From Kilcar to South Island, New Zealand - one man’s success story in sports psychology

From Kilcar to South Island, New Zealand - one man’s success story in sports psychology

James Hegarty's book cover

Hegarty is a name that is easy to associate with both Kilcar, sport and success. There is a new name to add to that list but not in a way you would have thought. 

The name is James Hegarty and the success story is based on a book which the Kilcar man has just published on sports psychology titled: ACT in Sport: Improve Performance through Mindfulness, Acceptance and Commitment.

The book is a joint venture by Hegarty and another clinical psychologist Christoph Huelsmann.

The publishing of the book and Hegarty’s journey from Donegal to New Zealand is a fascinating story of personal development.

Many in south west Donegal would remember his brothers John (Nixon), and Vernon, who would have  played senior football for Kilcar in the 1980s. John was the Kilcar senior team goalkeeper around that time.

The Hegartys had been born in the US and returned to live in Largymore. James takes up his story.

“I am a proud graduate of Carrick Tech.  After leaving school I worked as a bus conductor in Dublin for a year or so then went to the States.  I didn’t like it so I came home and after being unemployed for a while I got my job back on the buses.  It was a great opportunity for learning how to get along with a variety of people and to motivate those who did not share the same vision as you.  In those days not everyone was convinced they should pay their fare, and you had to learn to deal with people in various states of denial, anger, inebriation, and/or distress depending on the state they were in when they arrived on board,” said James.

But the life journey which James Hegarty was to undertake began in earnest in 1977 when he went travelling.

“I went to England in 1977 on my way to Spain, and got part time work as an orderly in a private hospital, the newly opened Princess Grace.  They offered me a permanent job and I met my future wife, Bronwyn, who was a nurse there at the time.  

“I never made it to Spain.  I then trained in computers and got a job operating main frame computers.  We moved to New Zealand for what I thought was a working holiday in August 1982, expecting our first child, and have been here ever since,” said Hegarty.

They went first to live in New Plymouth for just over two years and in 1985 they moved to Dunedin with their son, Niam, so James could study Psychology at the University of Otago.

That was to bring James Hegarty on a completely different work life.

“After finishing my psychology degree, I trained in Clinical Psychology, and completed a PhD examining mathematical models of self-control and choice behaviour.  Anyone I went to school with would find this very hard to believe as I was terrible at maths.  I think I was easily the worst in the class at Carrick Tech.  I had a mental block regarding maths, and it was my experience of training in Karate that gave me the confidence to try what seemed impossible and persevere with it,” he said. 

The Hegarty family increased with the arrival of daughter, Roisin, born in 1987 while he was still studying.

“As a Clinical Psychologist I worked in a variety of roles: over seven years in the Department of Corrections, then with adolescents at a Youth Speciality Service, later on at a centre dealing with neurological disorders and brain injuries, then at a specialist Pain Clinic, and also as a therapist at the University of Otago, Student Health Centre.  

“When I went into private practice, I initially worked part-time for many years becoming full-time in 2005.  One of my roles from 2005 to 2015 was as Psychological Advisor - reviewing the work of other psychologists - for the national organisation that provides treatment and compensation for injuries caused by accidents.”

Always willing to learn new things and take on new challenges, James changed jobs several times and then developed a real interest in ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy).

“Like a lot of Psychologists, I was drawn to ACT because it seemed much more consistent with what life is like than some of the other psychological methods.  It takes a positive approach; rather than seeing the problems we all face as signs of something wrong; it very consciously sees them as opportunities to become more flexible and to develop new skills.

“I got so interested in this type of psychology, I ended up spending a lot of time training other Psychologists in ACT.  In addition to lots of training workshops for Psychologists, a friend, David Mellor, and I organised the first Australia/New Zealand ACT conference in 2008, and I have spoken at national and international conferences on ACT and mindfulness.”

Sport Psychology

With a great interest in sport, it was natural that James was drawn towards sports psychology.

“New Zealand is a small country, and most Psychologists here need to deal with a broad range of problems while they might have one or two areas of special interest.  I was always interested in sport psychology.  

“As an undergraduate I  carried out two small research studies looking at the assessment of skill acquisition in karate.  While a student, I also attended the inaugural meeting of the New Zealand Psychological Society’s Institute of Sport Psychology (which no longer exists).  

“In New Zealand, most Clinical Psychologists who have worked with sports teams and sports people do this out of interest, or love of the sport rather than as their main job.  It is the nature of being in a small country with limited resources.  In addition to doing general clinical work and working with organisations, I have seen clients for sports-related issues throughout my career, providing therapy for athletes involved in a range of disciplines such as cycling, triathlon, hockey, underwater hockey, golf, field events, and badminton.  I have also written ACT and mindfulness-based protocols for other psychologist working with national teams.”

James admits that he himself was never a great sportsman, but he loved it. “We always played football at home with a few of the boys who ended up playing in Kilcar teams - my two brothers John and Vernon, the Carrs, John, Maurice, James and Michael, Peter Conroy, Martin and James McHugh from up the road, John Doogan, Mickey Billy would come down at times.  There were so many there that I can’t remember them all at the moment. There were big crowds there at times,” said Hegarty.

“I took up running when I went to work in Dublin after leaving school.  I wasn’t really focused on competing, but I did run a few cross countries.  I kept it up in London and there were three or four Kiwis at work that I trained with, again doing a couple of cross countries.  When I came to New Zealand, I discovered Karate.  That and the Chinese Martial arts such as Bagua and Tai Chi were my passions for many years,” he says.

Married to Bronwyn (nee Evans), she initially worked as a nurse but after the birth of their second child, daughter Roisin, she studied a Masters in Zoology and went on to teach biology to first year University students and bioscience to nursing and midwifery students at the local polytechnic (College).  

Bronwyn also developed her career to get involved and was a pioneer in distance and online area in nursing and midwifery. In 2001, she moved in to staff development and training at Otago Polytechnic and supported teaching staff in developing distance education.  She was involved in a number of  national and local research projects eventually  completing a Doctor of Education. She worked for 25 years at the local Polytechnic, and is now retired with a passion for permaculture and writing.  

The Hegarty children are also following in their parents’ footsteps with son Niam working in Melbourne as a media monitor as a day job but his passion is for music. He has been in punk bands, he founded, since he was 14   as guitarist, vocalist and songwriter: Ritalin, the Outsiders, Laura Palmer, and now Dental Plan.  “When Bronwyn and I lived in London, we spent a lot of time going to see punk bands so it must be in the genes.  Niam has toured extensively in Europe and the United States.  He is director of Lost Souls PR, doing promotion for bands and he went to the SXSW festival in 2018 as manager for an Australian group.”

Roisin has studied psychology over many years, and has recently completed her PhD in Psychology and will formally graduate next month (9 December).  “Her PhD was on the ACT model (psychological flexibility) with a focus on using it to help people with arthritis.  She is married and is a Senior Analyst with the NZ Department of Statistics in Wellington.  When younger, she was passionate about horse-riding and we learned a lot about taking care of horses and enjoyed watching her ride.”

While James Hegarty has worked with many different sports people and teams he isn’t a great fan of rugby, the national sport of New Zealand.

While he says he has lost touch with many of his friends from his teenage years he says that Donegal people turn up everywhere. “By chance, I recently met a young fella from Teileann in a bar in Christchurch.  It turned out he was the son of Peter Hegarty (Teileann).  Peter was a year or two behind me at the Tech.”

“ I don’t’ get home often.   Part of that has been the distance and the expense.  It is very different from coming from somewhere like the States.  Flights from New Zealand can take up to 36 hours.  After living in New Zealand, I think of a 12 hour flight as short.  When my parents got older they lived in the States where my sister and three of my brothers live, so when I had time I would visit them there.  I was planning on going home during the summer of this year for a visit, but that didn’t work out.”

He says he keeps in touch with Vernon and his nephews. “When I first came to New Zealand it was very expensive to get back, and I couldn’t return for 16 years.  I have been away so long now that in my mind when I think of people they still look like a teenagers.  I always tell the new immigrants here that the first 20 years are the hardest.”

Like everywhere else New Zealand has had to deal with Covid-19 and from the outside it seems as if they did so in impressive fashion. “It was impressive.  It is strange what a bit of common sense and decency can do.  The government took some hard decisions.  They shut the border and put us into a hard lockdown fairly early on.  A lot of the country depends on tourism, especially in the South Island where I live. 

“So, some people lost jobs and business, others are still suffering, but there was government support financially, and overall things seem to be going as well as can be expected.  Domestic tourism has surged, and we see a lot of NZ people driving around in camper vans.  Personally, I enjoyed the lock down.  I live in the hills on the edge of Dunedin, there were hardly any cars going up the road, and I was out and about walking locally everyday.  I discovered I quite enjoyed not working. 

“Now we are basically back to normal and for day to day life it is almost like nothing happened,” he says.

As for the future, James Hegarty is going to be busy. “Christoph (Huelsmann), my co-author, and I were planning on doing some training workshops on ACT in Sport and getting to Europe was part of that plan.  That was going to be in 2021, and would have given me another opportunity to get home.  

“Things are still up in the air regarding Covid-19 so that is on the back burner at the moment.  There has been a lot of interest in the book.  I have had enquires and comments from the States, Europe, England, and Australia.  A lot of sport psychologists are interested in ACT, but haven’t had much opportunity for ACT specific resources or training related to sport.  The book will be a good starting point for both athletes and sport psychologists, but we need to think about the provision of training, maybe through small supervision groups.  It is something we need to think about.  ACT is very experiential, and it is an acceptance model.  That is not something you can learn about through talking or reading.  It is something you need to do.  The book gives you exercises to do that.

“In some ways writing a book wasn’t as difficult as I expected.  Now, I am tempted to write a book on mindfulness.  There are already a lot of books out there, but my experience is that most therapists and psychologists don’t really understand mindfulness and how it is used differently in different situations, or by different streams of therapy.  That aspect is on my mind. 

“I also have a story I used in workshops for Psychologists to demonstrate different views or approaches to mindfulness.  It is basically a children’s story that teaches children to relax at bedtime.  I have been asked to publish by several of the workshop participants over the years so I should do something about that.  But, while those things are interesting, it will mainly be work as usual.  I will still see people here in Dunedin, and travel to Queenstown and Central Otago now and again as part of my work.  There are worse jobs in the world than driving through the countryside and meeting interesting people.”

An impressive journey from Carrick Tech, a bus conductor in Dublin to being at the centre of sports psychology in New Zealand.

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