'If something bad happens and your reaction is to give up, you won't stay in sport'
Channelling negatives into positives has been vital for Trevor Hogan – on and off the pitch
Published 07/10/2013 | 04:00
In the hierarchy of Trevor Hogan's favourite memories as a rugby professional, one grim night on the edge of Glasgow climbs to a dizzy height.
It sent Leinster home with few tangible blessings, a depleted team beaten 30-6 at Firhill Stadium. There were maybe 4,500 paying customers on that April night in 2010 for a Magners League contest that would move the resolutely unromantic Michael Cheika to declare "I couldn't be prouder of the team."
International commitments denied Leinster their big-name players that evening, the game seen as one of those inconveniences a representative calendar can visit upon professional dressing-rooms. A write-off then to many eyes.
But Leinster's callow understudies refused to recognise such fatalism, throwing themselves into the challenge with a frank honesty that Glasgow took all night to subdue. By the end, Cheika's men had only a brace of Ian Madigan penalties to show for their endeavour.
But it felt like a whole lot more.
Hogan remembers: "Because of the way we played, the way we represented ourselves and didn't cave in, the atmosphere in the dressing-room afterwards was special. You could just feel it amongst the players.
"Even though we lost heavily in the end, you could still take so much from how we as individuals reacted to the circumstances. An attitude could easily have set in that we were just on a hiding to nothing and accept defeat. There were other days I can remember that happening.
"But not that night. From the very first minute, lads were just throwing themselves all over the place. Regardless of what we were up against, they still responded like you'd want people to respond.
"It might seem strange to say it but, looking back, that was one of the highlights of my career. Because, sometimes, what's most important in your life is how you react to difficult situations.
"And that night just brought home how a career in sport isn't necessarily defined by how many caps or medals you have."
Hogan's career would come to an end the following year because of persistent knee injuries and, if retirement brought initial feelings of grief, the game itself had – almost stealthily – armed him with the faculties to cope.
Professional sport exists in such an endless condition of emotional over-statement, the gift of equanimity becomes a kind of default setting for the player.
Through his early years as a professional, Hogan yearned for the logic and psychological support brought to Cheika's regime at Leinster by the arrival of 'life coach' Enda McNulty.
The former Armagh footballer was stepping into a dressing-room that had grown weary of endlessly unflattering comparison with Munster. Hogan, having spent his formative professional days in Munster red, already understood the differences between the provinces to be largely illusory. But it took McNulty to flush the nonsense from Leinster minds.
"Enda's big thing was how to deal with mental issues when we lose perceptions about ourselves as a squad or individuals," recalls the Nenagh native. "I found him very good because, until his arrival, I was probably a very negative person. As a sports person, I was emphasising my weaknesses the whole time, fixating on things I needed to improve.
"But Enda turned that on its head. I remember we did this exercise where he wanted us to write down the three best games we ever played in. The room was kind of taken aback by this because it was such an unusual approach.
"But it was a really good mindset change that definitely helped me personally. It just brought a more constructive approach to viewing where you were in life.
"I went through some bad enough times with injuries, most people do. With injury and getting dropped and not playing well, you know you can go through those tough times. I'm not saying it's on the level of falling into depression or anything like that, but you go through a lot of doubting yourself.
"So, if you're not able to draw on your strengths and positive things you have going for you, then you're liable to go into a negative spiral.
"I found it really good to just draw on the strong things that you've done. And that helps you get through the tough times that everyone faces."
Last year, Brian O'Driscoll surprised many with a public admission that he had found himself drawn to the prop of sports psychology. O'Driscoll is revered the world over for his mental strength on a rugby field, yet even he found himself susceptible, on occasion, to self-doubt.
The message widely espoused in professional sport now is, essentially, that all the bad stuff needs to be interpreted simply as fuel for a competitor's character.
"What makes a good team or a good player is how they react when things don't go well for them," explains Hogan. "They don't buckle or fumble, but they use the experience to drive them on to another level. If something bad happens to you and your reaction is to give up, you're probably not going to stay in a professional sports environment anyway.
"The message is that you don't dwell on negatives, be it the concession of a try, being reduced to 14 men, fumbling in a scoring position. It's always the next play, the next ball.
"That's why, looking back on your career, it's not necessarily the medals you won that give you pride. It's how you reacted in times of adversity, maybe when people had been writing you off, but you managed to dig deep and not cave in. When you responded as a man."
Easy expression of insecurity or apprehension is not commonplace in the Alpha-male environment of a rugby dressing-room. More than that, it is openly discouraged. The obligation to protect robust group psychology over-rides any temptation to express personal turmoil.
Worried players, as a consequence, stay largely silent. They internalise their self-doubt.
Hogan reveals: "The important thing is that you don't risk bringing everyone else down with your negativity over, say, an injury, non-selection or whatever. The phrase used is carrying 'a dark cloud' around with you. Like when Brian O'Driscoll was dropped for the third Lions Test, he couldn't be negative in front of people.
"So you kind of learn to deal with your own personal issues on a separate level, outside of the group.
"It's not easy. There's an element of not being able to show too much vulnerability to team-mates or competitors. You have to deal with it in your own way. But you can't go away and bottle up all that anxiety and negativity either. Because if you don't deal with it, it's all just going to come out in the next training session or whatever.
"So there's no obvious outlet. The sportsman's focus is, generally, very narrow. To just push away the negatives and not think about them. You don't really deal with them probably. You have to nearly be bull-headed. While you're playing sport, that's the only way you can approach negatives.
"Family and friends are great, but you can never really talk to them about the intricacies of this stuff. Sport is a kind of unique environment in that sense, but I suppose it can help if you manage to bring that single-mindedness into your later life too.
"Every player will have certain inner turmoil, but you just have to kind of block it out. You can't allow it dominate you."
Hogan is studying English and history, recently got married to TV3 broadcaster Claire Brock, and has been commuting from Dublin to north Tipperary twice a week to coach at his old club, Nenagh Ormonde. He maintains an active interest too in the fate of Palestine and was, famously, on a 'Freedom Flotilla' in June of 2011 that attempted to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza. The self-absorption that is an occupational hazard for so many of those whose lives become defined by sport seems to have escaped him.
He admits that retirement brought early flickers of panic and self-pity, but they did not linger.
"It's a bit of a process that you go through," he reflects. "Everything you've built your world around is based on rugby. Everyone knows you as a rugby player. That's your identity. So you have to kind of refocus and ask yourself 'Well, what am I now?'.
"I suppose the big thing for me was starting to realise that it doesn't have to be ever taken away from you. Rugby has made me who I am. It's always going to be a part of me and I realise now how lucky I was to have been in it for nine or 10 years.
"And because you've become accustomed to dealing with setbacks, you're in a fairly good position then to move whatever obstacles come your way afterwards. Because you've gone through that in a fairly pressurised environment."
Most professional rugby players have sufficient self-awareness to recognise their day-to-day environment as inherently artificial. The trauma is in dealing with final separation from that sub-climate, or "bubble" as the players like to call it.
For Hogan, the story of Gaza offered cold perspective.
"You have everything done for you when you're a professional sportsman," he acknowledges. "Then you realise how hard life can be in other parts of the world. Injustice can really wear people down and, for me, seeing how tough it is for the people of Gaza was an education.
"They have very little access to things we take for granted, simple things like a grass pitch or the most basic of sports equipment. People could find themselves asking, 'when will this siege ever end?'
"But what I noticed is the Palestinian people have a similar kind of mental approach to facing such huge adversity as you do in sport."
Just focus on the small things that you can try to improve on. That's better than just beating yourself up, thinking how daunting the issue facing you might be.
"Because, if you don't grasp hope, then you've got very little else to hold onto. And the people in Gaza definitely have that resilience. They try to live life as fully as they can, despite the terrible circumstances that they're in.
"That's all any of us can do. Grasp the positives and look at your strengths as a person, rather than focusing on what it is you cannot do.
"Hopefully that's something I can channel for my own benefit now when everything starts building up in terms of exams and essays. The important thing is not to allow the next deadline to define or dominate you."
READ TREVOR HOGAN'S COLUMN EVERY FRIDAY IN THE IRISH INDEPENDENT
BY Vincent Hogan