Interview (Part 1): Tony Griffin — on his new book, building resilience, uniting the Dublin hurlers
Updated: Jun 4, 2021
Tony Griffin was initially known as a Clare hurler. He played for ten years, winning an All-Star in 2006. Taking a year out of the game in 2007, Tony cycled across Canada in memory of his father, raising over €1.1m for cancer charities.
After retiring from inter-county hurling after the 2009 championship, Tony wrote his first book, Screaming At The Sky, which covered four years of his life (2006-09). This included taking a year out of his studies in Canada to be a full-time hurler, the cycle, a period of depression, and themes ranging from grief, self-doubt and identity to courage, change, and forging on.
In 2012, Tony co-founded Soar, an innovative foundation that delivers workshops to develop character and emotional resilience in teenagers. After working with young people for a decade, Tony recently authored The Teenager's Book Of Life, which he speaks about below.
Tony also speaks about the importance of appreciating each other's struggles, the tenacity of young people, working with the Dublin hurlers in 2013-14 to unite the group, amongst others topics.
Tony against Wexford in the All-Ireland Quarter-Final in 2006.
The Match On Sunday: What did you want to communicate to young people in The Teenager's Book Of Life?
Tony: I wanted to speak to teenagers in a way that they aren't used to being spoken to. I wanted them to know that they are loved.
There's a poem in the book called I See You. It's about all of the young people I met in schools over the past ten years, some of whom would have been self-harming or feeling lost—the poem tries to reassure them that they are seen and heard.
There are also important themes running through the book such as love, friendship, family, death, pain, hard times, identity and your place in the world. The book includes advice that I wish I'd received when I was younger: there will be ups and downs in life, but there’ll be great joy, so stick with it.
Do you think adults should be more open to learning from teenagers?
As adults, we can be closed in our beliefs about what's possible. We think we've seen it all. We haven't, but we've developed tired eyes, whereas teenagers seek novelty and emotional engagement. Adults need to learn to see again with new eyes.
We can learn from teenagers about being open to the exciting thing that's around the corner. A lot of adults have lost that, we think exciting things only happen in the past. Teenagers have a sense of wonder, awe and innocence that adults lose as we go through life.
A lot of us die with our music still in us. We should storm our own barricades.
The book appreciates the tenacity and creativity of teenagers. What is it about these characteristics that appeals to you?
As adults, our creativity can fall dormant. We think there’s only one way of doing things, whereas teenagers see so many imaginative and creative ways.
People often say to me that I've done interesting things in my life. They seem to think it came easily to me—it didn't. Sometimes we forget that we have a choice; we should summon the teenager's tenacious spirit to go and do the thing we really want to do.
A lot of us die with our music still in us. We should storm our own barricades.
With Soar, you worked with teenagers to develop self-confidence and resilience. How do you develop these characteristics in teenagers?
One of the key concepts in building resilience is an appreciation for human struggle.
It's important for people to understand that they're having a shared experience, sometimes shared by everyone in the room. You're not alone in anything you're going through. In life, if you've got a heartbeat, you're going to go through shit.
In the workshops with Soar, we gradually claw back the layers to connect the private person with the public person. There might be someone in a group whose life seems perfect. It's all on display on Instagram, thousands of followers, and everything looks amazing. But they might have lost a loved one, or had an eating disorder, or have a parent who’s suffering from depression. Once that person tells the story of their struggle, the people in the room start to realise what they've been dealing with. And the rest of the people realise that they're not alone with their experience.
Then we get people to realise what they have already been through. Most people don’t acknowledge what they've been through. There's great value in allowing yourself to acknowledge – not be victim to – what you've been through. You realise that you've come through a lot and think "I’m stronger, I’ve survived." It's like our ancestors surviving the sabre-toothed tigers to make it back to the cave and thinking “we've lived another day.” When you appreciate that you've lived another day many times, you're braver, you're stronger than you'd thought.
You might have a player who drinks himself to sleep at night ... Initially, they would have been afraid of speaking to the group about these issues.
You were involved with the successful Dublin hurling team in 2013-14. Did you apply some of these concepts to the team?
Anthony Daly was open-minded. He operated on his gut feeling and granted me free rein. Players are so emotionally intelligent now that they won’t play just for the jersey, they need a sense of belonging to the group.
You have to connect them on a human level beyond their hurling personas. If you can do that, a chemistry starts to develop in the group. The players start to care about each other and unconsciously feel safe in the group.
It’s not easy to create the feeling of psychological safety within a group. I learned it from working with 50,000 teenagers over ten years and from travelling around the world observing facilitators who were able to unlock rooms, where honesty flows and people show their vulnerability, but they don't feel emaciated emotionally in doing so. Instead, they think "here I am, this is who I am."
You might have a player who's going through a divorce and isn't allowed to see his child, or a player who drinks himself to sleep at night. Initially, they would have been afraid of speaking to the group about these issues. But when they speak honestly and openly, the whole group says “holy shit, that was so brave, I want to be like you.” It builds invisible threads of connection. That's what I did with the Dublin hurlers.
Those players ended up knowing each other so well. They still talk about how there was something special about that group. And that’s true, but a lot of intentional work went into creating it.
When you create that environment, guys come training because they want that feeling in their heart that they can be themselves, that they're safe and they belong. They may not even realise it on an intellectual level.
Tony and David O'Callaghan after the Leinster Final in 2013.
Were there specific exercises you employed?
With the Dublin hurlers, I was the facilitator so I had to speak first about my struggles. I'd tell them “I had a breakdown … actually, it was a breakthrough … but how was that a breakthrough? … well, it led me to where I am today …” Because I’d done a lot of work on myself, I was able to tell this story about myself that most people wouldn't want to share. I could stand there and embody what I was trying to create in the room. It has to be authentic. Psychically, you can't give away what you don't have. The process is modelled on the arc of The Hero's Journey by Joseph Campbell.
Soar's workshops achieve this in three hours with 100 teenagers in a room. Real lives unfold, people can’t believe what they're hearing. Teenagers say things they would never tell anyone, how they feel about themselves, the challenges they've faced in life.
When the human experience is displayed honestly it's the most captivating thing you'll ever hear.
Was this the incorporation of a wellbeing component in the Dublin setup?
Nowadays we'd say that, but break it down: wellbeing—feeling well in your being.
Anthony Daly wanted to bring the group closer together. He asked me to get involved as a selector, but he knew I had been an outlier in the Clare squad so he understood when I said "that’s not my bag, but maybe I could do something else."
Soar was modelled on an Australian organisation called Reach. I'd seen the Reach facilitators working successfully with Aussie rules teams. I’d seen the techniques work with teenagers in Ireland. The Dublin hurling team is essentially a bunch of boys in their 20s, so I took a risk and started running these sessions with them—and it worked. Jim Gavin's Dublin football team ran similar sessions. We trained their facilitator in Soar.
Finally, The Match On Sunday will make a donation to a cause of your choice. Which one would you like to support?
Soar—it’s most pioneering education and mental health programme that has ever been run in Ireland, and they are now trying to take it to another level.
For more on Tony and The Teenager's Book of Life, see https://theteenagersbookoflife.com/