Kerry football and basketball star, Kieran Donaghy talks about building resilience among the next generation, setting high standards in Kerry GAA and the shock of the news about the tragic accident that claimed the life of Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven others in January 2020.
I’ve been that grown man that’s standing on a pitch crying after a game.
My daughter, Lola Rose, who’s only four and a half, was crying the other day and I turned to her, and I said, “Will you stop crying and whingeing.” She looked at me and said, “Daddy, my teacher says it’s important to let your tears out.”
So, I said, “OK Lola Rose. You let your tears out.” Even if she was only crying over a Kinder Egg, I was crying over losing an All-Ireland final – same advice. Let your tears out. But come back stronger.
Every day I went into school it was about the fun and the sport. Not the books. I wasn’t good at school.
I was dyslexic, and I didn’t know it. Sitting there, I would have found it hard to track certain things and bits and pieces that were going on. Of course, when you’re struggling so badly with that kind of thing you look to any excuse for distraction. I always kind of had the attitude of, “I’ve no interest in school. I’m a bit of a messer.”
I failed maths in the Leaving Cert. I repeated the Leaving Cert and failed maths again. So, I’d a failed Leaving Cert, in essence, and that bothered me.
I felt it was important to have a Leaving Cert. My mom and my grandmother wanted me to have it, so there was a bit of pressure to achieve that goal. I realised, “Look, if you want to get a decent job, you better go back and do something about it.”
A good friend of mine, Timmy McMahon, who’s involved in the juvenile set up in my club, Austin Stacks, said: “I’ll help you pass maths.” He’s a maths teacher, and he said, “I can figure out a way for you. We can dump whatever you don’t have a clue of, and we’ll go through the bits that we can so that you’ll be able to get 40%.”
I was 23, and I was after winning my first All-Ireland with Kerry when I sat into an exam hall surrounded by kids. They were all whispering and looking over, saying, “What’s your man doing here?”
I got 48%. Was that a good buzz? It was more like a relief.
I wasn’t bad at everything. Irish was a disaster for me, but I managed to plámás my way through it.
I loved geography. I got a B in honours geography. I loved learning about oxbow lakes and rivers and mountains. I did very well because the teacher told me that I wouldn’t pass honours geography and she said I should be doing pass geography. I got the hump then and the only subject I studied in the month leading up to the Leaving Cert was geography.
Maybe that was a sign of my determination to prove people wrong. When people say I can’t achieve something, my initial reaction would always be to prove them wrong.
I wish all my teachers told me that I couldn’t do it, because I would have got a great Leaving Cert.
When I was in 5th year, I coached the Under 16s team to the All-Ireland A final where we lost by one. I really enjoyed coaching that group, trying to get the best out of them.
I don’t know what they thought of me, but they had to give up their lunchtimes to train in the hall. John O’Keeffe, the great Kerry footballer, was the PE teacher in the school and he used to lock off half the gym for us.
Teachers would be giving out to me that students were coming back late to class with sandwiches hanging out of their mouths.
Coaching that team was a huge highlight for me. Every fond memory I have from school would be sport-related. It certainly wasn’t waiting for the exam results to come through the door so I could go around showing everyone.
But you’re judged on school academically. I judged myself on how I was doing in sport, particularly basketball.
I wasn’t really playing football at the time, but I loved going off on the bus to support the school and local teams. The school team were in three finals in a row, and a lot of my friends were on that team. I was one of the fans, heading off on the bus with my friends. The flares going off in the stand. Being really rowdy and getting a day off school. I loved all that.
When I speak to kids in my camps or at GAA Super Games in partnership with Sky Sports, I’m always reinforcing how important education is. It’s for life. I was just very lucky that sport offered me a path. Not everyone will be that lucky.
But of course, sport is a great teacher in life too. It teaches you how to be resilient.
In the camps I teach kids how to be a good teammate, how to take constructive criticism from a coach and how to react to positive feedback too. I teach them to take the good and the bad in the same manner. That’s what sport asks you to do.
I think we’re all very good at hearing, “You did a great job today, Kieran.” But if someone says, “You weren’t your best today. You weren’t marking tight enough. Your shots were zero from five; you’ve work to do”, kids find that hard to take. They don’t know how to deal with it.
So, it’s about trying to teach them to take that with the same level of calm about them as they would the praise. When you lose a game, and you lose big games, and you’re crying on a pitch, it teaches you to come back harder next time and to work harder. That’s sport, and that’s life.
Whether it’s a job, the mark in your sixth-class exam, getting on the local or county team, when you hear the word “no”, don’t step back and go into the shadows and take that answer. Be resilient. Come back stronger.
I think if kids only experience of playing sport in this modern era is where everybody is great, and everybody gets medals, and everyone is winning, you’d worry for what happens when they get to the real world?
What happens when they’re 18, and they come out of school, and they don’t get the points they want? What happens when they don’t get the college course they want or the job they want? How are they going to take that set back?
Sport should teach you how to deal with the highs and lows, so that’s why I’m hoping that my daughters will play sport, for that alone. Well, I’m hoping that Lola Rose will make the WNBA, I’ve high standards!
The camaraderie around it is very important too. I teach the kids that those teammates that you have beside you are so important. Kids today are fooled by the friends that they think they have on social media. They’re not friends at all.
The next thing you’ll have to your real close circle of friends are your teammates.
”I always say to the lads, “I’ve enough friends, lads. I want good teammates.”
I want people I can turn to in 30 years and say, “Yep, I did it for you, and you did it for me, let’s have a pint. Wasn’t them days great.” Not, “Thanks for liking my Instagram the last day; you’re a great friend of mine.”
I’m lucky to have teammates with my club Austin Stacks, in basketball with the Tigers and the Warriors, the Kerry teams, the Underdogs, the Irish teams I was involved with, they’re all teammates of mine. I’d look at them all very fondly. I’d have an affection for them. I’ve been there. I’ve been in the pits with them. I’ve dug my way out with them, and at times we failed. But we won, and we lost together. That’s teammates.
That’s why I hope Lola Rose plays sport. Even Indie who’s two and a half, I’m encouraging her. Even to just get her out of the house because she’s kind of a lunatic.
I bring her out with Lola Rose to just run around. She gets a slap of a ball and comes over crying and goes back running around again and it’s great. She’s blowing off some steam. It’s good for her seeing the older kids playing and enjoying sport.
I’ve a basketball ring in the house. I’m telling Lola Rose to keep her elbow in and bend the knees when she’s shooting. I had it put at a certain height, and she was making everything, so I was like, “Right. This is too easy.” I moved it up higher.
She goes to the basketball academy St Brendan’s run by Fergal O’Sullivan, my teammate from the Warriors. It’s really fun. They run around and have the craic. It’s noncompetitive. It’s all about developing a love for the game at that age.
Basketball is a fantastic game, it’s a fantastic game. I hope she will stick at it.
The news of the accident that caused the death of Kobe Bryant, his daughter and their friends, caused a deep pain in me.
Every time I opened my phone and saw a picture of Kobe Byrant and his daughter Gigi I just went straight to me and Lola Rose in my head. That’s probably where the deep pain was coming from.
It was the worst I ever felt about somebody I didn’t know dying. That’s the only way I can put it. I’d a pain in my chest for three days after it.
It was such a tragedy because it wasn’t just Kobe. It was his daughter. It was other people all heading to the basketball hall. I can imagine everybody waiting for Kobe to get there waiting for his daughter and her teammates to get there.
Then there’s news of a helicopter crash comes. Everybody knows that Kobe travels in a helicopter. I can imagine being inside in that hall, the feeling of it. That initial fear. It must have been horrific. Just for such a tragedy to happen.
You don’t think that something like that is going to happen to you, but it does make it very real.
”I slept in the bed with Lola Rose the two nights after it happened. It just really hit home.
I do a lot of travelling, and I’m away a lot with my job, and you never know what’s around the corner. It just makes you want to enjoy every minute we can because that’s what he really was doing since he retired.
I was a Michael Jordan guy, so for years, I was hating on Kobe. Who was this new guy coming to take Jordan’s crown? But his career progressed, and we all saw what he became.
My wife, Hilary, bought me his Mamba Mentality book a few years ago. It’s a really good book on his mentality and his work ethic. I started paying more attention to him then.
I watched how he dealt with winning and how he strived to help all the younger stars of the NBA, the LeBron James’, the Kevin Durants. He was a mentor for them, big time. He went way up in my estimation to the point when I was watching his last game, I was nearly emotional watching it.
They were playing a really good Utah Jazz side when they’d nothing to fight for in their season. He went on to score 60 points. He scored all of the last 13 points. He took over and won the game, but they were all there, fighting for Kobe.
He was unbelievable. And so was Gigi. Gigi was above at UConn. She was probably going to be a college star. She was probably going to be the best in the WMBA.
He got to live out his dreams. But then again, did he?
His biggest dreams were probably to see his girls walk down the aisle. He had four of them. He’s not going to get to do that. He’s not going to get to take them on their first dance. It was just sad, really sad. It was a loss for the basketball community around the world.
You let the tears out.
My breakthrough year in Gaelic football was 2006. Winning my first All-Ireland with Kerry. “Player Of The Year.” I knew I didn’t get Player of the Year for being the best player in Ireland. I knew where I was on the ladder. It was a lovely award to get, but I was never going to fall into the trap of thinking I was “the man”.
”You’re in Kerry at the end of the day. You win an All-Ireland, and the response is, “Good man, yeah.” Straight away, you’re counting medals in Kerry.
From the off, you’re always trying to get to the fellas who have eight. I got halfway. I lost four finals. In my own head, I probably shouldn’t have lost two of them. But, even if I had the six All-Ireland medals, I still wouldn’t have eight.
I really can’t think of fellas who have the Kerry jersey on who think they’re great. You’re just not allowed in the set up. Like, I can hardly get carried away when I’m playing next to Gooch can I?
That’s a great thing.
We were very much kept on our toes by our fans. People give out about it sometimes, but we’re held to high standards, and we’re not allowed to run away with ourselves. I think that’s very important.
We’re representing our county, and the kids need to look at guys that are down to earth and always chasing. Nothing can be good enough when you have the Paidi O Sés, Mikey Sheehys, Bernard Powers, Pat Spillanes, Jack O’Sheas; you don’t have what they have so you’re chasing all the time.
If I was running away with myself, I’d have been told very quickly inside in the Kerry dressing room, but thankfully I was never told it. So, hopefully, nobody ever thought it.
The reason I ended up making it was probably my mother. She was brilliant throughout it all.
I don’t know how well I would have reacted if my dad was around through my teenage years and early teens trying to break through onto the Kerry team. You know the way dads are, “You should have done this, and you should have done that.”
That’s natural. That happens in every household in Ireland. Whereas, I could go about my business, and my mom would never open her mouth. She’d wish me the best of luck and pack the lunch for me, pay for my train ticket to Dublin for the Irish teams and make sure I was eating well. Always supporting, never critiquing or judging.
Even my nan used to say, “Oh, you should shoot more. You’re passing it off to everybody, shoot like, you’re well able to shoot.” I’d be like, “Look Nan, I’m going to do what’s right in my head at the right time, and if I can score six times out of 10 and the fella next to me can score nine times out of 10 then he’s going to get the ball every time. If that’s the best chance we have, then that’s where the ball is going to go.”
My mother never looked for any plaudits, she always shied off into the background. A major part of my teenage and adolescent years was how she’d just go about her business and allow me to do my thing on the sporting side.
She’s a classy woman. Throughout my career, fellas would be calling me names from the stand, right in her ear, and she’d never bat an eyelid. She’d sit there, stoic, and look on, no roaring and shouting.
”I’m sure she kicks every ball and shoots every shot with me, but she does it with class.
There are parents there that get too involved and are too vocal. I would suggest to them that they are doing the wrong thing. You can turn kids off sport very easily.
I’m not saying that they can’t talk to their kids about a game, of course they can, but give it time. Bring it up in a nice relaxed manner. Positive reinforcement. And, don’t get me wrong but if there are little things that you see, suggest it to them that maybe they could try a different approach. But don’t criticise. There’s no good that comes out of it.
I know I talked about challenging Lola Rose in her shots, and maybe I should practice what I preach, but if I can be half as supportive as my mom was to me, then I’ll have done a great job.
That’ll be my proudest achievement.
Kieran Donaghy is once again spearheading the GAA Super Games in partnership with Sky Sports. Sky Sports this year plans to visit Clare, Louth, Longford and Roscommon with a special focus on Health & Wellbeing as part of its grassroots partnership.
Sky has also this week confirmed that its Sky Sports customers can pause their sports subscriptions in response to Covid-19. Click here for more information
If you enjoyed Kieran’s piece you might like to read Darran O’Sullivan’s – “What It Was All About“.
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