Wednesday 26 July 2017

Miller's faith in himself leads to a new vocation

Eric Miller is putting his experiences as a rugby prodigy to good use on his career path, writes John O'Brien

W HEN they started working together something about Shane Lowry immediately struck Eric Miller. The confidence the young golfer exuded. The inner belief. There was an aura about Lowry that suggested the game wasn't complicated or especially difficult. He saw no obvious impediments blocking the road ahead of him. His mind was remarkably free of clutter. He was a 21-year-old bundle of talent who didn't seem to know fear.

In ways they were similar. Lowry had blazed to a stunning Irish Open success at 22. Miller had toured South Africa with the Lions at 21 and was widely regarded as the most promising No 8 in world rugby. But had he really believed in himself? He sees Lowry in the gym some days, the easy manner about him, his casual disdain for the hard slog, and knows he didn't. Not in the same way.

"As a player I was never overawed. I always believed I was as good as anyone. But deep down there was something. If things went against me, I'd begin to doubt myself. I had a vulnerable side. It took me until my mid- or late-20s to become confident. Shane? He has it in abundance. It's very rare to see it in a guy at that age, especially in his sport. He's strong mentally and that's the hard part. The rest you can fix."

Miller has been Lowry's physical trainer since the end of 2008. It started with a hunch. When he finished with rugby in the summer of 2006, Miller thought about the rest of his life and golf struck him as an interesting diversion. Through the Titleist Performance Institute, he became a fully qualified golf fitness instructor and established his own business. Lowry is his highest profile client.

Earlier that year he had approached the Golf Union of Ireland and told them he could provide a service for their amateur golfers. They handed him 12 golfers from varying age groups and, towards the end of the year, he took Lowry for more intensive sessions. He knows the hard, physical work runs counter to Lowry's instincts to spend hours on the course but the results have been positive and the golfer has bought readily into what they are trying to achieve.

So they wait for windows to appear in Lowry's schedule and make the most of the time they have. They work alternately between gyms in Tullamore and Dublin and everything they do is designed to enhance and complement what Lowry does with his technical coach, Neil Manchip. The physical and technical side working in harmony together is the cornerstone of the Titleist performance model.

"It's not about pushing him or driving him. With Shane you have to leave him his space too. I've learned that's how you get the best out of him. You hope he puts two and two together, that he sees the most successful guys are the ones who buy into the idea of strength and conditioning and that he sees the benefits when he ticks all the boxes. It's not about turning him into Padraig Harrington. He has to be himself. You have to give him a bit of leverage too."

He hears the irony of a former rugby player so injury-prone team-mates called him "Judge" (because he spent so much time on the bench) teaching a stocky, young golfer about fitness and smiles. Beneath the build he has been impressed by Lowry's athleticism and is excited about the raw physical potential that, as yet, remains untapped.

"He's a heavy-set guy but underneath he's very flexible, very strong. He hits the ball a mile. And he's really only beginning to do strength and development work now. He has speed and energy through the ball and you want to harness that. But it's a gradual process. Some guys try to do things too quickly but I can't see that happening with Shane."

More than anything he sees a serenity in Lowry that impresses him. In the gym Lowry talks about life on tour, the friendships he has forged with Rory McIlroy and Gary Murphy and how comfortable he feels with the grind of tour life. None of it seems like a chore. Miller doesn't fill Lowry's mind with things he doesn't need to know, but the stories bring him back to his own days as a fledgling sports star.

When he was successfully managing a stable of golfers including Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood, Chubby Chandler once mused how better his own playing career might have been if he'd had himself as a manager. Miller understands that sentiment. If he'd had the maturity he has now even five years ago, he wonders how different things would have been. But such is the sporting life, though. Talent alone is never enough.

He thinks of that 21-year-old boy who toured South Africa with the Lions. A tough, ambitious boy for sure who didn't feel out of place at that altitude. But the doubts were there too. He joined Leicester and, although the club was vibrant and welcoming, he couldn't quite settle there. There was a lack of fulfillment he couldn't put his finger on. Questions rattled around his head that rugby couldn't answer.

"When I went to Leicester it was rugby, rugby, rugby. There was no balance in my life. I probably didn't realise it at the time. I was too young to know what was missing. I remember Sunday afternoons guys would be going back to their families and I wasn't. Some guys wouldn't mind that too much but I did and over a couple of years that took its toll."

Although his career never scaled the peaks that seemed likely during his formative years, Miller doesn't look back with any lingering sense of regret. He missed two of the Tests in South Africa through injury and illness and, as bad as that seemed, he knows it might have been worse. He thinks of his Ireland colleagues on that tour -- Paul Wallace, Jeremy Davidson and Keith Wood -- all crocked now to varying degrees. And he thinks of Simon Taylor too, the former Scotland No 8.

"Simon went on two Lions tours and had to come home injured both times after the first game. And I'm supposed to consider myself unlucky. You see those things and you begin to understand your place in the world. No bitter sour grapes that you didn't get more caps or go on another Lions tour. And no hanging in there for a few more years for all the wrong reasons."

So even though he was just 30 when he called time on his career, he knew the time was right. A year earlier he'd been baptised as a born again Christian and, if there were other factors behind the decision, it was his faith that gave him the clarity and the courage to face the next stage of his life. He knew the transition would be tough but he was ready for it. His faith gave him a head start. Even as a kid Miller had been spiritually minded. He was the product of a mixed faith marriage and attended different churches out of curiosity. It wasn't enough, though. "I'd go to church on Sunday, have a feel-good factor for a day or two and then lapse back into my old habits. I had years and years of that. I said that can't be the answer. There has to be something more complete."

He finally found the answer at 29 but while that eased the burden of retirement, it couldn't remove it altogether. Initially he did some coaching at his alma mater, Old Wesley, but Miller wasn't sure of his continuing appetite for the game. He undertook his golf fitness qualifications. Played football for Ballyboden St Enda's. But rugby? Did he still have the stomach for it?

The answer came gradually. He started a rugby column in the Evening Herald and became senior coach at St Gerard's School in Bray. Then last summer he returned to South Africa to follow the Lions tour, met old friends and played twice for the Legends' team. He savoured every minute of the trip and, with its neat symmetry, it crystallised what he loved about the game. "Going back and having a different experience was important. I was never one to hang on my own experiences but those hankerings are always there and it helped get a lot of stuff out of my system. I'd vouched to never play again but it made me realise how much I needed it. It helps keep me fit and helps my coaching. It's very hard to suppress that physical edge when you stop playing. The extra energy was coming out in my coaching. As a coach you have to learn not to wear your heart on your sleeve. I'm learning that slowly. Playing matches is a great release."

He likes the idea too that his experience in rugby could be channelled into something positive. A while back he was contacted by Reverend Andrew Thompson from Belfast who spoke to him about the Score Chaplaincy service, a body set up in the UK in the 1990s to offer support to players in rugby and other sports. Thompson had heard about Miller's Christian connections and wondered if the service could be extended to the south.

At the moment it is just an idea, Miller stresses. Nothing concrete. He has talked about it to friends and people he knows in the game but they are some way off bringing it to the provinces or to the IRFU. It is so well established in the UK, though, that he would like to think there would be a place for it here.

"It's important to say that this isn't about pushing religion on people. It's from a player's perspective when they have problems and maybe they can't talk to a coach or they don't get on with a coach that there's an independent voice there for them. It's a psychological role nearly. Someone to bounce things off. I found that was lacking when I played. I look back at my transition and I know it really helped me. I latched on to the Christian faith. That was my choice. Guys can choose whether they want to dip into the religious part or not. I think it would be very positive if the likes of Munster or Leinster bought into it. But it's very early stages yet."

So too with his coaching career. On Tuesday, St Gerard's face Terenure in the first round of the Leinster Senior Cup and he finds himself engrossed by the challenge, happy to be learning his trade at this level, idly wondering where it might ultimately lead. "I am ambitious," he says. "But I like the way I'm going now. Just being patient, taking it step by step. I want to do well but it has to be for the right reasons."

He thinks back five years and sees the difference now. Everything feels right. He has found his place in the world.

Sunday Independent

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