Monday 22 January 2018

Understanding the Chimp allowing 'Rocket' to soar

It’s always an emotional roller-coaster watching Ronnie O’Sullivan. Photo: PA Wire
It’s always an emotional roller-coaster watching Ronnie O’Sullivan. Photo: PA Wire

Michael Verney

Forrest Gump could have been describing Ronnie O'Sullivan's snooker career when Tom Hanks uttered the famous line that "life was like a box of chocolates, you never know what you're gonna get".

There's no doubting his brilliance on the baize but one of the most fascinating aspects of O'Sullivan's colourful personality is that you're never quite sure what he's going to do with cue in (either) hand, or in post-match interviews, so you tune in to find out.

A glittering career with 17 Major triumphs, five world titles along with seven Masters titles and five UK Championships, has had as many ups as downs but, at 41, he remains snooker's box-office draw. As with all genius, there are flaws and that only makes him even more endearing.


Despite dropping viewership on these shores compared to the glory era of Davis, White and Hendry, the 'Rocket' continues to make the game relevant, be it speaking about prize money for a maximum break or his ongoing battle with inner demons, and like many sporting greats, he just pulls you in and drags you along for the ride.

It's always an emotional roller-coaster watching Ronnie, the main reason being that clouds hang over whether he is capable of keeping his own emotions in check. While robot-style interviews (due to his escalating row with World Snooker chiefs) and his love/hate relationship with the game are hardly routine in the sport, gone is the irrational behaviour that suggested his remarkable talent could be lost.

When he forfeited mid-match in a UK Championship quarter-final against Stephen Hendry 11 years ago, questions surrounded his well-being but despite glimpses of that unusual behaviour, he looks more comfortable in his own skin and much of this change can be attributed to his work with Dr Steve Peters, the sports psychiatrist behind British Cycling's medal-laden ascent.

But even now, the Essex potter is always on a knife-edge. After his first-round Crucible scrap with Gary Wilson, O'Sullivan opened up on the dynamic of his relationship with Peters and just how much he relies on him to retain a sense of calm.

"I speak to Steve a lot on the phone because he's so busy, I do all the homework and I live what he's taught me. He said to me the other day 'I'm just topping you up really', he said one or two things and I go 'okay, great'. There were one or two things he told me that I took in today's session and it really, really helped me," O'Sullivan said.

"He'll be with me until the day I stop playing because I think I know it all but then he says one thing and I go 'okay, we've got to stay together'. I've got tools that I can call upon. Stephen (Hendry) had it naturally, Steve (Davis) had it naturally, I wasn't blessed with that, I'm blessed with other things but I wasn't blessed with the ability to tough it out."

With his chase for a sixth world title continuing this morning in the last eight against Chinese superstar Ding Junhui, O'Sullivan admits he doesn't enjoy the grind of the Crucible, "a place that sorts the men from the boys, you've got to have the right head for it."

"It just gets harder the older you get," he said after Friday's 13-7 last 16 cruise against 2005 champion Shaun Murphy. "It's 17 days out of the year that's not going to be fun, probably the worst part about the job is coming here and having to go through this because it's really tough mentally. I struggle mentally, that's my weakest spot so I have to work on it. I'm just trying hard to mentally hold it together."

Peters, who is "not a sports lover and wouldn't watch sport unless he knows the people involved", and O'Sullivan have their Crucible itinerary planned months in advance and the 63-year old will be hovering around the Steel City to help O'Sullivan in any way possible, 20 years after he recorded the quickest 147 in history at five minutes and 20 seconds.

They were put together six years ago when O'Sullivan's agent recommended that he see Peters and success soon followed with back-to-back world titles (2012-13) and the author of The Chimp Paradox describes Ronnie as "an amazing person to work with, a friend as well as a client".

Despite the psychological warfare being waged on and off the table, Peters doesn't feel the mental demands of snooker are comparable with an extreme discipline like chess, but the game's requirements are unique. "Every sports person I meet without fail will tell me their sport is the most difficult," Peters said.

"Snooker is different though. If you look at tennis, golf and snooker they are all a stick and a ball game of some kind. In golf you don't have an opponent sabotaging your play or the potential to do that, in tennis and snooker you do.

"In tennis it's rapid whereas in snooker there's a lot of times you're sat waiting to play and that side for some snooker players may become stressful and you have to manage that. When you enter someone's world you look at the potential for where there may be stresses or advantages and you find out what that unique individual does with those. There's a lot of mental gymnastics before you go back to the table."

He admits there's no "one for all recipe" to ensure success but whatever he's cooking, O'Sullivan is thriving on it. If he holds it together for another week, further immortality beckons.

Irish Independent

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