O’Connell is one of his countries most decorated players, he earned 108 caps for Ireland, winning three 6 Nations titles, including a Grand Slam in 2009. He also won two European Cups and three Celtic Leagues with Munster. He went on three British & Irish Lions tours, captaining the team in 2009 in South Africa. But the game took a heavy toll on him mentally.
“I think sometimes, and a lot of players and sportspeople do it, I made the game a lot more important than it was really. I made it into life or death really and now that I am retired and I am out of the game and I have three kids, I see that it wasn’t,” he told France 24.
“I definitely put too much pressure on myself. On a Friday before big games I would often be…I’d almost be happy to get on a plane and leave the country rather than face the game I was going to play.”
“But towards the end I was very much on top of that – I had some great coaches, sports psychologists that work with us down through the years and I got my preparation better and I began to enjoy it.
“It probably took a lot of the focus on winning out of my preparation and put a lot of focus on being as good as I could be with what I had. And when that shift in focus happened I started to enjoy the game a lot more. I think I became a better leader and a better team-mate and I got a lot more satisfaction out of the game and I started probably playing better as well.”
O’Connell is now a forwards coach at Stade Francais, signing a two-year deal with the French Top 14 giants during the summer and is working under former Springboks head coach Heyneke Meyer. He previously spent time as an assistant coach with the Irish Under 20’s.
“I retired with no regrets. I always had an interest in coaching, I think it is incredibly hard work, long hours. I have dipped my toe in and out of it for a few years and I got a call before the summer then to see if I would be interested in going to Stade (Francais) and now I am dipping my toe in fully I suppose, immersing myself in it and seeing if it is something I want to do.”
O’Connell has seen Ireland continue to be successful since his retirement, with the team currently second in the World Rugby rankings, helped by 6 Nations success and a series win over Australia in June. And he pinpointed why Irish teams have become increasingly competitive.
“Irish teams, because we are generally smaller, we feel we have to be a little bit fitter than the opposition maybe and because we are smaller we feel we have to be a little bit smarter. I think over the last few years they’ve proven that.”
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