Rugby Union

Ulster and Ireland scrum half John Cooney says 'Take Control' of your life

John Cooney of Ulster and Ireland advises people to 'Take Control' of their own lives during these testing times.

FLYING fit and in fabulous form, John Cooney knows well that you can only look after yourself.

Earlier in his career, afflicted by shoulder injuries while at Connacht, the Ulster star saw a counsellor, who advised him to ‘Train as if’ he already were an Ireland international.

By this year the Dubliner was a bona fide Ireland international, coming on against Scotland, Wales, and England, even kicking a conversion in stoppage time at Twickenham.

Cooney appeared to be getting closer to taking the starting scrum half slot off Conor Murray, playing outstanding rugby as Ulster again reached the European Champions Cup quarter-finals.

Coronavirus then halted all sport - and his progress. However, as part of the Rugby Players Ireland ‘Tackle Your Feelings’ campaign, supported by Zurich, he insists that everyone can still ‘Take control’ of their own lives.

It would have been understandable for him to get down, having been soaring so high before being grounded, but he’s philosophical about the situation:

“It’s hugely important for everyone just to take control of themselves because it is easy at the moment to fall into bad habits or see your days meander into nothing.

“I identified that early: if I don’t get up early, or leave my training to late on, the day doesn’t transpire well. Take control of your day to day actions, whether that’s having a routine, doing certain tasks, or having certain hobbies.

“Obviously it was disappointing for me with the season being cut short, but I put it to the back of my mind because there’s nothing I can do about that. A worldwide pandemic is a pretty legitimate reason to stop a season – it’s not like some bad weather coming.

“I’m just trying to better myself, come back in good shape, and enjoy the time of reflection.”

Mental well-being has been important to Cooney for years now, with ‘goal setting’ an integral aspect:

“That was something I did back then, but I’ve gone even better and better. In my time with Ulster, before every game I spend 30, 40 minutes writing out those goals. It’s something we do as a squad as well.

“I’ve read up on positive affirmations and the benefit that they can have. For me they’ve been pretty effective.

“I have a planner on my refrigerator where I can write out my plan for the day, my goals for the day, something that makes it a lot simpler. I also have a couple of quotes which open my eyes to what I’m doing.

“I’ve tried journaling: the day before my birthday, the big 3-0, I asked myself a couple of tough questions about where I want to go in the next few years, that was a good help.

“There’s so much information out there on the web and podcasts, about nutrition and sleep, even mindfulness on the ‘Tackle Your Feelings’ app.

“We’ve made a little ‘mindfulness corner’ in the house with a little Buddha and a couple of candles and I sit there for 10 or 15 minutes and reflect on the day gone or the day ahead. That small window can make a big difference to your day.

“The first couple of weeks [after sport stopped] were nice: you wake up, do a jigsaw, and watch the news. It’s changed – I don’t watch the news any more because that’s quite a bleak start to the day.

“It’s not ideal for anyone but I think I’ve done quite well. Some weeks it gets difficult but everyone I’ve spoken to seems to have those ebbs and flows as well.”

Although apart from his provincial and international colleagues, they’re still keeping in touch:

“We have a quarantine WhatsApp group with Ulster which keeps everyone connected, and on a Friday at 3 o’clock everyone puts in a picture of what they’re doing, whether it’s toasting a beer together or a can of Coke. It keeps everyone together, it’s something which Dan [McFarland, Ulster head coach] really drives.

“He has a background in psychology, he has a good understanding of the mine, I think he specialised in a sense of belonging in an environment, which is pretty fitting for a coach in a professional set-up.”

Cooney will be ready for the challenges ahead when rugby does resume, he believes: “I’ve always been a very competitive person, in any sport I play I always try to be the best I can be. I’ve never struggled with hard work, I’ve always tried to be the fittest, the strongest, the fattest – the fastest, not fattest…,” he corrects himself.

On the evidence of the Zoom call, that was only a slip of the tongue, not a Freudian slip.

Whenever contact sport resumes, John Cooney should be good shape, physically and mentally, to keep on striving for that green number nine jersey.

* The TYF [Tackle Your Feelings] App and website encourages people to be proactive about their mental wellbeing. Users can choose the Tackle Your Feelings resources they feel they need at the time. The app and website also feature sections on Relationships, Confidence, Happiness/Sadness, Sleep, Self-Care, Resilience, Anger, Relaxation, Optimism and Self-Awareness. It also has a Mindfulness section where users can select from several mindfulness exercises.

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