Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 December 2014

Northern Ireland must get minds right

Chris Brunt shows his frustration after Northern Ireland's scoreless draw in Cyprus
Chris Brunt shows his frustration after Northern Ireland's scoreless draw in Cyprus

Top sports psychologist Mark Elliott has urged Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill to take up his offer to help the players become mentally stronger before the decline in the national team's fortunes becomes even worse.

On Wednesday night Northern Ireland produced another woeful performance against supposedly inferior opposition and were fortunate to escape with a 0-0 draw from a friendly in Cyprus.

It continued a desperate recent run which has seen the side win only three games out of 34 from 2010 onwards and one in 16 under O'Neill.

Earlier this week it was revealed that Roy Hodgson plans to use psychiatrist Dr Steve Peters to help England prepare for the World Cup.

Dr Elliott, who has previously enjoyed success with the Ulster Rugby team, several Ulster GAA counties and the Belfast Giants, suggests if it is good enough for England and other big nations, it should be good enough for Northern Ireland.

He even predicts that if given the opportunity to work with the squad in the months ahead that they could qualify for the 2016 European Championship finals.

Twenty months ago O'Neill spoke to Elliott about coming on board to get into the minds of his squad, but nothing materialised and this despite the manager saying last year that his players had a 'mental block' about winning matches.

The time has come to talk again to solve the mystery that is the Northern Ireland team.

In the 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign they produced dynamic displays to defeat Russia at Windsor Park and draw in Portugal yet on the flip side embarrassingly drew at home and lost away to both Luxembourg and Azerbaijan.

It was hoped Northern Ireland could make a winning start to 2014 in Cyprus but the side put in an abject effort and had Gareth McAuley red carded, following in the footsteps of Chris Brunt, Kyle Lafferty and Jonny Evans, who received their marching orders in the World Cup games.

Next up for Northern Ireland is a trip to South America for friendlies against Uruguay in May and Chile in June. The Euro qualifiers start in September in Hungary and Elliott believes that the squad must learn mental skills to give themselves a chance of making an impact in that campaign.

He says: "To me it is clear cut, the team needs sports psychology. They raise their game for the big teams and do well against the likes of Russia and Portugal because they are underdogs and the pressure is off and it creates an artificial strong mental game. We don't know how we do it so we can't create it when we are playing countries we should be able to beat. You don't lose to Luxembourg and Azerbaijan and not beat Cyprus yet deliver a big performance against Russia without it being a mental issue."

When the Euro 2016 draw was made, placing Northern Ireland in the same group as Greece, Hungary, Romania, Finland and the Faroe Islands, there was much optimism among fans feeling that, without any of the major nations to play, there was a genuine chance of at least finishing third and earning a play-off.

Elliott, though, sees it differently.

"People are talking about a good draw but the way the players are at the moment it is not because there are no big nations and no glamour ties which the players can get up for," he says.

"Teams like Romania, Hungary and Finland, in our current state, will beat us because there will be a weight of expectation on our players to get results and they can't cope with that. I'd think the teams in our group will use sports psychology and we must too. If it is good enough for England and other big nations, it should be good enough for us.

"I want to help Michael and the team. I've no doubt that I could help them qualify for the Euro 2016 finals and that's not because I'm God's gift, it's because they are missing a part of vital training that I could deliver.

"When they go to South America in May that would be a perfect time to bring a psychologist with them to get the players ready for the Hungary game so they'd be in a much better position than they were against Cyprus."

For years across the world mind gurus have assisted sporting individuals and teams. This week England finally joined in appointing Dr Peters, who Liverpool manager and Carnlough man Brendan Rodgers swears by. Peters has helped Liverpool players this season and is widely acknowledged for playing an inspirational role in the success of Team GB cyclists at the Olympics and lifting snooker world champion Ronnie O'Sullivan to new heights.

Elliott admires Peters and is keen to see the Irish FA enter the 21st century sporting world.

"At what point will the Northern Ireland set-up wake up to modern times?" he asks.

"The best teams in the world cover every aspect of the human body in preparation for performance. It's not rocket science. A fitness coach will get the team fit, a mental fitness coach will get the team mentally fit," adds the Dromore man who has 20 years experience in mental training expertise and says he would work with the Northern Ireland squad for a 'pittance'.

"I would teach the players specific skills and prepare them for games in a professional manner. Our players are good at getting up for the big glossy games but can't do it for Cyprus or Luxembourg or they put far too much pressure on themselves because there is an expectation that they should beat the smaller teams and trying too hard becomes an impediment to smooth performance.

"What they need is to become stronger mentally.

"What I'd teach them is to get into a state of mind where they are ready to face ANY team."

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