On a cold, wet and miserable Monday morning a debate began over morning coffee as to whether inter-county teams need a Performance Psychologist?
This two part blog will explore the responses of those present, and indeed will highlight the divide in opinions, which I believe mirror those of people the length and breath of the country!
Do Inter County teams need a sports performance psychologist? Is it all a case of the emperor’s new clothes? I am not sure but it surely cannot be one size fits all.
The latest craze to sweep GAA land is the rush to appoint so called “performance psychologists”. As is always the case with the GAA, teams will ape the previous year’s winning team.
First and foremost, I wholly subscribe to the theory that if something gives your team a 1% advantage then you should look to do it. I believe 110% that a group of players need to visualise success, to buy into a dream but to most of all believe they can achieve set targets. Billy Walsh speaks of performance but also honesty and professionalism. And continuously setting new targets and reassessing. He is right.
The latest rush to appoint well paid performances coaches, while probably the right thing to do in most situations, seems to overlook a number of crucial factors.
First of all, success, and the formula for success, is different from team to team, county to county and what works in Kerry for example, might not work for Carlow. One size does not fit all.
The Donegal scenario was totally unique, as is every scenario. Crucially, Donegal had talent but they also had psychological baggage and a history of losing and tradition of messing. Teams like Cork, Dublin and Kerry do not have the same issues but may have issues around discipline, hunger or management of expectations. So, one size does not fit all. Any assistance with mental preparation must take into account different personalities, requirements and circumstances. The psychologist must understand the culture of those he is dealing with. Go ahead and get the performance coach, but make sure he/she knows the very particular needs of those he is dealing with.
Secondly, a good manager should be a good man manager and therefore a motivator and mind reader. The ultimate performance coach needs to be the boss. Look at all the great leaders in sport.
Bill Shankly, Sir Alex, Micko Dwyer, Kevin Heffernan and Jock Stein. One thing they all have in common is the uncanny ability to man manage, motivate and inspire. This isn’t something that can be learned in University but through life experiences, often handed down by inspirational parents and through learning about people. People pinpoint examples of where managers dropped players at the last minute or plucked someone from obscurity but these famous decisions were not spur of the moment but based on human instinct and reading people. A manager must be the ultimate psychologist and motivator.
Mick O’Dwyer isn’t the world’s greatest trainer or tactician by all accounts but he can get players to stand two inches taller and can motivate with a nod and a wink. This is pure psychology.
Sir Alex can motivate players week in, week out. Players on €80,000 a week who want for nothing have an insatiable hunger. He knows who to love and knows who to kick in the arse. Brian Cody is another example. His players fear him but they love him. He makes them run through walls despite pocket full of medals and personal accolades. How does he do it? He innovates, inspires and sets new challenges. He is also ruthless. Does sports psychology have a role here? It does, but it comes from the boss.
Lastly, sporting success is built of several foundations and performance psychology, while important, is only one part of this mix. Fitness, talent, tactics and of course mental attitude are crucial. All are linked. One critical ingredient we all forget is luck, every successful team needs luck.
The ultimate test of the Jim McGuinness psychological approach is can he turn Donegal into a Kerry or Cork or Tyrone that can compete at a high level for years. Getting a team motivated and tuned in and making them successful and competitive is one thing. Keeping a team there like the All-Blacks or Leinster Rugby or Kilkenny is another. Ultimately, it is down to the strength of character of the players.
Sinead Goldrick; Dublin Ladies GAA and All-Star 2012
Olympic gold medalists in all disciplines work with performance psychologists, similarly the practice has been adopted with the GAA and, though not always publicised, a number of successful county teams use sports psychologists. However there is still huge speculation surrounding the matter, some believe that sport psychology relates to psychopaths or head cases and others feel that it gives a team an extra edge and is definitely needed in the modern day of GAA.
So the question is, do inter-county teams need a sport psychologist?
Considering the fact that All- Ireland Champions Donegal’s manager, Jim Mc Guinness has a sports psychology qualification. The Dublin Senior Footballers, All-Ireland Champions in 2012, have just hired former boxer Bernard Dunne as a performance and lifestyle coach. Inter-county teams all over Ireland will be considering hiring a sports psychologist.
I have been a member of the Dublin Senior Ladies team for the past four years and I have been exposed to numerous sports psychologist talks. At the start I felt the team had just wasted an evening listening to a load of waffle and it would have been more beneficial to do a training session. But I suppose after a year of attending these meetings I started opening my ears and now firmly believe that performance psychology plays a role in the success of a team.
Performance psychologist is integral in an inter-county team because it enables players and the team to establish their goals for the year. All inter-county players are considered to be top class athletes, but what distinguishes the good from the best? Each player is exposed to the same tools, training, nutrition talks etc but it is a matter of how these athletes apply the tools and a sports physiologist can guide players to get the best out of their performance.
I know inter-county players need to show no fear, but during championship matches in Croke Park, they have the opportunity for 80,000 people to watch them perform so I think that a performance psychologist is necessary in order to focus players on doing what they do best, that is to play.
This has been and continues to be a divisive question in GAA circles! The notion that a sports psychologist could be the difference between winning and losing a ball, a goal, a game is the topic of much discussion and cause of much debate across the divide.
There are those who will argue that sports psychology is a load of nonsense; another money making racket designed to fill the pockets of chancers and con men. They believe that desire and determination come from the heart, backed up by tradition and a fierce will to win! They point to the likes of Roy Keane; who is arguably the most driven sportsman this country has ever produced; did he need a psychologist to tell him; a small boy from Mayfield, he was good enough?
I myself come from this school of thought. I have spent countless hours in dressing rooms (both county and club), listening to sports psychologists (some of whom have never played GAA) asking the same questions year in, year out. What do you want to achieve as an individual this year? What do you want to achieve as a team? How will you achieve this? Each time I would leave the meeting bleary eyed, with my head full of jargon and clichéd answers from players who thought that if they told the nice sports psychologist what they thought he wanted to hear, they might just get home before midnight!
For me the game is simple. If your team is good enough to win and play with heart, desire, and a will to win then victory is there for the taking. I don’t believe anyone, no matter how inspirational they are, can make you; the individual, want to win. They can motivate you for sure but that refusal to finish second best must come from within, it must be a natural desire and self manufactured motivation.
But what do I know? I have no degree, or science to back up my sentiments. I don’t have any All-Ireland medals or All Stars but what I do have is a desire to win every game I play. I don’t need a psychologist to tell me that!
So what are your thoughts? Do inter-county teams need performance psychologists?
In part two we will present the opinions of:
Keli Slattery; Senior Account Manager at Pembroke and MSc inPerformance Psychology
Marcu Ó’Buachalla; Senior Account Manager at Pembroke and Aspiring Manager
Colly Woods; Intern at Pembroke and Dublin Minor Football Panellist