Tipperary Supporters Club

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The big interview with Timmy Hammersley: Finding your voice - and using it for good

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From overcoming a childhood stutter to dealing with crippling self-doubt during his playing career, former Tipperary hurler Timmy Hammersley is now using the lessons learned from those experiences to help others 

Source: Irish Examiner

Listening to Timmy Hammersley’s story and message, it echoes the opening page of a new book for young people from his friend Tony Griffin: I HAVE A VOICE GOD DAMMIT!

And a bit like John Farnham urged in the same year Hammersley was born and Richard Stakelum declared Tipp’s Munster famine as over, he maintains that with your voice you should make a noise and make it clear. Not sit in silence, not live with fear, as he sometimes did when he was younger.

And so, though he has a stammer, he will not pause or hesitate to be true to himself and profess his viewpoints; just because he stutters intermittingly doesn’t stop him being an eloquent, even brilliant, talker. A conversation with him the same week the Meath side he does some performance coaching with open their national league campaign will not be confined to what he makes of their prospects in the Joe McDonagh Cup, or what he thinks about this evening’s game in the Gaelic Grounds, having won an All-Ireland with Tipp and coached Fitzgibbon Cup in Limerick.

Instead he’ll speak with as much passion and authority on the global refugee crisis and Israel-Palestine as he will on Tipp-Limerick or even Clonoulty-Rossmore, his own club. Because as the man sang back in ’87, we’re all someone’s daughter, we’re all someone’s son.

“I suppose I have an empathy for people who have challenges in life,” he says during a break from his day job as the head of participation and engagement for the popular youth information website spunout.ie.

“I know a lot of young people whose lives are ruined because of it; they do not answer the phone because of it. And I could have been that fella. Because there were times as well when I avoided certain situations for fear of the judgement that would come with it.”

In school other kids were actually fine. It was a few teachers that were cruel.

“I remember one day in secondary school, I put up my hand to answer a question and the teacher said, ‘Sure it took you half an hour to answer your previous question, why are you talking again?!’ It was only something like that which made me feel small about my stammer.

“But it also made me determined. And I was lucky that I had some resilience from playing sport. I’d to fight on the pitch because I was small; at 15 I still couldn’t make our club U16 team. So I had it in me: I’m going to fight and get over having a stammer as well.”

Having been that soldier himself, as well as the day job he has, Hammersley regularly helps and advises people with stammers, and their parents. And perhaps his biggest intervention isn’t so much offering a tip or two about how they should try to speak but getting them to reflect on how they see and value themselves.

“What’s most important for any young person is having a sense of who you are. And it’s not easy to develop, especially with social media which can stop you being who you are and pressure you to give off another impression of yourself.

“Even back when I was growing up I was afraid to be myself in certain scenarios. But it’s the key. Who are you? What are you interested in? What are you passionate about? I think helping a young person find their passion is so important.

For Hammersley, that passion was hurling. And through that dedication, the 15-year-old who couldn’t get a start with his club’s U16s was eight years later in 2010 scoring 1-11 in a Fitzgibbon Cup final and wearing number 22 for Tipperary going up the steps of the Hogan Stand to get his hands on Liam McCarthy.

The problem was it became all-consuming, devouring all other interests and aspects of himself.

“I became very self-critical and judgemental. GAA environments can change you too. Sometimes you feel you have to be one type of person.”

He wasn’t comfortable on the nights out after a game that would often extend into the following day; it would have been more his thing to have a quiet coffee with a few teammates than sculling pints with a crew of them. In truth he wasn’t comfortable in his own company, let alone theirs.

“I was constantly thinking about my hurling, my gear, my fitness. Am I quick enough? Am I tired? Am I fresh enough? I was constantly over-thinking. I might have been the hardest trainer on the panel yet I still wouldn’t trust I had enough done. And looking back, that was feckin’ mad. Someone like Lar Corbett could rock in with only a quarter of the training I’d done but he’d trust himself. Now, he had more talent than me, but the difference was he wasn’t getting in his own way, whereas I was in my own way.”

It all came to a head — or a crash — in 2013, around this time of year. After he underperformed in a pre-championship challenge game, he was dropped from the Tipperary panel. Out of a sense of duty and fondness for the player though, Eamon O’Shea met with him; a bit like Prince, the Tipp manager was the kind of deep thinker who’d muse: would you run to me if somebody hurt you even if that somebody was me? Between them they helped put Timmy Hammersley back together again.

That though involved distinguishing the person from the athlete. Hammersley had fallen into the trap of thinking they were one and the same thing. At one point in their conversation Hammersley confessed to feeling ashamed of himself for how he’d performed in that challenge game. O’Shea caught him right there. A game, a sport, should never make you feel ashamed, Timmy, especially when you’re as honest in your effort as you are. You’re so much more than a game or a sport.

“He gave me great confidence and perspective. ‘You can go for anything you want to here now,’ he said. ‘Go for whatever you’re interested in.’ That was the first time anyone had said that to me.”

It was shortly after that he came across the work of Tony Griffin, another player whose relationship with O’Shea from their days in NUIG was more than that between player and coach. Griffin, through his SOAR foundation, was advocating the message he preaches in his new book, The Teenager’s Book of Life: Why go around believing and acting like you’re a sheep or goat when in truth you have the heart of a tiger?

“Tony and SOAR had a massive influence on me. Because it reconnected me with who I really was. When I was young, I was interested in so many topics like justice, politics, anything to do with social care or social justice, whatever you want to call it. But I kind of shut all that out and focused all my energies instead on playing GAA.

“But what I came to learn was that instead of hurting my hurling, all those other things actually help you and your hurling. And for me that’s history, politics, youth empowerment, food, coffee, music. Whatever you’re into, embrace all aspects of it. It boils down to being a happier person. Working in an environment you love, having a girlfriend you get on with. Just being your true self.”

After meeting Griffin and O’Shea he went back to college to do a master’s in international relations in UCD. That prompted him to follow closely the refugee crisis at the French port of Calais, to the point he headed off over there with a friend and then spent a couple of months in Palestine and Israel.

It’s still a situation he monitors closely and comments upon publicly, even though it leaves him open to being accused on social media of being anti-Semitic and a terrorist sympathiser.

“It’s a very bleak situation. Unfortunately, the chances of a two-state solution are essentially gone. There is no chance of a Palestinian state when you have over 800,000 settlers from around the globe now living in the West Bank. The only option would seem to be to have one state which would see Israel include all the Palestinians and Jews together but Israel will hardly do that because the Jewish majority would no longer be there then and Israel has identified itself as a state for Jews. And that’d be fine, only they have completely destroyed the chances of a state for the Palestinians.

“I know that through the years the Palestinian leadership failed them as well, bringing them into conflict with Israel when they were never going to get anything from it, but that shouldn’t divert people from the main point. It is not the Palestinians who have occupied Israel. It is Israel who occupy most of the land now.

“So the biggest question is what happens to the five-million plus Palestinians living in the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem? At the moment they’re being hoarded into townships which are very similar to what you had in South Africa.

"The Gaza Strip is becoming basically uninhabitable. And the mad thing was when I spent a day on a beach in Tel Aviv talking to young liberal Israelis, the Palestinian issue was not an issue to them. Because there’s no longer any violence, it’s not on their radar. They could not comprehend what I was telling them about the West Bank even though it’s only 50 kilometres away. It’s not in the media, it’s not a story. You look at the recent Israeli election, it was not an issue.

While following social and political affairs can sometimes deflate him, for the most part it has helped him grow and helped his hurling too. In 2018, he helped his club Clonoulty-Rossmore to their first senior county championship title in 21 years, scoring 12 points in the final, and though he lives in Dublin and will turn 34 later this year, he’s signed up for another season in the green and gold. “I’ve played better the last four years than I ever did.”

They’re not the only team with those colours that he’s involved with this season. A graduate of Waterford IT’s masters in sport psychology programme, he’s working as a performance coach to the Meath hurlers, hoping he might help them to Joe McDonagh success, as he has previously managed with Carlow.

Not that that is his sole goal. You could say he’s more concerned with the process, or, as that can be too cold or crude a word, the connection the players have with each other.

“I love the group dynamics bit. How do you get a team to be more cohesive? And I know how a group can really help people or bring down people. It can either empower and include people or do the opposite. And I firmly believe that getting people to know each other better can have a profoundly positive impact on a team. You can train together three times a week and talk about the Premiership to lads between being on the field and coming from the showers, but how do you build a real connection together? If I had a problem with you for whatever reason, I might not initially like you, but if I knew a bit more about you and your life challenges and you shared that with me, I’m more likely to go the well for you.

“Vulnerability is actually a strength. I know Limerick with Caroline Currid have identified and embraced that. And I’ve seen it myself when you give a task to a team and within an hour and a half you have total silence in the room as someone opens up with their story. And I can see the lads who are just waiting to share and offload their story. I can see it in them, because deep down as humans we want to connect.

“I know people ask when you’re coming into a group ‘How does this help us win?’ But I could say back to them, ‘Sure what is going to help you win? If you have them in the gym for a year, will that guarantee you’ll win? It can’t. But I can guarantee you that closer, cohesive groups will go further for each other.”

It’s something he does every day in the day job; with Spunout he’s responsible for facilitating the views of young people 16 to 25 so their service is up to date and meets their needs and he coordinates the 170 volunteers who roll out the programme.

He’d love to see that approach more pervasive within the GAA itself. He’s collaborated with Caoimhe Ni Néill who has done some sterling work with the GAA youth forum where teenagers from all across the country convene annually in Croke Park, but it’s something he feels could extend to every club.

“Why don’t we ask young people what are their hopes and ideas for their club? How many clubs have even asked that question? It’s always adults telling young people ‘This is what you do, this is our vision.’

But what if with your executive committee you had someone U18 on it? Or why not have two or three on it? Or at least at the start of the year have a forum where every young person can be asked: What is your vision? How could we make the club a better environment for you?

“Empower young people. Let them have their voice.”

Because as his own story tells us, it can be music.

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