Ulster scrum-half John Cooney gives a uniques insight into the mindset of a rugby star playing through the pain

People are fascinated by the Michael Jordans of the world, who can give an insight into what their mindset was like in historic sporting moments. But they are talking years after retiring. What I find interesting is reflecting on how I felt a day later, a week later, a month later.

I have this really interesting example from our last game of the season, against Connacht.

I had torn my calf around 25 minutes into the game. I felt really energetic felt really good before that. But the problem with a calf tear is it feels like a dead leg.

I’m playing a high-level game here – a quarter-final – but I’m looking into the crowd and I can see my girlfriend. I know I’m off. Suddenly thoughts are racing through my head: ‘S***, do I have a torn calf or a dead leg?’ I’m thinking this at the same time I’m trying to play a high-stakes game of rugby.

Not only that, but I’ve had this before. That last time, I played on and the tear got worse, and in the end I was out for eight weeks. So is it a dead leg or is it a tear, because I can play on through the pain if I really want…

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There’s an interesting balance at play here. If it is a tear, even if we win I’ll miss the semi-final. F*** sake, I think. I don’t want to sprint because I’ll make it worse. But I want to maintain a level of performance. I’m signalling to the physio that it might be a tear, and the action rumbles on.

It is such a weird feeling to have through a game! It turns out I did have a tear, and we didn’t win.

I got through 70 minutes, which you might think is impressive. I found a way, by not sprinting and getting other people to do my job for me in certain defensive situations. And this is what lies beneath; this is the stuff spectators won’t see.

It’s also why it’s fascinating to discuss mindsets. Because I’m not writing the above so that people feel sorry for me, but to explore the hidden side. You might see the game and think everything is fine, even if it was an average performance. You can assume a player is perfect, or at least relatively ‘fine’ – and if they’re not, they’ll go off. But it’s not always that simple.


In the heat of the battle against Toulouse (Getty Images)

Sometimes it’s a big game and you want to find a way. I’ve done it before with other injuries and I’ve gotten through the game and we’ve won. But this time, with all of the different thoughts during the heat of the game, and then not being able to sprint, my energy levels went down massively.

There was another incident when, on a Thursday, someone stamped on my foot in training. My kicking foot. And we’re off to play Toulouse, away, in Europe.

I literally couldn’t walk. But I knew that even though it was really sore, if I had to run on it, I can do it.

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Kicking in the warm-up was out, due to the the pain. So I relied on visualisation. I was going up to the ball, like I would in my normal routine, but then just walking past the ball and pretending I’d kicked it! That was my whole warm-up. I just went into the game cold.

My first kick of the game came ten minutes in, and I got it. But it was funny just having to rely on visualisation. People must have seen me walking past that ball and not hitting it and thinking I was a lunatic!

I haven’t written this to glorify playing through pain. It’s just interesting how you can go from those thoughts of disaster and injury to, in a split second, being back into the thick of a very competitive, important game.

So you’ll never fully know what’s going on with the players’ mindset. The next time you see someone operating at what looks like 80-85%, you might find yourself wondering what’s really going on.

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