can see yourself going in the right direction.

You mentioned success in terms of sport, and you’ve achieved a great deal in Gaelic football terms. When did you know that you wanted to dedicate your life to making it as an inter-county footballer? 

I always played a lot of sports when I was growing up, and I was always a keen supporter of Armagh. I was certainly a decent soccer player too, quite capable of playing it at a high level, and I was playing at a decent level here in Ireland for a period of time when I was 17 or 18, but I was always better at Gaelic football. I went to New York in the summer of 1998 and I stayed there until Christmas, and while I was over there I started playing a bit of soccer. I actually got offered a pretty lucrative scholarship; it was a great opportunity and I was seriously considering taking it up.

I came home for the Christmas break, and while I was home I was asked onto the Armagh senior panel, so it was only really then that I had a big decision to make; you know, do I want to go back to America or do I want to give the county a go. I was very young and Armagh hadn’t tasted any success at this point, I love travelling and I was a decent soccer player, but as I said my family is very important to me, and I really wanted to give Armagh a go because I grew up supporting them, so I stayed.

As soon as I got in amongst the squad, with the likes of Kieran McGeeney, Paul McGrane, Jarlath Burns, you’d different characters in there who certainly inspired me, and pushed me to be better; I was surrounded by high caliber individuals. Within the first 7 months of being involved we had won an Ulster title, and so it was very easy for me at that point to then say that I wanted to dedicate my career towards Gaelic football, and towards Armagh. When you taste success early on in your inter-county career, it’s like a drug; it’s a habit, and you want to continue achieving at the highest level. I was fortunate that during most of the years I was wearing an Armagh jersey, we tasted some sort of success.

You mentioned some of the people that you had around you, who would you say has had the most influence on your life from a young age?

I suppose a lot of people would mention their parents, and I’m certainly no different. My father and mother always encouraged me to play football; I was very lucky that I lived quite close to the football field, and it was a case of enjoying my childhood on the football field. I certainly enjoyed mine.

But you know, I had tremendous underage coaches at my club who had an incredible influence, and one in particular was Tomas Mallon. He was a primary school principal of one of the schools in Killeavy, he managed me at U-10 and U-12 level. He was the one individual from whom I learned the most in terms of the basic skills of the game; he focused on the basic skills like all good underage coaches, but he always encouraged us to use both feet and both hands when executing the skills. That was something that when I look back on my career, I suppose one of my strengths as a player was that I was very strong off both feet, and that was his influence at such a young age. I put a lot of what I achieved in my career down to the quality coaching I received at a young age from the likes of Tomas Mallon.

You touched on the coaching work that you’re doing now, how does your approach to the game differ now as a coach compared to when you were playing? 

It’s much more stressful, when you were playing you just have to focus on getting your own game and your own performance right. Therefore, it’s just you that you’re thinking of. When you become a coach, you’re trying to develop a group of 15-20 players, and get them to perform at a high level, which is not always possible. And then when you come from playing inter-county football at the highest level for a long time, and you expect players at club level to then be able to carry out the instructions in the same way that I could as a player, it’s not always the case and sometimes that can be quite frustrating. And that’s not being arrogant, it’s just realizing that there are different standards in any sport and Gaelic football is no different; it’s about working with the players at the level that they’re at.

The biggest difficulty is coping on the sideline during a match when things are going against you, and not being able to directly influence things on the field. I find that really difficult. I always want to be in the thick of it, and when you can’t do that on the sideline it’s very tough.

I also find that as a player, you know, the journey you go through when you do all the hard training from January, to get your chance in the big matches, it’s the knowing that I’ll never get to play in those big matches again, that is quite difficult.

That’s going back to what you mentioned about success being almost like a drug. 

Absolutely. Success breeds success. I suppose everyone always looks at the likes of the All Blacks in terms of rugby, and closer to home I always point to Crossmaglen Rangers.

Crossmaglen only started to taste real success on a national level at senior level about 20 years ago, and they have dominated the club scene in Ireland for the last two decades. That’s largely because of the young players coming through the ranks; some of those boys playing senior now would have been playing U-8 when Crossmaglen first started winning All-Ireland’s, but they had that drive ingrained in them to become the type of player that is capable of wearing the jersey; they grow up wanting to emulate that success. That success has continuously developed in a club like Crossmaglen, and the best teams have a habit of breeding success. We were no different with Armagh, in terms of once we won one Ulster title, it gave us that drive to go on and win more. You certainly develop an appetite for winning once you taste success for the first time.

You mentioned some of the experiences you’ve had, what would say is the greatest lesson you’ve learned? 

Probably not to take life too seriously, and to realize that outside of sport there is more important things in life. Life is full of difficulty and adversity; when I was 17 years of age for example, I had a gun held to my head on two separate occasions while at work, and I’ve seen many friends pass away over the years through illness and tragedy. I suppose you learn to deal with different hurdles and obstacles that come at you, and you try to cope. The biggest thing that I would say to myself coming off the back of a heavy defeat, is that there’s more to life than sport, and that living your life is the most important thing.

Quite recently we as a club and a community faced tragedy when a long serving senior player committed suicide. It was a huge blow. You’ve got to learn to live life to the full, that’s what it’s all about. Sport and everything else pales in significance when it comes to the importance of living.

What are the values that you would hold dear in life, to remind you of that?

I suppose, be happy. Always welcome people with open arms, and don’t always assume that you know what someone else is thinking or feeling. Be a source of confidence and support, and never turn a blind eye, you know. Be open-minded and willing to help others, always be willing to put an arm around somebody.

What makes you happy? 

Certainly my kids first and foremost, and seeing them have fun and enjoy life as they grow older. Looking back at photographs from when they were little and where they are at now; seeing how they develop in sports and in school, and just seeing them grow. For me they’re the most important thing in my life. I’ve four amazing kids as I said, and they make me incredibly happy. That’s what my life’s about at the minute. Yes, I have things that keep me busy in terms of sport and business, but at the end of the day it comes down to watching your kids grow up and grow up happy.

You talked about the importance of being empathetic towards other people, have you ever experienced moments of self-doubt?

I’ve doubted my ability as a player more than once, quite a few times actually. What I always had though, was a willingness to work hard and work through any difficult periods where doubt would creep in. That would involve getting back out onto the practice field, and doing what I did best, and working to improve upon my skills. In my role as a forward my most important job was to score, so I would go out and kick scores and practice frees until I regained that confidence in myself.

I sometimes found in the lead up to championship campaigns that I wasn’t perhaps firing on all cylinders, and there was a wee bit of doubt there, but it was always a case of just working my way through it and believing in my own natural talent; if the work you’re putting in equals or exceeds the talent, then certainly you would come out the other side of it, and more than enough times I did come out the right side of it.

You know, I see it in a lot of young players that they probably don’t have the confidence that I would have had, but I always say to them the confidence comes from being on the training field, and working hard on your game, especially when you are going through bad patches. Coming through it and knowing that you can get through it, that experience instills confidence. As a coach I probably do come across as being quite arrogant, but I would say that it’s more confidence from coming through those difficult situations and dealing with those moments of self-doubt.

There’s no doubt that every player experiences it and they can come through it, be it through hard work, communication, having a mentor, or just chatting about it with a teammate. That’s another thing that I learned from my coaches and managers and teammates, that whenever there was a wee bit of self-doubt, they knew when to put an arm around the shoulder, and create a bit of buzz back into me, which encouraged me to get back out and continue working hard.

Did you have any mentor type figure as a young player going in to the Armagh set up? 

When I first came into the squad Cathal O’Rourke was a player I would have looked up to, he was an experienced player, and he was someone who I would have gone to for feedback in terms of performance and what not in the early stages. He had been there and done that on the inter-county stage, and he was a great source of information for me and advice in terms of improvements to my game. He certainly did mentor me in the early stages.

The other person I would say was Enda McNulty. I say Enda McNulty simply because we would have marked each other 99% of the time in training with Armagh, and he mentored me not in the usual sense in terms of having deep conversations, and looking to develop a person, or build up their self-esteem. He mentored me simply because he was a tough, tenacious corner back and whenever I came up against him, I had to learn about myself, and I had to learn how to deal with someone like him, because if I didn’t I was never going to make it as an inter-county footballer. So, he mentored me in ways that he probably doesn’t realize that he did at the time, but certainly I know looking back on my career that he played a huge part in my development as a footballer.

What would you say is the most challenging aspect of life as an inter-county footballer? 

I suppose it has become more serious in terms of the commitment levels in recent years, they have increased a lot since I’ve retired and I’ve only been out of the game for 5 years. Probably the juggling act in terms of balance. You have to realize that yes you can actually have a social life, but at the right time of the year. If you want to be an inter-county footballer you’ve got to be committed, you’ve got to put in the hard work, but the rewards and the sense of achievement that it brings is second to none, and you know, it puts all the hard work into perspective.

But that’s probably the biggest thing. We obviously trained quite hard and very frequently, but we just knew how to balance it, and knew when was the right time to let the hair down. There is a serious side to playing inter-county football, and if you want to succeed you have to take it seriously; if you get the balance wrong you’re never going to achieve anything. You have to realize that having an active social life all year long isn’t the way to go, so I would say one of the biggest challenges is juggling that and finding the right balance.

You talked about the successes, what are some moments to remember from your career? 

A lot of people would probably expect me to say the All-Ireland win in 2002, and of course that’s certainly up there. The celebrations and all that were fantastic and it was an incredible experience, but for me the most pleasing aspect of looking back on my career is knowing that I can go and have a drink with any of the players I played against or alongside, simply down to the fact that there was a deep level of respect there on both sides. I was very fortunate that I got to represent my county, my province and my country, and in doing so made a great deal of friends; I’ve forged strong bonds with some great people through Gaelic football.

How would you say your life in sport has contributed to the person you are now? 

Well there’s no doubt that I’m more confident. I remember watching an interview quite recently back when we won the All-Ireland- I was a shy character back then at 22 years of age. I was cringing watching the interview back thinking Jesus, how did this person develop, you know? Sport certainly provided me with confidence to be able to interact, to talk in front of cameras, and in front of people outside of sport, to be able to stand tall. It gave me a self-belief that I probably wouldn’t have been afforded otherwise.

What would you say to people who are perhaps lacking in confidence? Where does that confidence come from, and how can they find it in themselves? 

Well I was a shy kid growing up. I would say don’t be afraid to talk to people, confront it. If you talk to people then they can encourage you to come out of your shell in some sense, by testing you in some capacity. People have all different problems in life, and I don’t think being shy is a massive problem, but it is an obstacle for some people and they can get pretty down about it. If they can confide in one or two people about it, it brings a great release. The act of communicating is a powerful tool when it comes to overcoming any obstacle.

You mentioned earlier about your decision to join the Armagh panel when you came home from The States. What advice would you give to people who perhaps find themselves at a crossroads in life?

Go with where your heart is telling you to go. It’s quite simple. My heart led me to Armagh, I had an ambition to represent my county. Wherever your heart leads you, follow.

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

I got a lot out of Jonny Wilkinson’s auto-biography, which was released soon after England won the Rugby World Cup; he was the best player on the planet at that time. Being an inter-county footballer here in Ireland, I drew a lot of parallels from it and it helped me to continue playing at a high level. I thought it was a great read at that point in my life. Another one is Legacy, which I read about a year ago. I thought that was excellent because from a coaching and management point of view, there are some wee nuggets in there that I was able to take away in terms of preparing a team.

You’ve captained teams to success, you’ve mentioned Legacy just now, what would you say makes a good leader? 

For me, it doesn’t always have to come down to someone who communicates in a vocal manner. I think if you communicate your message on the field by your actions, it speaks louder. I was very lucky that I played under a great leader in Kieran McGeeney, who was able to lead with his words and also by his actions.

Sometimes people are given captaincies where they’re perhaps not the greatest speakers, but their actions speak louder and I think that’s more important. Having someone who leads by example and puts their body on the line, that’s more important when playing at a high level.

What would say to your kids, or any young person, if they one day have aspirations to represent their county? 

Well the first thing I would tell my kids would be to go in and do your own thing, and don’t be trying to live up to what I did during my career. I would try to take as much pressure off them as possible. We’ve seen it a lot in the past with players who have represented their counties where maybe their fathers have gone before them, and they have played with a weight on their shoulders as a result, so I would say go in and do your own thing and enjoy it.

Just in general terms I would say to always work hard to improve as a player. The other thing I would say is to listen to every piece of feedback you receive; listen to your coaches whether you like them or not- they’ll always say one or two things that will stand to you and help you develop.

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

I had an immense career in football, and I enjoyed every minute of my time playing Gaelic football with Armagh. If I was to have a word with him, I would probably tell him to focus a wee bit more on soccer too, because you’re quite capable of making it. I often wondered if I could turn it back, could I have made it as a soccer player, and I believe I could have. So, I would have said to also focus some time and effort into that, and see where it takes you.

You can find out more about the work that Steven does through his website, www.stevenmcdonnell.ie.