Ireland, the Olympics, and Sport Psychology

Dave Kearney
4 min readAug 13, 2021

Ireland is not a country that regularly threatens the top of the Olympic medal charts. Ireland’s 2 gold medals at Tokyo 2020 represents the first time the country has reached the top step of the podium in two separate sports since 1932. But one thing that is clear from this years Olympics: Ireland’s sport psychology game is on point and making a massive difference for Irish athletes as they reach for success.

There are two narratives that surround the Olympics every 4 years: who’s winning gold, and athlete mental health.

US Gymnast Simone Biles won 4 Gold Medals at Rio 2016 and was predicted to repeat her success at Tokyo 2020. Instead, she withdrew from a number of events citing her mental health.
US Gymnast Simone Biles won 4 Gold Medals at Rio 2016 and was predicted to repeat her success at Tokyo 2020. Instead, she withdrew from a number of events citing her mental health.

A well structured sport psychology training plan for athletes must provide two things:

  • Mental skills training to help athletes overcome common psychological barriers to success. These include techniques for maintaining a high level self-confidence while competing, reducing performance anxiety, staying motivated and keeping calm when faced with the stresses of competition.
  • Mental health support for at risk athletes. For the winners, it’s a new level of national fame to deal with. For competitors, it can be a gnawing sense of disappointment that years of commitment didn’t lead to the outcome they were hoping for. For both, it can be the loss of purpose that comes with the games being in the past rather than in their future.

It was incredibly heartening to hear how the Irish sport psychology team were operating. Half were on site in Tokyo supporting their athletes in competition. The other half stayed in Ireland to check in with each athlete as they returned. This approach makes sure that each athlete has the mental health and counselling support they need not just to perform on the day, but also to transition out of their sporting bubble successfully once they have finished representing the country.

Recovering from setbacks

Let’s talk about the games some more. The winning Irish athletes clearly had a mental game plan when competing that helped them to perform at their best. In both cases, the Irish medalists fell behind early on against their respective opposition. In boxing, Kellie Harrington lost the first round but came back to win on all 5 judges’ scorecards:

I was down in the first round…but I didn’t lose my focus. I didn’t lose my control of the fight. I just went back out…and the rest is history — Kellie Harrington. Olympic Gold Medalist

In rowing, Paul O’Donavan and Fintan McCarthy fell 10 boat lengths behind the German boat in the early stages of the race, but didn’t panic and recovered the distance to take gold:

We can’t affect our competitors, and they cant affect us. We just go out and execute the fastest race that we can.— Fintan McCarthy. Olympic Gold Medalist

Preparation and Process

All three athletes clearly trusted their preparation and process to carry them. They spent less time focusing on the result (which can cause anxiety) and more time focusing on whether they stayed true to their training, their game plan and their own personal potential.

I didn’t feel that nervous. We’d done everything we could to prepare. If it wasn’t going to go our way, it wasn’t because we had left any stone unturned.— Paul O’Donavan, Olympic Gold Medalist.

In her interview after winning gold Kellie Harrington remained true to her pre-competition goal of performing to her potential. Even with a gold medal hanging around her neck, her focus remained on how well she competed and not just the result:

I’ll be honest with you…I’ve got a gold medal so it must be one of my greatest accomplishments. But when I get home, I’ll rewatch the fight and then I’ll be able to judge if I was good, bad, or ugly. — Kellie Harrington.

At a level of competition where every competitor is world class, getting the psychological edge is what helped turn these three competitors into gold medalists.

The Me in Team

Paul O’Donavan and Fintan McCarthy of Team Ireland
Paul O’Donavan and Fintan McCarthy of Team Ireland

Winning at Olympic level requires a team of specialists working to help each athlete succeed. To stand a chance, each athlete must be coached not just in the areas of physical and tactical development but must also master the sport psychology strategies for peak performance too.

Each nation who sends athletes also has a responsibility for ensuring the health of their athletes after they finish competing. There should be support structures in place to ensure that those athletes who have proudly represented their country are supported through the inevitable void that is felt by each athlete after the end of the Olympics.

Ireland has put together a good structure even with limited resources and has used that to help their athletes succeed both during competition and after it has ended. For that they should be applauded.

About Champion’s Mind

Our mission at Champion’s Mind is to make mental skills training available to all athletes everywhere. We do this by providing the tools that athletes need to train their mind effectively, including a structured sport psychology training program via an app and a coaching platform for coaches and sport psychologists. Please check out our website and reach out if you’d like to learn more.



Dave Kearney

Making mental skills training based on sport psychology best practice a normal thing for all athletes