Belfast Telegraph

How mind games can win games...

By Declan Bogue

Read the following quote very carefully. Twice.

"I was over-thinking what other people were thinking about my performance. So I wasn't able to live in the moment. I wasn't able to live connected in a way I was during free surfing. It's a common experience for most athletes at some point in their careers: how much am I going to attend to this moment and how much am I attending to what other people are thinking about me at this moment?"

It was spotted in a weekend piece, quoting Dr Michael Gervais of California, a high school free surfer who suffered with performance anxiety that prevented him reaching his potential.

In lay-mans terms, he thought too much about what others thought of him, rather than being alive to the moment.

How many times has that same thought gripped you in sport? In life even?

It's a fair assumption to make that, by virtue that you are reading the sports pages, you harboured some sporting ambitions in your youth.

Childhood dreams can easily give way to the reality of a lack of dedication, an unwillingness to dedicate yourself to the sport of your choice, but very few of us truly ever make the very best of what we might have been.

This week, a former clubmate and I were discussing the under-explained and under-documented world that mental factors play in sport.

Here are some extracts from our emails:

"A lot of the time out there on the field, all I could think of was not messing up. And then if I did, it could take me a long time to get back to where I should have been in my head.

"There were times I was playing and someone might get frustrated with me and say something. I took it so personal that I would think that player did not like me as a person. Crazy.

'To further complicate the issue. If I was playing fairly well and felt I was contributing to the team, I would find myself suddenly becoming cross with team-mates.

"If we were struggling and a cub misplaced a pass, I might be fine with it once or twice, but perversely the better I played the quicker it would be for me to turn on my team-mate."

The mind is a minefield.

My clubmate was lavishly talented, with an ability to score sideline kicks off either side that he retains to this day. In his youth, he was an enigma to many admirers.

Over a decade ago, one rival club manager even questioned why he was not a county regular. He responded with a glib remark about not being quick enough.

The manager would tell him that he needed a psychologist to gain some belief.

A mixture of shyness and reticence made him reluctant to pursue that course.

At the elite level of sport, the value of sports psychology is understood and appreciated. Some, but not most, inter-county teams appreciate its worth. A scattering of enlightened coaches on the club circuit 'get it'.

It's not for everyone though. For example, when Eamonn Coleman brought in Australian sports psychologist Craig Mahoney in 1993, Joe Brolly told Brian McGilligan that Mahoney would be asking about his bedroom habits, leading to McGilligan keeping him at a distance.

Kerry's Darragh ÓSé felt that Declan Coyle - the sports psychologist Jack O'Connor brought in - could do nothing to him. Yet last week we read of how Enda McNulty probably saved Paul Galvin's career and catapulted him to the heights of Player of the Year, a year on from slapping the notebook out of Paddy Russell's hands.

Galvin had to re-wire himself from the teenager that would spring out of his seat in a Cork pub to do 100 push ups and sit ups in the toilet, to the man that was able to compartmentalise his life.

One of the most enlightening lines I have read in a couple of years came this summer from Jim McGuinness. He said that if anyone would speak out of frustration to a team mate, the entire Donegal squad would go down to the ground and do 100 push ups together, before chanting together, "We don't disrespect."

McGuinness described it: "That simple strategy has created an environment where we never have a situation that someone's driving home thinking angrily of a colleague. Stuff like that festers, it rolls over into the sub-conscience and it will come out eventually. We don't have that."

If you take out the fear of failure, what are you left with? There is no easy answer. But there is no fear either. The possibilities could be endless.

Belfast Telegraph

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