Sunday 24 March 2019

Meet Joe Schmidt's secret weapon as he bids to bring Ireland to the next level - psychologist Olivia Hurley

Ireland and Leinster full-back Jordan Larmour and openside flanker Josh van der Flier are among those who have been taught by Dr Olivia Hurley
Ireland and Leinster full-back Jordan Larmour and openside flanker Josh van der Flier are among those who have been taught by Dr Olivia Hurley
Head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Kate Rowan

The students in Dr Olivia Hurley's sport psychology class are rapt.

From hearing how Manchester United plundered their 1999 treble despite friction between Roy Keane and Peter Schmeichel - an example of team cohesion - to why master Irish jump jockeys such as Tony McCoy and Ruby Walsh relied on a social support network, every theory comes laced with a colourful anecdote which stays seared on the brain.

But Hurley's influence has spread far beyond the small classroom in the Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology, where she teaches.

Indeed, she is a valuable, and largely secret, weapon in Ireland's armoury as they prepare for the World Cup next year.

Much of Joe Schmidt's back-room staff have graduated from the course, including kicking coach Richie Murphy and scrum coach Greg Feek.

Physiotherapists and doctors charged with looking after the physical well-being of players have also been taught by her.

"All the backroom team, even the physios and the doctors are looking at sport psychology," Hurley says.

"We are all singing off the same hymn sheet. They are using what they did as part of their studies to say: 'How can I use the psychology module I did as part of my training to help the athlete?'"

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The course is held in such high regard in the Irish rugby community that Schmidt presented diplomas to graduates of the class of 2016, who also include high-level executives working in the business world.

"It was so funny to have Joe presenting Greg with his parchment," Hurley recalls. "Greg was having to come out of Ireland camp to come to class. Joe was allowing him to come to class, so I guess he was the obvious choice to present it."

If Schmidt's tenure with Ireland has been defined by attention to the small details on the field, his faith in Hurley's classes suggest it is just as finely focused off it.

It has been paying off. Ireland had been beset by mental blocks, from never beating New Zealand to the nine-year wait for a Six Nations Grand Slam.

Both of those goals have been obliterated on Schmidt's watch: the last, finally making their first World Cup semi-final - and possibly going beyond - is the target in Japan in 2019.

Hurley has no official role with the IRFU but she is integral to the team's preparations.

The Dubliner also counts 21-year-old Ireland and Leinster full-back Jordan Larmour and openside flanker Josh van der Flier among those who have completed her course.

Although Hurley is loath to directly credit herself with the shift in the mindset within Irish rugby, she is happy to expound how the likes of Schmidt have embraced all areas of sports science, including psychology.

"There has been a cultural change within Irish rugby. In terms of the mindset, there has been a taking on board of the sports science and I think psychology, and sport psychology, is one of those areas.

"I know Joe Schmidt has a teaching background and is meticulous in terms of how he wants the players to prepare - to give them every support to that.

"There has been a real awakening in Irish rugby that to get the best performances out of players you have to prepare them in every way possible and one of them is that you have to train your brain as well as everything else.

"They are doing that because they know what the All Blacks have been doing, they are taking it all on board."

Hurley shares the same precision and attention to detail for which Schmidt has become known.

She is keen to stress that her discipline is sport psychology and that if you hear a practitioner speak of "sports psychology", they are probably not the real deal.

Another reason why players are encouraged to study sport psychology rather than just attend consultations is that Schmidt is keen for players to "future-proof" themselves.

Being aware that retirement is an inevitability means they can become more rounded in the here and now.

"Joe, I think, likes that he knows his athletes are studying and they are committing to doing something that will benefit them down the road as well as currently," she says.

"Joe's phrase is that there are many things you can control, and part of what I do is help the players control those controllables, which is their mantra.

"You do need a bit of luck, who gets injured and who doesn't. Those are things you can't control," she adds looking ahead to the World Cup.

"You like to think they have what is in their control, they are doing as much as they can.

"I think it is one of the things that is not on Joe's CV yet, and the boys will do everything to help them potentially get it - for him and themselves."

If they do, Hurley will be one of the people Schmidt will be certain to thank. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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