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Opinion: The O’Nien mindset sets an example to players and fans alike

“The epitome of a modern professional, Luke O’Nien’s passion and vulnerability, openness and intelligence continue to set a new standard for footballers at our club,” argues Rich Speight.

Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Like many Sunderland fans, I’ve grown to love Luke O’Nien over the almost four years he’s been a key part of the men’s squad. He’s battled away, often playing through the pain barrier and covering for others in a multitude of positions.

We’ve seen him develop from the ambitious lad who came back from a debut disaster to win Young Player of the Year into a mature leader who won the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation North East Football Personality of the Year earlier this month.

Whether or not everyone rates his abilities as a footballer is a point of contention (I actually think he’s a top-level performer in this league who could certainly do a job in the Championship), but what hardly anyone doubts is that the bloke has the right attitude.

He was more than willing to give up his time and money to help us to raise money for the Sunderland Community Soup Kitchen back in December 2021, and it was an honour to get to chat with O’Nien on our 24 Hour Twitter Space.

The thing that stuck with me was his attitude to adversity - he told me about the benefits of experiencing and learning from setbacks and defeats - how those things can make you stronger and can be as if not more important than successes and victories for your personal and team development. It was all about the framing.

I’m personally sceptical of the general benefits of positive psychology as a treatment for mental illness - particularly due to its individualism and the lack of socio-economic context in its analysis of why people suffer mental and emotional problems - but in sport it has a certain cachet, and for those who aim to be elite performers in such competitive environments there is evidence of its efficacy.

My conversation with O’Nien was when he was literally sat up in his hospital bed, and only at the start of a three-month layoff - during which time Sunderland’s collective experiences of defeat and setbacks became all too common. And the impact of the operation he’d just been through had not really hit him at that stage.

A couple of weeks ago, just before he returned to action and made his first appearance for Alex Neil, O’Nien posted a lengthy message aimed at others in the football industry about his struggles to cope with the mental as well as the physical side of his rehabilitation from major shoulder surgery.

His advice to fellow footballers demonstrated a depth of emotional intelligence that is rarely seen within the ranks of the professional men’s game, and his words I think have value to anyone who is recovering from illness or injury.

Get more certainty by making new daily routines & setting / working towards targets. Having structure in the day is really important and definitely helps.

Stay connected with people in a different way. For example while I’ve been injured me and my friend have been helping the Sunderland academy players.

Re-define who you are. You can’t define yourself by something that can get taken away or will stop one day. You’re not just ‘a footballer’ you are a person who plays football amongst other things.

Contribute in a different way. You may not be able to play but there are other ways you can help the team succeed. Maybe you can support other players or the club in some other way.

Grow as a player. You have time to reflect. Study yourself. Talk to players who have been there and done it, who you can learn from. Their advice can make you a better player and person.

An injury is a great time to rebuild the body but even better, to rebuild the mind!

At a time when tens if not hundreds of thousands of people are still suffering the impact of “long-covid” symptoms, which often radically transform people’s abilities to get back to life as they previously knew it, this message of resilience and practical tips on how to survive when times get tough will ring true for many.

It is well known that O’Nien has an active interest in the psychology of sport and performance, and the benefits of fitness for our overall wellbeing. He co-hosts a podcast called “The Footballers Mindset” with his friend and business partner Rob Blackburn, he ran YouTube fitness classes for kids and parents during the coronavirus lockdown, and he’s an ambassador for the Foundation of Light charity that does so much good in our communities.

The pandemic has had a huge impact on our collective physical and mental wellbeing. I know this from my own personal experience having relapsed in my own mental health over the last two years and have friends who’ve lost loved ones both directly from this virus, and from the mental health impacts and loss of vital support services of isolation during the repeated public health lockdowns.

O’Nien’s openness about his struggles with mental health, his outlining of the symptoms of loneliness, lethargy, frustration, anger and general grumpiness are familiar to many of us. According to the Samaritans, the North East of England had the highest suicide rate (13.3. per 100,000) in 2020, which has been the case in five out of the last 10 preceding years and saw an increase of 15.7% compared to 2019.

Men are at particular risk of suicide, and it is good that our fans, our club and the EFL does so much to help raise awareness and take practical steps to support fans through the #FansSupportingFans matchday mental health hub and other wonderful initiatives.

Beyond these activities, there needs to be a continual cultural shift away from silence and towards talking about our feelings and our struggles in private and in public. We need to marginalise the immature nastiness and machismo of the kind that, ironically, seems to follow any praise of Luke O’Nien as a footballer or a man.

Where many people admire the no-nonsense toughness and unapologetically frank way of addressing issues that are personified by the TV character played by Roy Keane, O’Nien’s presence in the 21st century Sunderland side is increasingly one that reminds me of my childhood football heroes, Ian Wright.

The England and Arsenal legend has talked about his reinvigoration under the tutorage of Arsene Wenger, whose dressing room approach to man-management was worlds away from the rocket up the backside school of management he’d experienced previously.

He credits the quiet and studious Frenchman for instituting a modern, professional, educational style of management as well as a beautiful and progressive style of play that captivated a generation of footballers, coaches, and supporters around the world - and won titles.

Sunderland v Arsenal - Premier League Photo by Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images

We are still in many ways living in the Wenger era of English football, and in and around a club like Sunderland, some people have a lot of catching up to do when it comes to how we deal with footballers as people.

It sometimes seems to be beyond some to comprehend that they are men and women with complex emotions, hidden frailties, multiple vulnerabilities, and lives and interests that might sit outside of the archetype of what we have grown up to understand a “proper footballer” to be.

“Manning up”, “growing a pair”, “putting your big boy pants on” and “being the bigger man” - they all mean something slightly different in men’s professional football nowadays, and Mr O’Nien is the best example we have seen on Wearside of what this really looks like - aggressive and determined, passionate and inspiring, but also intensely and unashamedly human.

I believe his presence in the team will be crucial if the club is to achieve its primary goal of promotion in the next couple of months.

If you or someone in your life is in crisis, please seek help urgently by ringing 111, or 999 in the case that someone’s life is in immediate danger. For Samaritans call 116123 (available 24/7)


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