When asked what advice he would offer to a team-mate, Alan O’Mara’s response sums up his attitude these days: “To be the best that you can be. And the best you can be is yourself!” The 26-year-old Cavan goalkeeper has travelled a long and arduous road to enjoy such a positive mind-set - a journey detailed in his new book, ‘The Best is Yet to Come’.
While Alan has documented his struggle with depression in a frank account of his troubles, he hopes it will helps others through similar battles in the same way he encourages people in his day job.
“At the beginning of 2016 I founded my own organisation called ‘Real Talks’, which facilitates discussions on the importance of mental health, effective communication, personal leadership and resilience in schools, the workplace, sports teams and other communities,” explains Alan.
“My vision for this work is to build compassionate and understanding communities that can connect and communicate more effectively with one another.
“I do this by sharing key experiences and learnings from my journey through depression and use them as a catalyst to start meaningful conversations with others,” added the Cavan keeper, who hopes that his new book will also help in that regard.
“It’s all about encountering depression for the first time as a young man and trying to ignore it, fight it and resist it,” says Alan on ‘The Best is Yet to Come’.
“It is also about how I had to learn to embrace the dark cloud over my head and look for answers from within rather than seeking a quick fix in the form of playing football for Cavan, work, or other things.”
The aspect of his work that he most enjoys is helping others overcome their difficulties in communicating, or as Alan puts it: “Knowing you have helped someone or pointed them in the right direction is an incredibly powerful and deeply satisfying feeling.”
The Cavan keeper does not point to his Under-21 Ulster success or their run to an All-Ireland final as his career highlight, instead opting for a moment off the field.
“The best part was rediscovering myself and allowing the real, authentic me to emerge from behind the many masks I had collected,” he explains. “I learned happiness was an inside job.
“Another positive aspect of counselling I didn't expect was how much being open and honest about my thoughts, feelings and emotions have strengthened my relationships with the people I care about… Having that support network, not feeling obliged to lie or disguise what I am thinking or feeling, is incredibly powerful and liberating.”
Of course, Alan has had his low points, detailed in the prologue to his new book, the lowest of which came when he contemplated crashing his car in order to try and take his own life.
After speaking to his parents about his difficulties, the door was opened to counselling and, eventually, a road towards some peace of mind.
“I benefited so much from the conversation with my parents… where I openly admitted I was suffering with depression for the first time, and from there I was pointed towards the professional help I needed, help which the GPA provided swiftly and free of charge,” says Alan.
“One quote that always sticks with me is ‘Not until we are lost, do we begin to find ourselves,’ and I think that was true for me. I look at my spell of deep depression as the darkness before the dawn.”
While the GPA helped Alan with guidance towards counselling, he believes the main benefit of the support supplied by the players’ association, including the Player Development Programme, was to help him as a person rather than a player.
“I am immensely grateful to the Gaelic Players Association for the unwavering support they have provided through the Player Development Programme since I turned to them in my hour of need back in 2012,” says Alan. “The counselling experience was an incredibly enlightening and empowering experience and there is no way I would be where I am today and achieved what I have achieved without the GPA.
“Most importantly, that support has helped me see that I am so much more than just a footballer and to believe in my potential as a person. For that, I will be forever grateful.”
For all that, though, Alan remains proud to be an inter-county footballer with Cavan.
“Playing for Cavan provides a fantastic opportunity to experience moments and atmospheres that many can only dream about,” says the keeper. “And playing for my county brings incredible opportunities to transfer the leadership, dedication and ability it takes to succeed on the field into wider society and I hope as the [GPA] Player Development Programme grows, more and more players will both see and believe that.”
Like many, the 26-year-old highlights the structure of the GAA season and the “lopsided” ratio of training to games as a key playing concern, but - more broadly speaking - Alan hopes his work, his ‘The Best is Yet to Come’ book and his vision help other players see the opportunities that may be open to them.
“My vision is for an Ireland that can connect and communicate more effectively with one another and the ‘real talks way’ is my contribution to that process of change,” says Alan. “I urge other players to chase their own passions and be the change they want to see in the world.”