James Claffey's Sports Psychology Corner - Towell's take on all things mental

Sun, Aug 18 2019

Richie Towell (right) with his Dundlk teammates after winning the FAI Cup in 2015. Credit: Eoin Smith (ETPhotos)

The first article was really enjoyable and I’m really grateful for the comments and more importantly for the feedback from everyone. I will be incorporating some of the suggestions to include interviews or segments with grassroots coaches. I mentioned that one of the issues surrounding sport psychology is that sometimes we lack the platform to transfer over practically to sport settings.  This week’s article will give some practical examples of how and where we see it in elite sport.

Richie Towell is the epitome of the modern day footballer, he is in great physical condition, conscious of what he is eating and drinking, and his off time is spent either in the gym or in the training ground perfecting his game. The first thing you notice when meeting him is that he is extremely down to earth and has no airs and graces about him. The result of a solid foundation provided by his parents while growing up in inchicore, Dublin.  “Regardless of how well I done or how poorly I felt I played he (his father) always kept me grounded, never letting me get too high or never letting me get too low”. A key ingredient of any aspiring footballer according to the Salford city FC midfielder.

Towell, who played with Crumlin United until he turned 15, speaks highly of the importance of being happy when involved in sport for young people. “We were just a bunch of mates that really enjoyed playing together and of course it helped that we had some fantastic players on that team.” Towell made his international debut at Under 15 level versus Holland and surprisingly 9 of the starting 11 were from that Crumlin United team. He says, “I’d imagine this isn’t something you would see often at the international setup these days”.

If we examine the pathway for most young Irish players if they are considered to be the “best players” then they will most likely get a trial and possibly sign for club in the UK. For Towell, signing for Celtic Football Club at 15 years old was a dream come true. “I made my debut at Celtic Park, I came on as substitute and set Paddy Mc Court up for a goal. That feeling was truly amazing, something I had never experienced, but that was the highlight at Celtic to be honest.” Towell’s frustration at lack of first team action lead to him going on loan to Hibernian. It was the first time that he had to deal with failure or perceived failure, as he continues, “for me there was no point being at Celtic if I wasn’t going to play and I relished the new challenge at Hibs”.


Photo by Andy McDonnell

Again, fate conspired against him as a change of manager in the off season meant that Towell would leave Scotland and return to Ireland despite having offers from clubs in the UK and his pick of League of Ireland clubs. He explains “I fell out of love with the game, I really didn’t want to play or even think about training”. This is a common occurrence for young child prodigies returning to Ireland frustrated and disillusioned with who they are.  

Within psychological circles this is something that is cited in Erik Erikson’s (1902–1994) eight-stage psychosocial theory of lifespan development. Stage 5 is in adolescence, when they are faced with the task of identity vs. role confusion. Erikson believes people struggle with questions such as “Who am I?” and “What do I want to do with my life?” Along the way, most adolescents try on many different masks (personas) to see which ones fit; they explore various roles, set goals, and attempt to discover their “adult” selves. They will be unsure of their identity and confused about the future.

Again, this crisis of identity can at least be helped with qualified sports psychologists or consultants to educate the player that they are more than just a footballer. People may disagree, but from a social and emotional health point of view we cannot allow these young athletes to feel like they are a failure because they didn’t “make it” in the UK. It must be said that as suggested in article one, failure is necessary for growth in sport as it is part of building of resilience but that’s exactly the point. Failure in SPORT is necessary at times for growth and acquiring coping mechanisms for dealing with possible future misfortune. The real issue is when failure occurs in sport and the person believes that it represents failure of them as a person. 

The problem for most, even those with the capacity to meet the physical demands, is that we provide no help or training prior to this to help these young players away from home. This is a reoccurring theme and what tends to happen is that they become disillusioned with the sport and then life in general. In one instance we want athletes to face controversy and overcome adversity but, realistically, they are young and have not yet garnered coping mechanisms like adults attain in most cases through experience. Again turning to his father for guidance, he began to train with Bluebell United in the Leinster Senior League. “It wasn’t anything to do with playing at a high standard again it was to do with kicking a ball and enjoying myself again” and it showed as Towell was playing amateur football but In the Ireland international Under 19s squad.

In 2012, Dundalk survived a relegation playoff. Stephen Kenny would come in as new manager and start to assemble a team and staff of people that would ultimately change the face of Irish football. Towell states, “To be honest, I wasn’t sure about Dundalk at the start but talking to Stephen (Kenny) made me realise that he knew who I was and he trusted in me.” This re-installed self-confidence and would be the catalyst to a remarkable turnaround the next season as Dundalk finished second only to St.Pat’s who won the league. Towell would be named the Young Player of the Year and was a candidate for the Senior Player of the Year.

While people applauded the type of football that Dundalk played that season (rightly so) it may surprise some to hear that Towell suggests something bigger then the technical/tactical side was happening with that group of players because of the Stephen Kenny factor.  “Stephen allowed Graham Byrne (fitness coach) to come in and gave him freedom with the players, I’ve played under managers who claimed to be open to these things but Stephen really was progressive”.

Towell continues, “Most of them nutrition talks, players come in and listen for 20 minutes and then just knock off from it but Graham changed Irish football as players started to go the gym and eat right because players bought into it.” A key factor in cultural change, as author Damian Hughes of “The Barcelona Way” believes, is getting the players to “buy-in” to the culture you a trying to create.

Towell says, “When I went into the changing room at first and saw John Sullivan, how he looked after himself by how he trained and what he was eating. I started to do the same.” This modelling behaviour, orchestrated by Byrne and carried out by Sullivan and Towell meant other players started to see the benefits and soon it became the norm of the team.


Photo by Larry McQuillan

This culture propelled Towell and the Dundalk team towards the goal of going one better the next season to win the league. They did even better by winning the league and cup double that season with Towell scoring the winner in the final. The importance of goal-setting was evident too when, prior to the season starting, Vinny Perth -assistant coach at the time -suggested to Towell that he was capable of scoring over 20 goals that season. It was a target he would reach, and ultimately surpass, hitting 25 league goals.

He would become synonymous with late runs from deep and clinical finishes that season, something the current side would love to have had at their disposal in this European campaign. The late runs didn’t just happen by chance and were the result of hours of practice both on the pitch and off the pitch. You may have heard of visualisation and mental imagery techniques in mainstream sports like basketball, golf and rugby with the likes of Johnny Sexton and Johnny Wilkinson publically speaking about the benefits and Towell explains how he uses the method to perfect his game, “I wouldn’t just see myself scoring , I would use different scenarios in the game. Left footed shot outside the box, how hard do I hit it? Was it inside or outside of the foot? The positon of the keeper? I always would visualise my game and the more I scored the more I practiced.”

According to Munroe-Chandler & Guerrero (2018), ‘the clearer the technique, the greater the chance of successfully performing the action/task in reality’. I have met so many athletes who have exclaimed, “Ah I tried that imagery stuff and it never worked for me.” The job of a good coach or mental skills coach to question these claims- When did you try it? Where did you try? In what context did you try it?

Steve Kerr, the Golden State Warrior’s successful basketball coach gives a great example of how he simply changed his player’s attitude to mental skills training. He states “I communicate to the players that it’s a skill, and one that most of our opponents will neglect. Some find it hard but it’s simple. The first time you tried to dunk a ball did it just happen? Most say no. Then I ask what did you do?” Steve recalls a player shouting out “Practiced and tried again,” this was a pivotal point.

Mental skills are like every other physical skill, they need to be practiced, they need care, they need attention and the more you do that the better you become at performing these techniques.

Towell is quick to mention that although he had some natural ability he has, and continues to, work as hard as anyone to acquire new skills. The 2015 season would again gain Towell much attention from the UK teams, eventually signing for Brighton who had just been promoted to the Premier League. Towell, who was unlucky with injury, went out on loan to Rotherham FC who got promoted to the Championship in 2018, after a play-off final at Wembley where Towell starred for the Millers.

This summer brought with it a new challenge and opportunity as he signed for Manchester club Salford City FC, founded by the members of “The Class of 92”. He says “I had a discussion with the club, and its owners. When I knew the structures and plans in place at Salford for the next few years then I knew it was the right club for me.”

Towell’s story is a one that represents what Irish athletes can do when they have that never say die attitude and resilience to bounce back from defeat whether that be returning from England or accepting a new challenge when one opportunity has ended. One thing is clear Richie won’t be throwing in the towel anytime soon.

Join me for article 3 when I examine the woman’s national league with Eileen Gleeson, and Under 19s champion’s league journeys in recent times of Cork City and Bohemians by speaking with Declan Coleman and Craig Sexton respectively.