Tony Óg Regan has overcome 'grief' of inter-county retirement
By John Harrington
For the first time since his inter-county career was ended by a phone-call from Anthony Cunningham in the winter of 2013, former Galway hurler Tony Óg Regan is at peace with his status as a former inter-county hurler.
That wasn't the case for a long time. His playing days with Galway ended on someone else’s terms rather than his own, and to him that had felt both wrong and premature.
Winning an All-Ireland senior championship with Galway was a mission he’d dedicated himself to for over ten years, so to have that possibility suddenly taken away was difficult to accept.
Watching Galway reach and lose the 2015 All-Ireland Final was torture.
He wanted to still be part of the group with every fibre of his being, and was convinced he could have made a valuable contribution to it.
This year was different, though. When Galway ended the county’s long wait for the Liam MacCarthy Cup, Regan was able to savour it in the same way every other Galway supporter did.
“I would have no problem admitting that this is probably the first year that I've actually felt right in myself going to games and seeing Galway playing and not being affected in a wrong way by bit,” Regan told GAA.ie.
“Watching championship matches the previous few years, particularly the final in 2015, there was almost a grief and sadness in you that you were going to miss out.
“I was two years younger then and probably still felt like I had something to offer. Whereas this year watching matches, I was able to sit back and enjoy the spectacle and watch it for what it was - a game that I love.
“Even the final this year I was happy for all the players that they put in so much work. Some lads were there for eight or ten years and they finally got their reward.
“The whole county has been waiting 30 years to see it happen so to see the huge positive effect it had on all the kids and the clubs and the general well-being of the county was massive.
“I was really grateful to see it happen and grateful to have played some part in some of the players who were there in terms of shaping it.”
It didn’t make it any easier to accept, but the door being shut on Regan’s inter-county hurling career back in 2013 effectively opened up another very important one for him.
Suddenly forced to take stock of where he was in life, Regan decided that his career as an accountant wasn’t fulfilling him.
He’d always had a deep interest the mental side of the sport, and that prompted him to undertake a Masters in Sport and Exercise Psychology in Waterford IT.
His thesis focused on how GAA players cope with their inter-county career comes to an end, and he found that most struggled with the transition as much as he had himself.
“I know from my own story that when you're in a county set-up from 16 or 17 years of age and you're mentally conditioned for 10 or 11 months of the year to be around that group for or five times a week, planning and plotting how to win All-Irelands be it at minor, U-21 and senior level,” he said.
“That's really your only focus in life for the time you're in there. It was only my focus and I probably struggled with the balance side of things.
“That's the message I try to get across to a lot of players I work with now - that they'll perform a lot better if they they're more balanced towards this and it's not all encompassing.”
Regan’s career as a sports psychologist is still in its infancy, but he’s already very highly respected in his field and will be a speaker at the GAA’s Games Development Conference in Croke Park in January.
He worked with the All-Ireland winning Galway minor hurling teams of 2015 and 2017, the 2016 Tipperary All-Ireland winning senior hurling team, and the 2016 Connacht championship winning Galway footballers.
He’ll work with the Tipperary hurlers and Galway footballers again next year, and believes his own background as a former inter-county player gives him a natural credibility with those he now works with.
“I think so and I hope so,” said Regan. “I think I can relate an awful lot to what they're going through, whether it be work, family, college and the lifestyle that you're trying to strike there between them all.
“When you're losing confidence during a season, I know what that feels like.
“When your form isn't that good in training, I know what that feels like. When you lose a championship match, I know what that feels like.
“When you get a bit complacent and you need to get back on the horse, I know what that feels like. What it’s like to get injured, I know that feels like too.
“The language and the relationship and the understanding of what lads are nearly thinking and feeling, I think I have a fairly good handle on that. I think I can connect to people on a good level, be it through sport and in other ways.
“I think that has helped me bed into the group and make an impact with the players and build a relationship and understanding with them and try to improve them.”
Regan has found working with younger players like the Galway minor hurlers particularly rewarding because they’re open to all of sports psychology techniques like visualisation, mediation, goal-setting, and working on confidence routines whereas older players may be more set in their ways.
He believes that young players nowadays face more challenges away from the pitch than his own generation would have and need to be educated on how to best cope with those challenges.
“I think definitely for young people growing up the off-field stuff is probably the hardest for them to deal with," said Regan.
“Definitely the whole social media side of it is affecting younger players and trying to educate them on how to avoid it the week of a match and try to avoid being on websites that may affect them personally off the field.
“Then the whole concept around body image and the affect on young men that it has.
“I think women probably had it for years where they had to live up to a certain image and be really looking after themselves whereas males wouldn't have been under the same pressure.
“Now though they would feel that sort of pressure around clothes and body image and six packs and looking well in the gym. They're trying to fit into society and it's hard because all their peers are being viewed that way and viewing them that way.
“They're putting themselves up in front of 50 or 60 thousand people at a match and putting themselves up online to be a target. For young men to be dealing with that at the age of 16, 17, or 18 is hard and it's hard for 27 and 28 year olds as well.
“That whole aspect is something that players have to be educated on now in terms of how to best deal with it.”
Techniques for unlocking the full potential of players will be the central theme of Regan’s talk at next month’s GAA Games Development Conference in Croke Park.
“I'm going to look at how we can help empower coaches to improve a player's decision-making on and off the field,” he said.
“I'll be looking at how we can develop better decision-makers off the field and how we can develop better decision-makers on the field too.
“How does that look like on the pitch and how does it look like in video analysis and how does it look in a training session.
“So, hopefully, the coaches come away will be able to add some new skills to their decision-making and coaching and learn how to do it with both young players and adults.”
He might be no longer playing himself at the highest level, but Regan has found that working with those who still do has helped fill the void left when his own inter-county career was cut short.
“There's definitely a sense of that,” he said. “Going down to Thurles for a Munster Championship match or coming up to Castlebar for a Connacht championship match or going to Croke Park for an All-Ireland semi-final or final on the bus and being a part of a team on that day is hugely rewarding.
“And when you have success as well it makes it really, really sweet.
“So, yeah, they're great environments to be around and great conversations, it's great to be around sportspeople who are really motivated and really committed to succeeding.
“It's definitely something that's helped me get over the process of not playing anymore, without a doubt.”
• The GAA Games Development Conference 2018 is being developed in partnership with Sky Sports and will take place on Friday and Saturday, January 12th and 13th 2018, in Croke Park.
Run as a partnership between all of the Gaelic Games Associations, the Conference will offer the 750 delegates attending an opportunity to access talks relating to key coaching issues in Hurling/Camogie, Gaelic football/Ladies Gaelic football, Handball and Rounders which are related to players across the entire player development pathway.
Tickets can be purchased HERE.