Monday 16 September 2019

Big Interview: Flanker has his eyes on a fit mind and body as he seeks return

With in-form back-rows around every corner, James Connolly is facing one of the biggest tests of his professional career, writes Daragh Small

Team-mates Robin Copeland and Cian Kelleher get to grips with James Connolly. Picture: Harry Murphy/Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Team-mates Robin Copeland and Cian Kelleher get to grips with James Connolly. Picture: Harry Murphy/Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Daragh Small

American professor Carol Dweck is an expert of mindset and the psychology behind what makes people think, and what controls their confidence. Her books on motivation, the psychology of success and fulfilling potential could be a key resource for any elite athlete aiming to master their mental capabilities.

Connacht flanker James Connolly is a keen reader and as he attempts to break into the province's back-row, with competition all around, he has turned to Dweck and her teachings on positive mindsets.

"I have a few books now stacked up in my room that I have to get to. It's nice to switch off from the rugby sometimes," said Connolly.

"We spend a lot of time on video analysis and looking at the opposition and looking over training and stuff like that. Sometimes it's nice to take out a book and chill out.

"I'm reading a book called 'Mindset' at the minute, I've only just started. It's brain training. I find those books handy, especially if you are not in the main squad.

"This one is about how to stay mentally strong and confident. How to stay motivated so that when you do get an opportunity you can come onto the pitch and nail it.

"The mental training is as important as the physical training."

The 25-year-old openside flanker has always faced stiff opposition for the Connacht No 7 jersey, and even since Jake Heenan departed he still has to contend with club captain Jarrad Butler for a chance in the first team. New arrival Colby Fainga'a has diluted opportunities further.

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There is huge competition in the Connacht back-row with the emergence of Paul Boyle, while Robin Copeland has come in from Munster and Sean O'Brien has been in outstanding form.

Therefore, when he is away from the rigours and stresses of the rugby pitch, Connolly uses reading as a key tool to switch off. He is also constantly looking at educating himself further.

"I was doing a strength and conditioning course on and off during the year. I have been chatting to (player development manager) Deirdre Lyons and she has been helping us with our education," said Connolly.

Business

"I will be starting an online business course in January. I still have to meet up with Deirdre to go through the details but I will be starting something.

"Deirdre deals with us on everything. When it comes to buying houses or pensions, getting work experience or starting a course, they are there for you. It's brilliant to have them there for that.

"I feel like getting a business course will allow me to have that platform to open my own business or have my own product."

Connolly still hasn't added to his 16 PRO14 appearances this season but he started this campaign with another difficult injury setback.

"Last year my ankle was giving me a bit of trouble but I am back. My ankle is fine now," said Connolly.

"It was during a pre-season game against Bristol during the summer, I started that game and coming up to half-time I injured my AC joint in my right shoulder.

"That had me out for four weeks. It had me out for the start of the season. I have been back about three weeks now. I was in the squad against Bordeaux in the Challenge Cup and against Sale as well.

"I came on for 20 minutes against Bordeaux and 10 minutes against Sale. It's really good to get those little opportunities. It's not a lot of time to show what you have but it's still an opportunity."

Connolly is back and ready for action. But during his time out he did miss some significant matches.

His best sporting memory as a rugby player was experiencing Connacht's win over Munster in 2015-'16. He missed out on an historic victory over Ulster at Kingspan Stadium this term.

"As a player you always want to be in that starting squad. Sometimes it's not always going to work like that," said Connolly.

"You will be injured at times or you are not getting picked. I wasn't disappointed. I was delighted for the lads. It was an amazing, historic win in Belfast.

"To beat Ulster up there for the first time in so long was brilliant. It just goes to show where we are heading this year. It's all positive.

"We are going in a good direction. We knew at the start of the season we were coming into a tough first block. We have Dragons left and we want to win.

"We have got a lot of learnings from this block. We are going in a really good direction and we have set standards for ourselves in games, like the Ulster game, we set standards that we have got to keep up there and not fall back.

"There is a good leadership group. It is quite a young squad but we have got leaders in our squad that are driving everything."

And despite the intense competition that exists, week in week out, in the Connacht ranks, Connolly is confident that him and the team are headed in the right direction.

Competition

"There is a real sense of competition this year. The competition in every position is so strong," said Connolly.

"Whoever is starting there will be five or more guys waiting to get into that position as well. Everyone is really, really switched on this year. There is a real competitive edge.

"With the brand of rugby, our phase shape is 1-3-3-1, every week that seems to be getting better and better and becoming more natural. Little things we are fixing each week is making it that much better.

"We are really perfecting that shape we are playing. There is just a really good energy between the coaches and players. That's showing in some of the performances we have produced at the start of the season."

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