'I haven't missed sport one bit, I miss the people and interactions...'

'I haven't missed sport one bit, I miss the people and interactions...'
Cork manager Keith Ricken hugs an emotional Colm O'Callaghan after defeating Dublin in last year's U20 All-Ireland football final. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

THE end is in sight and soon the real action will once again supplant the nostalgia on our screens.

An alternative to the old games, if you haven’t already seen it, is Keith Ricken’s presentation at the GAA National Game Development Conference from January.

The Cork U20 football manager’s talk was titled ‘A player-centred approach to coaching’ — a philosophy one might think would be a given but is in fact not. Ricken is rooted in logic and common sense though and his self-deprecatory nature and humorous delivery ensured that his contribution went down a treat.

Last year, Ricken combined his Cork duties with taking Carrigtwohill’s senior hurlers to the semi-finals of the Cork county championship while his day-job is as GAA development officer at Cork Institute of Technology.

Picture: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Picture: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

If anybody is getting withdrawals as a result of the lack of action, surely he is?

“I haven’t missed sport one bit,” he says.

“I miss the people and the interactions and having that sense of purpose. Sport can give us a sense of achievement but that’s different from a sense of purpose. I know it sounds stupid as someone who coaches teams but I haven’t missed it. I think at 50 years of age, that sense of competition is gone from me or certainly, it’s down the list of priorities.

“One of the things I’ve kept away from is the social media stuff, the balls in the wheelie bins and things like that. Fair play to the lads doing it, sport is fantastic vehicles in lots of ways but it is a vehicle.

“Don’t get me wrong, when sport comes back, I’ll be one of the first to go to a match but, right now, I’ve no grá to watch the 1985 All-Ireland final.” 

However, while he’s making good use of the time off, he makes an interesting point in that, during times of crisis like this, the lessons learned from sport can be put to good use.

“Whether there’s a pandemic or no pandemic, you should be asking yourself questions,” he says.

“A lot of people are asking themselves questions now because they’re being forced to, but I think you should always be doing it – what’s it all about it, what’s my purpose, why are we involved in sport in the first place, why do we do what we do?

“If you’re truthful and honest about it, most people do it because it gives them some sense of purpose.

“Sport is a very safe way to experiment in how you react to situations in life. As a child, you’re brought up to play sport and you get a box off your brother when you’re going for the ball – how do you cope? You come up against various problems and you win or you lose and sport teaches you all of these things. Now that safety-net is gone and it’s just life and we have to put into action the lessons we have learned from sport.”

Inspiration comes from all angles for Ricken. And, while he accepts that not being able to play made for a difficult time for players in their 20s, the best thing is to turn negatives into positives.

“I’ve been reading a lot during the time off,” he says.

“I’m probably different to most in that I read with a biro in my hand and highlight a load. A writer that I like a lot is Jody Picoult, because, within her writing, there’s loads of wisdom.

“One of her lines I came across the other day was, ‘Anxiety is like a rocking chair — it gives you something to do but it won’t take you very far.’ 

“Just when the outbreak began, I was starting to read Dave Alred, the kicking coach, in terms of pressure principles and to see what he was saying. I find that, now, it’s like I’m reading it for the current situation rather than for sport. It’s all so transferrable.

“There’s no doubt though that it is tough for young people to adapt. Four times a week, sport gives them a structure and somewhere to be. Now, they have to decide what to do with their time.

“You can look at it two ways – things you can do or can’t do. I had health issues a while back and they taught me to be patient and to look at things from a different perspective. When you’re told you can’t do something, you can get very negative but I find it’s best to focus on what you can do and not bother with what you can’t.

“For instance, we were told we couldn’t go more than two kilometres, but that’s only in one direction. If you’ve a circle with a two-kilmotre radius, that’s an area of 12 kilometres.

“I do a lot of walking at night — my wife says that Covid won’t get me at all but a driver on a country road! – because I love the peace and quiet, I have John Creedon in one earphone and I listen to what’s around me with the other ear.

“I got six or eight kilometres done without ever breaking the two-kilometre limit. It’s all about mindset, really. What was it Darwin said, that it’s not the strongest of the species that survives but those most adaptable to change. He put it in better words, but that’s basically it.

“It’s the test for every sportsman and woman and every man and woman.” And, ultimately, this too shall pass.

“The main things we take away from sport are feelings and they’re all absolutely personal to ourselves,” Ricken says.

“When you look back, the details don’t really matter as much as the feelings, that’s what you bring with you. The free to win the game might have been 30 yards out 20 years ago, now it’s 50 or 70 but the feelings are the same.

“People will connect over those moments and that’s the beauty of sport, it gives us these emotions.

“That’s what we will get back when sport returns, but I think that sport prepares us for times like these.”


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