Friday 20 April 2018

Tony Ward: Many in sport owe a debt to the brilliance of PJ Smyth

Shy and humble educator was ahead of his time and his influence lives on in his students

Shy and humble educator was ahead of his time and his influence lives on in his students.
Shy and humble educator was ahead of his time and his influence lives on in his students.
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

In eight sad days in August two of the most iconic figures in world rugby departed this life. On August 20, Colin Meads lost his battle with cancer in his beloved Te Kuiti and eight days later, almost as far away as the rugby mind can stretch, the great Willie Duggan left his equally beloved Dunmore for the final time.

Two unequivocal forward legends, both of whom graced the game they loved and played so well.

Fittingly, each received the send-off they deserved with Willie's funeral (I know he'll be scowling down on me for even using that word) as understated and as warm an atmosphere as I can recall on such a sad occasion. Ellen, Willie Jnr, Helena and Monica did him proud.

Some three weeks before that on July 30 another great but unsung hero of Irish sport, and also of Irish education, bade us farewell. Dr PJ Smyth (pictured right) was quite simply a man ahead of his time.

Along with Dave Mahedy, director of sport at the now University of Limerick (UL), I met PJ on our first day (and his too) at the then revolutionary National College of Physical Education (NCPE).

From that September day in 1974 until his premature passing PJ was the heart and soul of life in the college for generation upon generation of PE/Sports and Exercise Science students.

For those who knew PJ well, and there are so many spreading his teaching now all around the world, the expression 'life and soul' might confuse as PJ or 'Petal Joe' as Dave and I christened him when the three of us shared the same house (I think we were in third year) with another Garryowen great Mick Sherry (father of current Munster hooker Michael jnr) back in the day.

I say confused because he was a shy and humble man, great company with a sharp sense of humour but essentially shy in the nicest way imaginable.

He hated the use of bad or disrespectful language in any form.

It was but one of the many life lessons I learned to be followed when the time eventually came for coaching myself.

With hand on heart I doubt I ever heard him use an expletive whether playing alongside for Garryowen (he was a hugely effective prop and flanker for UCD, Bective Rangers and eventually the light blues when switching from back-row to front-row in his home from home) or indeed under his tutelage as coach in both 15s and sevens at Dooradoyle.

He was educated in CBC Monkstown where he developed his passion for rugby early when captaining both the Junior and Senior school teams. Athletics too became an early obsession.

Combined it made for the perfect storm when choosing psychology and specifically Motor Behaviour and Applied Sport Psychology as his eventual highway in life.

From a personal perspective, and bear in mind we are talking the 1970s here, he introduced the concept of mental rehearsal that's now commonplace but not so back then. He would have me imagine everything that could go wrong mid-match so as to be able to deal with that mini crisis if and when it arose. I hope I don't sound overly arrogant when I say it worked.

His influence on so many students in so many differing areas was immense. For PE teachers spread throughout the land, the impact of Dave Weldrick and PJ Smyth, specifically through psychology, was powerful. They were the best-attended lectures by far.

Former Ireland coach Eddie O'Sullivan, former director of fitness with the IRFU and national pole vault champion Liam Hennessy, the late Pat Duffy, Professor of Sport coaching at Leeds University as well as Thomond College in his time, Education Development Officer with Coaching Ireland and vice-president of Paralympics Ireland Liam Moggan and I guess Dave Mahedy and I in our different walks of sporting life can be added to that list too.

The common denominator for all of us was and is a passion for sport developed through PJ.

That sensitivity, the ability to listen so attentively and then ask the probing question was extraordinary. And the real beauty was that he could never comprehend what the fuss was all about and why he was so valued in the way he was.

I highlight the people above to emphasise the influence of one beautiful mind. His life-forming influence on thousands of PE and Sports Science students can never be emphasised enough.

As Liam Moggan, a former classmate, suggested to me recently: "Yes, he was ahead of his time... but few gave credit to the reality that he stayed ahead of the time. He retained the gift of curiosity for people primarily and curiosity for what they do."

He was fascinated by people and by sport, particularly athletics and rugby. He loved classical music and bananas. Any recollection of PJ would be incomplete without mention of his craving for bananas. He had no pain barrier when it came to training. I and others still bear the mental scars!

So many of his great friends turned up to see him off at the packed church in Milford. Far too many to mention; Phil Conway, Michael Mullen, Louis Magee and John Power but a few.

Brother Frank, another great Bective stalwart, and sister-in-law Anne provided amazing support throughout his illness, while Rhoda Sohun of the PESS Department in UL delivered the most touching and personalised eulogy.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

Irish Independent

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