Sean O'Sullivan wins mental and physical battles in perfect storm for World Snooker Tour comeback

March 23, 2022
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Phil Haigh ✍️  

China Open 2017 - Day 1
Sean O’Sullivan is back and better than ever (Picture: Getty Images)

Sean O’Sullivan is back on tour after a three-year absence and feels ready to take on the world again after overcoming the mental and physical problems that have been holding him back on the baize.

The 27-year-old had six years on the professional circuit but fell off in 2019 and has been scrapping to return since, making his comeback through the Q Tour at the weekend.

He will be competing at the World Championship qualifiers next month and then be back on tour full-time next season, which puts an end to three years of uncertainty as he questioned whether he had a future on the table.

There was never much doubt in O’Sullivan’s mind about his talent, but there was more going on in his head that was hampering him, which he has worked hard to conquer.

‘I’m still buzzing,’ O’Sullivan told after returning to the tour. ‘It’s relief more than anything else. It’s been a long road back to be able to say I’m a pro snooker player again.

‘I did think about getting a job, but I wanted to give snooker 100 per cent and see, because I knew I still had the potential, but I needed to sort a few things out to help get results.

‘My head wasn’t right after I lost in Q School in 2019, I did wonder whether I was doing the right thing carrying on, but I decided I would give it another go.

‘I played all the amateur events, but my head wasn’t right. I finally managed to get some help and spoke to a therapist. World Snooker got me in contact with Sporting Chance and that was a massive point in my life, to get some help and put things into perspective, realising why I’m feeling certain things and being able to deal with them in the right way – turning them into a positive.

‘It was a massive turning point – speaking out, getting help and then there were signs of improvement pretty quickly. I won a couple of Pro-Ams, it was nice to be winning again and the ball got rolling from there. Building more confidence, which I struggled with for a while after I fell off the tour; questioning whether I was good enough.’

Dropping off tour the year before the pandemic hit was also horrible timing for the Storm as it restricted his chances of playing in non-professional events and ended up causing an old physical injury to flare up again.

‘I had a year after I fell off, then Covid struck which was awful because my life just stopped,’ Sean explained. Snooker is my life, it’s my job and my hobby.

‘I also couldn’t go to the gym. I got in a very bad way mentally, I wasn’t looking after myself for those first two lockdowns especially. It took its toll.

‘The other thing with lockdown is that I managed to make the problem with my back worse by not exercising or looking after myself. I’ve had issues with sciatica for years and it flared up again. The last six months it’s been really bad, I’ve been fighting that, limping around the table.

‘It’s only the last 4-6 weeks it’s been slowly improving, so it feels like everything’s gone full circle. Back improving, mental health is better and I’m back on tour so it’s a clean start for me.’

At just 27, O’Sullivan has been struggling with his back problem for a decade already and it came about in the most innocuous of ways.

‘It’s something so silly,’ he said. ’10 years ago in the players lounge at the EIS in Sheffield, sat on a sofa for 10-15 minutes, I got up and my back just went and I haven’t been able to get rid of it.

‘I’ve been seeing an osteopath and I’m managing it. It’s slowly getting better but for a while I wasn’t able to get out of bed, it was just stupid.

‘I’ve got to the stage now where it’s manageable and I can deal with the pain. I was so tired at tournaments from the pain, struggling to concentrate. I was still winning some events and I don’t know how I was doing it. Maybe the pain was a distraction from the pressure, but I’d rather not have the pain.’

APTC Haining Open 2014 - Day 1
O’Sullivan has been battling back pain for a decade (Picture: Getty Images)

Physical and mental health are often closely linked and the Londoner discovered that his anxiety was making his back problem worse, which has brought him to using mindfulness – helping both his snooker and his day-to-day life.

‘Stress and anxiety can make you feel the pain more,’ Sean explained. ‘I was seeing the therapist, but when I went to the osteopath I was put me in touch with MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction).

‘It was an eight-week course and I think that has really helped. It’s like meditation, is the easiest way to describe it. It’s been massive, I feel a lot more calm, I take the mick with my mates saying I’m a lot more zen.

‘Not just in snooker, but everyday life. I’m not as up tight, agitated and anxious about things. I was so anxious, it was horrible. It’s been about three months since I started it and the results have shown.

‘It was an every day thing for a while, it was awful. Something you couldn’t control and just not know what to do. I’d almost freeze with an anxiety attack. My breathing would get quick and shallow and I’d just panic, it’s awful.

‘Luckily I haven’t had one in a fair few months and I use that as motivation to keep on top of this mindfulness stuff.’

O’Sullivan’s mental struggles can be traced back to the tragic death of his friend Billy O’Connor, the hugely talented junior snooker player who passed away due to cancer in 2015.

The terrible news hit snooker hard and stayed with O’Sullivan who felt pressure to perform for his friend, with his anxiety dating back to the tragedy.

‘That was the start of it,’ he said. ‘I hadn’t really gone through anything before that, or as big as that, I was only 21, Billy was 18.

‘I had people around me trying to help but I didn’t really grieve for him properly and put myself under pressure more thinking I had to do it for Billy. I was putting myself under ridiculous pressure at tournaments and it was making me play worse.

‘It took a few years to realise, with the help of therapists, that I actually need to do it for myself, and if I do that then I’ll be doing it for Billy too. Better late than never to learn that, but I think that was the start of it spiralling out of control. I’d never really experienced anxiety before that.’

China Open 2017 - Day 1
O’Sullivan was understandably hit hard by the death of his childhood friend (Picture: Getty Images)

It is the fond memories of childhood with Billy that is partly spurring Sean on to take up a coaching career as well as pursuing his goals on the main tour.

The pair played together as kids in Dagenham and O’Sullivan wants to provide those opportunities to children growing up now.

‘Before lockdown I was doing some coaching as well up at Keith Davis’ in Becontree,’ said the Storm. ‘I want to do some kind of junior thing there on a weekend, because that’s what I grew up with. That’s how I met Billy at the Cue Ball in Dagenham, getting lessons off Del Smith.

‘At school during the week it’s what I’d be looking forward to on a Sunday, playing snooker with other kids. So I’d like to give that back to kids, if they were interested in playing snooker.’

Anyone following snooker on social media will have seen the immense amount of well-wishers for O’Sullivan since winning back his tour card as he is a very popular figure in the game.

‘I don’t know why that is,’ he said of his popularity. ‘It obviously must be a good thing, I like to get on with as many people as I can and just have a laugh with people off the table, so maybe that’s it.  

‘My phone’s been going mental, some really nice messages. It’s heart-warming to see that people are pleased for you.’

While he’s loving the kind words, he recognises that when he starts back on tour then it is business time and he will be treating the job as seriously as possible.

On one thing he’ll change this time round as a pro, Sean said: ‘I think I’ll keep myself to myself a bit more on tour. I’m good friends with a lot of people, but I think I might have to be a bit more selfish.

‘I’ll concentrate a bit more on winning matches and not being pally with everyone. You’re there to do a job, not on holiday. Not that I didn’t take it seriously before, but I’ll focus on having the mentality that I’m there to do a job.

‘I like being on social media, but I think I’ll cut down on that because it’s too much of a distraction. There’s a time for it and I need to be a bit smarter with that.

‘When I was younger on the tour I was too worried about being everyone’s mate and entertaining people. I like my own company, I’m not worried about keeping myself to myself. I just need to keep that focussed mentality.’

O’Sullivan’s first stint on tour featured a run to the last 16 of the Scottish Open and a memorable UK Championship win over Anthony Hamilton from 4-0 down. He is aiming for much more than that this time and is appreciative of having a second crack at the big time.

‘I did enjoy being on tour, I loved it, but I don’t think I appreciated it enough,’ said Sean. ‘I had six years on the tour, now three years off and I do really appreciate it and I’ve got to make the most of it.

‘You don’t know how many more chances you’re going to get so I’m going to give it my all and see what happens.

‘Everything’s come full circle and now is my chance to kick on. Hopefully things work out.’

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