Interview: Paul Curran — on self-awareness, the power of positive thinking, leadership & more
Mullinahone's Paul Curran played hurling for Tipperary for 15 years, winning All-Irelands, All-Stars, and captaining his county to win the Munster championship.
In this interview, Paul speaks about his work as a Professional Performance and Development Coach, including the importance of self-awareness and positive thinking, and the power of choice.
On hurling matters, Paul speaks about learning to see his own strengths, how Eamon O’Shea got the best out of the players, and the importance of attacking the ball as a full-back.
Paul fielding the ball with Conor McGrath of Clare.
The Match On Sunday: In addition to your work as a Primary School Teacher, you're a Professional Performance and Development Coach. What led you to coaching?
Paul: Starting out with the Tipperary senior team, I thought I’d be confident but discovered that I was quite the opposite. I really struggled for the first two years.
One day, I was browsing in the bookshop in Clonmel and came across The Power of Positive Thinking by Normal Vincent Peale. It introduced me to the concept of positive thinking and had a major impact on my mindset. I would never have mentioned it to anyone at the time though. I became curious about how the mind works.
Through the GPA, I undertook the Jim Madden Leadership Programme which provided access to a coach. Initially I was cagey about it, but I opened up to the coach and realised how impactful personal coaching can be. I then did a master's degree in Personal and Management Coaching.
While I coach a lot of sports people, I love working with people from other realms too, and the business has grown organically.
What approach do you take to a person seeking coaching?
It depends on the individual, but the overarching concept is that a person has the solution within themselves. It's a matter of creating a safe space where an open and honest conversation can occur. This allows the individual to gain a deeper understanding of their needs, values, drives, aspirations and goals. Depending on the person, there are a range of coaching models, such as cognitive, psychometric, solution-focused, and mindfulness.
We start by exploring the person's goals and beliefs. I then probe into their goals by questioning, observing and listening. Sometimes I find that the person actually has different goals to what they initially stated. The coach should help the person to trip over the truth and reveal what they're really looking for.
It's a matter of developing self-awareness within the person, bringing clarity and understanding to what they want to achieve, why they want to achieve it, and how they can reorient their thoughts, emotions and actions to achieve the goal.
I have five kids so I want to be the best father, the best husband, and the best person I can be. That’s the goal of my self-awareness journey.
Can you elaborate on the importance of self-awareness?
Personally, the biggest discovery from the master's degree was the importance of self-awareness—observing my triggers and my subconscious, paying close attention to my behavioural patterns.
For example, I was liable to fall into thinking negatively, so I had to pay more attention to what was going on with me, to develop a deeper understanding of myself.
I firmly believe that a coach can get people to be more self-aware, to understand what’s really going on with themselves, and take greater ownership of their situation. Viktor Frankl emphasised the power of choice, and I’m a huge believer in it: you can either remain in your current state, or you can challenge your thoughts and actions, and develop yourself.
Personally, I have five kids so I want to be the best father, the best husband, and the best person I can be. That’s the goal of my self-awareness journey, and I try to help other people in their journey.
Paul and Eoin Larkin in the All-Ireland Hurling Final in 2011.
In your self-awareness journey, what changes did you observe?
I used to be an engineer, which is structured work, and I'm a structured and organised person so that suited me well. But now I’m a Primary School Teacher, and you can’t take a one-size-fits-all approach with 30 kids—it just won’t work. I had to become more flexible, to get better at reading people.
Previously I had neglected the power of relationships in my life. I wasn’t a cold person, but empathy wasn’t my strong point. I worked on it. It has enhanced me, and people close to me noticed the difference. Shortly after I switched to teaching, Liam Sheedy observed the change in me and said “you’re a different person, Paul.”
I was always very driven but I was probably driven in the wrong way. I’ve come to understand the ways in which people are different, how everyone has their life story. I used to be very black or white, but now I see the shades of grey.
I used to get frustrated if I thought someone wasn’t applying themselves properly. Essentially, I was making assumptions and being judgmental. But I now realise that I didn’t know their story. Everyone has their own life story. That realisation helped me to be more patient with people.
Each evening, I have an internal conversation with myself about my day, focusing on what worked well and what could be improved.
In your own life, are there concepts or routines that you live by?
Mindful walking is a big thing for me; I go out for a walk, leave my phone at home, and pay attention to my surroundings.
I stretch every night for 15 minutes. With Tipperary, we were introduced to yoga and I’ve sustained it and modified it. It helps me to unwind and destress. Each evening, I have an internal conversation with myself about my day, focusing on what worked well and what could be improved.
Each evening, I note three things for which I’m grateful. My kids do this too. And I’m working on becoming more mindful of performing daily acts of kindness.
After I finished playing for Tipperary, I questioned what that whole experience was really about for me. In doing so I came to appreciate what it had given me: positive routines, self-discipline, organisation, good eating and fitness habits.
None of this is robotic—it’s a lifestyle.
Playing full-back in the All-Ireland Hurling Final in 2011.
While playing sport at a high level, is it difficult to ensure you are living a balanced life?
In high-level sport, you can let yourself be totally driven in that pursuit. But that can be detrimental to other parts of your life. It’s important to reflect on what’s really driving you, to develop self-awareness around your motivation.
Ideally, your motivation should be intrinsic rather than extrinsic. Extrinsic motivation, for example, is winning the man-of-the-match award, but that award won’t sustain you in the long run. People who are successful over the long term are intrinsically motivated, they are internally driven.
You mentioned that confidence was an issue when you started playing senior for Tipperary. How did you develop your confidence?
For the first couple of years, I felt that the management didn’t fully believe in me. As a result, I didn't believe in myself.
It took time to see my own strengths. Liam Sheedy and Eamon O’Shea pointed them out to me: I train hard, I’m competitive, driven, good in the air, strong in the tackle, aggressive. I started to see that not everyone has these traits, to realise that these are good traits. I then focused more on them.
I used visualisation to help me relax before games—visualising the dressing room, the crowd, the game. It didn’t guarantee a good game, but it helped.
I just loved the game. I was happy. It was a simple life. You could go training and clear your head. The greatest enjoyment for me was simply training with Tipperary, the internal games, Eamon’s drills—I loved every minute of it.
You’ve said in other interviews that you struggled with self-doubt at times. How did you manage it?
I read Paul O’Connell’s book and was surprised at how much self-doubt he had. That normalised it for me.
Everybody has it. It’s how you control it that matters. I learned to be better at controlling it. I knew when it was coming and I'd try to relax myself. I’d even try to flip it on its head, to laugh at it. When the voice in your head is telling you that you can’t go on, you can respond and say “no way, I’m going on.”
People will follow you because of your actions and how you conduct yourself.
Captaining your country is a big responsibility. How did you take to it?
A huge honour. Liam told me to lead by my actions. That resonated with me as I wasn’t the most vocal in the dressing room. I don’t think the big emotional speeches really work anyway.
People will follow you because of your actions and how you conduct yourself. Even outside of hurling, I try to live by that—the type of character you are, the respect you show people.
Captaining Tipperary to win the Munster Championship in 2012.
The Tipperary players often speak glowingly about Eamon O'Shea's influence. What was it about Eamon that got the best out of the players?
Eamon was able to connect with the players on a deeper level. It wasn’t just about hurling. He gave you the sense that he saw something in you, that he wanted to develop you.
He’d challenge you: he’d say something and ask you to think about it, he wouldn’t give you the answer. His approach was “tell them and they'll forget, teach them and they might remember, involve them and they will learn.'' He helped us to become better hurlers and to become better people.
Eamon wasn’t someone you’d be very close to. But he was genuine, he was himself, he didn’t change. You knew he wanted the best for you. We connected with that.
He also had a deep connection to the hurley and the ball. There was spirit and energy in his approach.
The biggest opponent was in my head. I knew that when I was right, I was a match for anyone.
Playing full-back is a responsible task. Who were the most challenging forwards?
I felt that the biggest opponent was in my head. I knew that when I was right, I was a match for anyone. I wouldn't fear anyone.
Eoin Larkin was hard to handle. I was physical but he could match that, he was strong in the air, skillful, brave—he was able to counteract my strengths.
Seamus Prendergast was another: very strong, didn't like to lose, stubborn like myself. It was a constant battle to the end.
If you were coaching a full-back, what would be your key pieces of advice?
Attack the ball. Defenders shouldn’t be reactive, they should attack the ball and play without fear. I wasn’t the fastest but I was decent at reading the play. I’d try to anticipate where the ball was going and attack it.
You have to protect the space in front of the goal and protect the goalkeeper. For me, it was always a badge of honour to protect my goalkeeper.
Finally, The Match On Sunday will make a donation to a cause of your choice. Which one would you like to support?
I’d like to support a cause that helps children: The Polio Survivors Fund.
The Polio Survivors Fund provides support to children paralysed by polio. The fund is run by volunteers and has no administrative costs—all money raised goes directly to the children. The support is tailored to the children and their families, for example by providing wheelchairs, prosthetics and physiotherapy.