In our latest instalment of “Women In Sport”, we talk to Portlaoise Panthers point guard and under-age coach, Maeve O’Sullivan.
There has been much made recently of the amount of time and effort that inter-county GAA players put into their sport and the question of whether it is worth it or not. It’s a valid question and worth exploring, but if you step back for a minute and look at it objectively, is there really that much to complain about? What of the players who put in a huge effort in other sports, sports that don’t garner the same TV minutes, column inches, or online focus? Outside of the elite in professional rugby, the GAA, and to a lesser extent the top flight of the Airtricity League, every week thousands and thousands of men and women spend their evenings and weekends doing their best to become their best, all away from the glare of the spotlight. Maeve O’Sullivan, the skilful and tenacious point-guard for the history making Portlaoise Panthers – currently in their first season in the Women’s Premier League in basketball – is one such individual. She argues that if you don’t love what you’re doing, don’t do it. She loves her sport and despite everything, that is the reason she plays – not for the crowds, not for the glamour, not for the trophies. For the love of the game.
“I read an article recently where the writer said he fears for GAA this year, and football in particular. He was saying that the players aren’t committing to county teams as they may have in the past and the players that are committing are training, and training, and training, and training and not winning – he’s saying, what is the point? And fair enough, I know I have training tonight and I’m looking at the clock and thinking “I’d love to get out of it, because, what’s the point…” but, then, I look at sport as my life. You do it because you love it and when things get rough, as it is for us right now [Portlaoise are second bottom of the league table], you have to pull together and learn from the positives and you have to improve. If you take his word for it in the article, you’d wonder if people took that attitude to everything in live what sort of world we’d be in? People play sport, even when they are losing, because it offers them so much more, it offers them friendship, it offers a release. When I go on the court, I’m a completely different person and I love that aspect. So, yes, losing sucks and it’s tough but you just have to put it in to get something out and like I said, I don’t have the mentality of a quitter. I’m going to take everything I can from this year and even at 28 years old, I feel i am getting better from game to game and I think my team-mates are too. That’s the positives we are going to take from it because the successes will come when you have that positive mentality.”
Maeve first fell in love with the game as a youngster after watching her talented sister Catherine take up the sport, all under the watchful eye of a Laois legend back in the mid 90’s.
“I started when I was in primary school,” she explains. “I have been playing since i was six or seven, Catherine my sister started when she started secondary school. It was never a game that my family were involved in before that. Once Catherine started secondary school she fell under the guidance of Pat Critchley and she fell in love with the game. Catherine was always my idol, I wanted to do whatever she did so i followed her around. The basketball courts in the old Convent school in Portlaoise used to be the haunt for the summer so literally you went down there every day and it was five on five games, two games going at the same time all day long, it was that popular – and all thanks to Pat too.”
“As I was the annoying little sister who used to tag along with her she tried to teach me to shoot, how to dribble, or I’d sit there and watch the games going on as well. Thankfully then Pat started to extend his training to the primary school because there was no club set-up at the time. He was struggling at school as players were coming in with no technical ability or real knowledge of basketball so he worked back and started with the fifth and sixth class. Although I was in third class he took me in with the rest of them. That’s where my formal training started.”
Bright, articulate and with plenty of opinions on a variety of sports, O’Sullivan is just one of a vast array of talented and intelligent females plying their trade at the top level of basketball right now in Ireland. And even though the sport is not enjoying the recognition it may have had in this country in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, there is superb work going on at all levels to build a solid base for the game for the future. O’Sullivan herself is part of that, and alongside her playing career, she is currently coaching under-age teams in Portlaoise and ArdScoil Rath Iomgháin, Rathangan where she teaches. She is determined to give back as much as she has gained from basketball, even if it can be a big ask at times.
“It’s tough to combine the two – right now I’m on the way home after coaching in school, I’m going home to grab a bite to eat and going training then from 7-9pm myself tonight. It’ll be the same on Thursday, coaching the guys after school then on to my own training and then Friday you have the under 18’s and thrown in there is an under 18 game I can’t make because I have my own commitments with basketball.
It’s hard and you’re constantly on the go, but I feel I owe to my sport. I have got so much from my sport and I’m not getting any younger but when you know that in a few years you’re going to have to step back from it… I’d hate to step back from it completely and not have anything to do with it. Now I’m just setting up the future for coaching I suppose. On the court I’d like to think of myself as a player who can read the game, someone that sees things going with defences, I suppose that is the job of a point guard as well to recognise these things – I may not be a superstar but I’d like to think I do see things on court and can adapt to them and I guess than transfers to the coaching. I’m learning. It’s definitely different. I think I have learned from the coaches I’ve been coached by before – nice coaches, angry coaches, polite coaches – and I know what type of coach I want to be from those experiences.”
“I’m still learning. I hope that the kids enjoy it, and that’s what I want – I want them to enjoy basketball, to realise that yes it is about winning and we all love to win, but it’s about the experiences as well . That’s what I love, I love being at the top of the bus when the music is blaring and the kids might be doing my head in but they’re having fun and getting along. That’s what my school days were about, those are the days I remember, and that’s what I want for them as well. I think I’m in a privileged position where I get to facilitate that. I love winning myself but as a player it’s completely different to being a coach. Actually it was quiet emotional the first time seeing the kids win their first regional final and like I said I feel in a privileged position to facilitate that.”
It’s not just with Rathangan – now one of the big schools in Irish secondary schools basketball – that Maeve is creating waves. Portlaoise Panthers have risen like a phoenix in recent years, and unusually, the club are following a top down method of building success which is working excellently so far.
“We [Panthers senior women’s team] started Midlands League, won the Midlands League, natural progression was to the National League, won the National League, now SuperLeague but there was no point going to the SuperLeague if there is nothing coming up behind you, so that was the emphasis we had to put on things – did we want to have a club or did we want to just have a team? Again that was the natural progression and thankfully there are kids coming up now who have chances that we didn’t have.”
“They’ve started a league in the Midlands, we have teams in the kindergarten where you bring seven, eight, nine, ten year olds, then you have under twelve, under fourteen, sixteens and eighteens. Myself and Catherine took on a good under eighteen team, we were entered in the Midlands League and Kilkenny League and won both, and then with the likes of Claire Melia, Maeve Phelan and Erone Fitzpatrick coming through, three really talented players, with a group of really strong and talented girls coming up, we decided we would enter the National Cup this year. We reached the semi-final : it was the first time in the clubs history we entered an under-age girls team in a national competition so to make the semi-final [was a great achievement]. Unfortunately we lost out to a fantastic Brunell team on the day, but it was such a great achievement for the club that we are hugely proud of that. It’s going from strength to strength.”
“The levels are improving, the numbers are improving, definitely. We have unprecedented numbers of people coming to take up basketball and more importantly it becoming their first sport – we are a minority sport, we are battling against the football and hurling, so it’s great to see kids come down and fall in love with it and give it their full commitment. Numbers are increasing year on year and that’s not just in our club; that is right across the Midlands so you have a really solid league. What we need to do now is up the standard and the levels – our under 18 team have won the Top Four the last two years in a row, and our hot favourites to win it again this year but still we are not winning national competitions. We have the numbers and we have the team but it’s up to us and all the clubs in the Midlands to improve the standards – the Cork and Dublin teams are the ones to beat and they have huge amounts of teams in each county, but we are looking at a whole region and we are looking at getting coaches onto coaching courses and improving them and them improving the players. I think it’s great now that we have a Premier League team and that Basketball Ireland still has a structured –link up rule whereby girls who are under 18 girls in the area can look at us and realise they can play Superleague (sic) but still keep playing with my own team too which is great. Now there is more incentive for players to improve and to keep playing basketball.”
Before she commits herself to full time coaching, the former DCU ace still has unfinished business in her own playing career and after a stellar couple of seasons in the green and white of the Panthers, Maeve, along with her team-mates is looking to establish them as a real force in senior basketball.
“Look, it’s tough. Last year we went unbeaten, and for the last two years the word ‘lost’ wasn’t in our vocabulary, we had unprecedented success and obviously you enjoy every minute of a season where you don’t lose and any sportsperson will tell you that. This year has been tough and I’ve said it before, we think we were realistic going into this season – we’ve had two players miss out as they’ve had pregnancies, it’s I suppose a disadvantage of being a woman in sport, but the team was in transition. Our club is still at a very young stage where we didn’t have an under 20’s team that you could take from, the girls are still at the stage where they are coming up to under 18 so maybe it was two or three years too early, we don’t have the privilege of the draw from colleges like Dublin, Cork or Galway teams do either so that’s a struggle for us too. To be honest though we probably thought it was going to go a lot worse for us than it has already so that’s really, really positive and in a season where you’re losing the majority of those games you have to look for those positives or you will go demented and you will start to hate the sport you love. We’re taking the positives though and we are running teams close and it’s a sickener when you lose and no one likes losing but you have to keep going – what else can you do but quit and I don’t have the mentality to do that, and I’m on a team of girls that don’t have the mentality to quit either.”
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