Paul Flynn: 'You go through a mental battle'
By John Harrington
In 10 years as an inter-county footballer, Dublin’s Paul Flynn has seen a lot of change.
The physical and mental preparation of teams at the highest level of the game has evolved significantly, Gaelic Football has become a more tactical sport, and Dublin occupy a very different place in its hierarchy than they did when Flynn started out in 2008.
But perhaps the biggest change of all has been Flynn’s own relationship with his sport.
When he first joined the Dublin panel being an inter-county footballer was the Alpha and Omega of his existence, but now he has a lot more going on.
He’s been busy growing up and figuring out what he wants from life, and that has required a fairly transformative journey.
He was a plumber when the first played for Dublin, but he then opted to go down a different path by completing a BA in Physical Education and Biology in DCU.
There have been another couple of forks in the road since then too.
When he graduated he went to work for Aer Lingus as a HR Employee Engagement Specialist, and today he is a Commercial Director for Lincoln Recruitment Specialists as well as Secretary of the Gaelic Players Association, so away from the playing field he has a busy life.
All of that means Gaelic Football can no longer be afforded the same priority status it once was, and he believes that means he now has a healthier balance.
“Yeah, a number of things change,” says Flynn. “When you're younger I'd say 100 per cent of your time, no 95 per cent of your time, you're concentrating on being an inter-county footballer.
“As you kind of develop your career, and your life outside of football develops, you can't give that 95 per cent.
“It's partly better than you can't because you find this balance somewhere in the middle where you're able to give good time to your career, good time to your life at home with family and friends, and then when the time is required you're able to peak at the right time for football as well.
“I think that's more about your mindset, compartmentalising things in your mind, that would be the number one thing for me. You build up a fitness level over years, you build up strength, so you don't have to do as much in that area. Less is more sometimes.
“Paul O'Connell would write about when you train, you train hard, but then you have to rest more.
“Whereas when I was younger I might train every day of the week whereas now I might train whatever days you're going, three or four, but you go hard.”
Paul O’Connell’s autobiography would seem to be required reading for many leading GAA players because Flynn is the latest in a growing line to reference it.
One of the most striking things about that book was the extent to which O’Connell doubted himself, and just how stressful he found the process of trying to be the best rugby player he could possibly be.
The mental battle is something that Flynn often struggles with himself too.
“Yeah, it's funny,” he says. “You go through a mental battle. You might do something one week and then you play well and then it's like 'f**k, do I have to do that every week?!'
“But any little thing you'll pick up on. Yeah, it can be (stressful). When you take a night off for instance, and they reckon recovery is so important, it can be more important than training, but you're in this battle with yourself saying, 'no, surely if I go out and kick 50 balls it's going to better'.
“So that piece is hard. But you kind of learn as you go on. You get better at that. When you're younger you don't see that but now you see I'm better if I take a night off.”
One of the most important lessons he’s learned along the way is that time-management is the most important skill an inter-county player needs to develop if he wants to successfully juggle the dual demands of sport and work.
“It's key, key,” says Flynn. “It's the biggest thing that I battle with, because you're always on the go. Say for instance, every evening before you go to bed you're packing bags. I might leave the house at 7 o'clock in the morning for work.
“I don't get home until 10 o'clock at night. You have to pack your bag for training, make sure your suit is ready for work, get your food ready for the different parts of the day.
“So it's a constant battle for time. It's good, you get better at it.”
Another way he seeks to bring some balance to his life is to avoid even talking about Gaelic Football outside of the four walls of the Dublin team dressing-room.
You would think that would be an impossible task for such a high-profile footballer, but it sounds like he has had some success in this regard.
“I try not to talk to people a lot about football. And people learn now, it’s weird. It’s like the elephant in the room. When I do talk with people they don’t talk about football, I try to play it that way.
“Maybe I created that myself by maybe being a bit rude, you have to kind of be. It’s funny in work, it’s nearly a joke now ‘don’t talk to Paul about football.’
“It’s actually nearly a little bit awkward now because I’m like ‘you can actually talk to me about football if you want.’
“But they don’t, like. My family wouldn’t, at all. My family will ring my partner asking them something before they’d ring me.
“My Dad would be dying to ask me things you know, but it’s just the way I try do it. It took a couple of years probably until people realised ‘let’s not talk to him about it because he doesn’t want to.’
“And I don't read papers, I read the business part of them and that's really it, I don't read sports. Because you can't, you can't let it in. It's hard, with social media and that too, but you just have to try to be disciplined on it.
“It’s trying to find a balance on it. You don't want to get to the stage where it's nearly work or awkward, but you have to find a balance on it.
“You can't be talking to somebody about (football), you end up lying first and foremost because you can't tell the truth.
“You don't want to lie to somebody, especially not your family and friends, so it's best not to talk about it. It doesn't get awkward then.”
If all of this makes it sound like the demands of being an inter-county footballer are things that weigh heavily on Flynn, then you’d be wrong.
The 30-year-old is as committed to the cause as ever, and emphatically shoots down the suggestion he has put time-frame on when he’s likely hang up his boots for good.
“No. I wouldn’t say that, I just enjoy the moment, you just have to see it like that,” he says.
“I love playing gaelic football, I’m very proud to represent my county and my family and club when I do pull on the jersey.
“I never count down the days to anything, you just keep going at it and enjoy the moment because it will be over some day, no different to anything in life.
“Everything comes to an end at some stage but you can’t look for the end, just keep going and enjoy it and see where it takes you.”
Against Roscommon in the League this year, it took him to one of his most enjoyable nights ever in a Dublin jersey.
In his first start of the season, he ripped the Roscommon defence apart with a display of power and precision that saw him finish the game with a tally of 1-6 from play to his name, the most he’s ever scored in an inter-county match.
The experience of being in that sort of zone makes all the hard-work and commitment required to be a county footballer worthwhile, and Flynn still lights up at the memory of the night.
“Yeah, it's weird, if you could just tap into that and figure out what happens there. But yeah, it was a perfect example of feeling in the zone anyway.
“Even if I look back on the game, sometimes when you're not in the zone and you make a mistake, you can compound it by thinking about it too much. One of my first balls I had, I kicked over the sideline.
“It's funny, whereas other days that might affect you, whereas when you're in the zone, that doesn't affect you. You don't even think about it. I actually didn't even realise it until I watched it back.”
By his own admission, Flynn didn’t play to his usual standards for much of last season and coming into this year there would have been some doubts expressed outside the camp as to whether he could ever get back to his best again because of the toll taken by a combination of a lengthy career and injuries.
His performance against Roscommon suggests there’s plenty more to come from him, and he’s certainly motivated to remain a key cog in this Dublin team.
He’s already achieved a lot and will always be remembered as one of the foremost figures in a team likely to be regarded as one of the greats of any era, but he’s determined to add another couple of chapters to the story before the book is closed on his career.
“We are still in something and when I look back and I finish I’ll probably realise what a great feat it was," he says.
“But when you’re in something you are trying to stay in the moment and you are only thinking about the next training session and the next game or thinking about someone that is chasing down your jersey, thinking about a little niggly injury that is bothering you, they are the things that take up your mind rather than looking back and saying what a great run we have been on.
“To be honest with you, I don't look back on any of the All-Irelands that we won, you don't really get a chance to look back and say how great it was because you are just thinking about the next challenge that you are going to set yourself, and the next challenge that you are going to overcome.
“That's the truth of it, that's the way I see it. Maybe the other lads see it differently.
“You can't look back because there is no time to look back because everyone else is looking forward.
“People you are playing against are looking forward, they are thinking about taking you off your perch, so you have to look forward and try and grow as a team and develop and get better every year and in every game, because if you don't people will just overtake you.
“I feel good. The body is in good nick, that’s all you can really ask for. I’m looking forward to going into the Championship and giving it a good rattle.”
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