Gearoid Hegarty's powerful combination of mind and matter
By John Harrington
Back in January, Gearoid Hegarty read the book, ‘Can’t Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds’.
It’s written by US Armed Forces icon David Goggins, who is the only man in history to complete elite training as a Navy SEAL, Army Ranger, and Air Force Tactical Air Controller.
Goggins had a tough upbringing and the central theme of his book is that you can overcome any sort of adversity if you have the requisite work-ethic, self-discipline, and mental toughness.
Not a bad primer to have read at the start of the year considering what 2020 would throw at us all, and Hegarty admits he took “quite a few nuggets” from Goggins’ book which is one of a number he has read on the power of having a positive attitude.
So it seems the Limerick half-forward isn't just one of the most imposing physical specimens in inter-county hurling, he also workes dilligently on honing his mental strength.
“Yeah, I'd have a big interest in that side of the game,” Hegarty told GAA.ie via a video call from the staff-room of Desmond College in Newcastle West where he teaches.
“I think it's extremely interesting how the brain works. It's a huge part of the game and something that's been prevalent over the last number of years. Teams have taken it much more seriously.
“We (Limerick hurling team) have Caroline (Currid) involved with us who is absolutely top class. We're lucky to have her.
“I love the psychology side of the game and I would read a bit into it.”
Visualisation is something that Hegarty has worked a lot on with Currid, the Limerick team’s performance psychologist.
He believes that if you can control the controllables and prepare yourself mentally for what you’re likely to face on any given day, then the physical performance will come a lot easier.
“I remember in 2018 myself and Diarmuid Byrnes, this was before the All-Ireland semi-final, and we were the only two that hadn't played in Croke Park,” says Hegarty.
“All the rest of the lads would have played underage. Obviously we had a couple of successful minor teams after myself and Diarmuid, and then a lot of the lads would have played in 2013 and 2014 in the All-Ireland series. Like, with Caroline Currid who would be our psychologist, we just did a bit of work.
“I would have done a bit of work myself, I would have kept visualising running out. Because I remember, this sounds stupid, but I remember I was there in 2007 for the All-Ireland Final against Kilkenny and I'll never ever forget for as long as I live the roar for the Limerick team when they left the dressing-room that day.
“Absolutely nearly put the roof off the stadium. I thought it was the most incredible thing I've ever heard.
“I just kept visualising that over and over. I had been in the bowels of the dressing-room of Croke Park before but I was never out on the field so I knew the lay-out from the dressing-room out to the field and I just kept visualising over and over and over again coming out of the dressing-room, turning left, turning right, and running out onto the field and hearing that noise over and over and over again so I'd just be used to it and it wouldn't take me by surprise when I ran out that day.
“Nowadays I just visualise running onto the field without that crowd and noise and the difference that is, because it is quite significant of a difference. It's something you just have to take into account.”
When you watch the way Hegarty plays the game, his desire to drag his opponent into a mental war as well as a physical one is very apparent.
He never stops running, never stops working. Without the ball he’s constantly harrying and hassling his opponent to ensure they never have a moment’s peace to clear their lines with any degree of comfort.
And when wins possession, he backs himself every time to ask the hard questions by driving towards the goal and putting his marker on the back foot.
Everything about his demeanour on a pitch screams, ‘You don’t want this as badly as I do’.
Hurling is a team sport and Hegarty is a team player, but he thrives off that individual element of breaking his direct opponent down physically and psychologically.
“Of course,” he says. “I love the competitive side of sports. I'm a big golf fan. When I play a game of golf, I can't just go and play a game. There has to be a competition with something on the line. I'm just such a competitive person.
“I've lost plenty of one-v-one battles in the past. I'm sure I'll lose more in the future. It's something that I love. You run out into your position on the half-forward line, a man comes up to meet you, you embrace, and for the next 70 minutes, it's just a war.
“That's what I love about sport. The competitive side of it and going out everyday trying to prove yourself over and over again.”
It’s an attitude that has been hard-wired in him for as long as he can remember, and comes from nature as well as nurture.
His father Ger was an outstanding hurler for Limerick himself back in the 1980s and 1990s, and Gearoid grew up in a house where Gaelic Games was simply a way of life.
“Ah yeah,” says Hegarty. “I have three sisters and a brother and my mother and father are big into the GAA as well. My mother is from Offaly which was well documented in '94. She comes from a big GAA family as well. So it was GAA coming out our ears when we were younger.
“There's loads of pictures in my house of me where I'm barely able to stand and I have a hurley in my hand pucking around the back. Look, it's an unbelievable passion of mine, it's what I love doing.
“Obviously it was all the way up playing with my club St. Patrick's. The amount of GAA talk that goes on inside of our house at home, sometimes I have to stay away from the house leading up to a game because you want to stay away from that talk as much as you can.
“It's just a GAA-mad house to be living in which is great.”
Hegarty’s passion for hurling found another formative outlet in his secondary school years at Castletroy College.
Traditionally a rugby stronghold, Hegarty was one of the leading lights of a generation of pupils who transformed the school into hotbed for hurling.
“I was involved in the first Harty Cup team in Castletroy College,” he says.
“When I was sixth year I captained the first Harty Cup team that Castletroy had ever entered into. They were in the Harty Cup for around five or six years after that but seem to have gone out of it again. Hopefully they'll get back into it soon enough.
“But, yeah, Castletroy, I was lucky that there was a load of us who are now on the Limerick panel that went to Castletroy. We weren't all in the same year but we were all close.
“Dan Morrissey was a year ahead of me, Barry Nash and Tom, they were two years behind me, so we were all close enough. All of those lads would have been on that Harty Cup team. It was kind of a good batch that came through at the same time and kind of changed the culture of that school.
“It was unreal to be involved in the Harty Cup. When you're in sixth year Harty Cup is the biggest thing ever in the world at the time.
“It's great to get that exposure to top-level hurling when we were in school. I think you can see that a good few of use who played in Castletroy College are still on the county panel so we put a lot of good work in when we were in school.”
The old adage that hurlers are born, not made, isn’t without some foundation, but it’s not completely true either.
A diamond will never fully sparkle unless someone takes the time to cut and shine it, and Hegarty is part of a generation of Limerick hurlers who had their natural talent polished by the county’s very well run Academy system.
From a young age they were exposed to best practice in the area of strength and conditioning as well as the wristier demands of the game, and Hegarty has no doubt whatsoever the county has reaped a harvest from the seeds sown in those development squads.
“Oh, huge, absolutely huge,” he says. “You can see the benefits of it now. Even in terms of strength and conditioning, you can see the strength and conditioning of lads that have come through onto the panel. Seanie Finn and Cian Lynch and Barry Nash would all have been the one year.
“When they came onto the panel...going to the gym and strength and conditioning was a big factor by the time they got onto the Limerick senior inter-county panel.
“You could see straight away that they just rowed in behind it and had a lot of work done on that side of the game already and were well able to progress. That all comes from the Academy. And, I suppose, in fairness, the Academy is so well-run in Limerick. There's a lot of good people over the Academy.
“You can see that benefits of it now and you can see that in the last couple of years everyone that has come onto the Limerick panel has come through the panel which is obviously a good thing for the Academy as well.”
A strong premium is placed on developing a positive culture in team sport, and Limerick certainly look like they now have one.
The Academy is producing a steady supply of talented hurlers, and the best of the best are graduating onto a senior inter-county panel that hums with a collective purpose under the management of John Kiely.
“Look, it's a huge privilege to be involved in the Limerick senior panel at the moment,” says Hegarty.
“Everything is great when you're winning, but in fairness the management team that's involved with us at the moment are just so, so, so top quality.
“Paul Kinnerk, Caroline Currid, Michael Kiely is over the strength and conditioning. In fairness to John, he's put together a phenomenal management team. There's just a lot of really good people involved in our panel. As players we're just so lucky to be coached and led by these people.
“I suppose as players then we have to buy into it. If you don't buy into it then you're shown the door and it's as simple as that. It's a brilliant panel to be involved in.
“It's a cliche, but we do all get on so well and we just love the hard work that's involved in going to training every day. It is tough, but we enjoy it. It's a great panel to be involved in.”
It’s because hard work is the foundation stone on which everything else is built that last year’s defeat to Kilkenny in the All-Ireland SHC semi-final left such a sour taste in Limerick mouths.
They manner in which they were outfought on the day by a hungrier team ran contrary to the culture that Kiely has sought to create within the group.
“Without a doubt,” says Hegarty. “They outworked us, outbattled us, outfought us that day. It was a tough one to take and sent us straight back to the drawing board. It was a long winter.
“We have processed that with Caroline Currid. We do a lot of work with her.
“Even the last day against Tipperary, we try not to look back, we always try to look forward.
“All our intentions now are on Waterford in the Munster final, and we will not look past them, I promise you that. There's no point in looking past them. That's when you get caught.”
When Limerick won the 2018 All-Ireland Final their players were rightly lauded for the manner in which they conducted themselves in the aftermath of that success.
Last year, though, they felt the caustic burn of negative publicity for a couple of high-profile breaches of discipline by panel members.
Adversity like that can sometimes bring a group even closer together, though, and you get the feeling that this Limerick panel is now a tighter bunch than ever before.
“I suppose that's just sport,” says Hegarty. “When you're winning, everything is great and when you're losing, people love to pick out negative moments.
“It wasn't ideal circumstances, what happened [off the field]. We dealt with it in-house and, in fairness, John [Kiely] dealt with it very well.
“We've just moved on and moved back to what we love doing, and that's working hard in training and looking forward to league and championship games.
“2019 finished in a way that we didn't envisage. We wanted to get back at it straight away, prove ourselves again.”
Hegarty is relishing that opportunity to prove himself on a hurling field now more than ever.
His competitive instincts have been further honed by the full realisation of just how much this all matters to him.
Hurling and teaching are his two passions in life, and when Covid-19 briefly took both of them from him earlier this year, he freely admits it was something he struggled with.
“Straight up, I found the initial situation where things were very severe, very difficult,” he says.
“I went from a lifestyle of getting up in the morning and going to school, interacting with people in school and then looking after yourself, making sure you were having the correct meals and eating well, then going to training in the evening, having the craic with the lads, working hard, have the craic with them afterwards, then going home meeting the family.
“All of a sudden, you went to complete isolation, basically. I was just at home. I was with the family, and that was a big eye-opener, having that family time together.
“I missed the social aspect of going into the school, meeting the students and other staff. I missed being with the lads so much and I found it tough. Your whole life was turned upside down. It was just stopped at the click of a finger.
“I'm delighted we're back. There was so much talk with the second lockdown happening, 'Would schools be closed?' There's a narrative out there that teachers want the schools closed because they want to be at home and they want it to be handy.
“I don't know any teacher, and I have a lot of teacher friends, that don't want to be in school. It was much more difficult teaching from home. It wasn't enjoyable because it's not teaching. Teaching is going into the classroom every day and interacting with students, getting some feedback and having a bit of craic.
“I'm privileged that I'm in a job which means I can still go to work. And I'm privileged that inter-county championships can still go ahead. On such a simple, human level, it's something to look forward to.
“People don't have a lot of things to look forward to at the moment. The amount of people who have remarked to me that the weekends are all built around getting a bit of grub in, getting the fire on for the match, getting the family around. Having something to look forward to is a thing everybody took for granted.
“We're in a privileged position that we can provide some entertainment for people in these difficult times.”