IT’S the end of 2020, a year that will not soon be forgotten, and I have spent its last days in front of the television, watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy, such are the restrictions of Lockdown 3.0.
Needless to say, I am now well versed in the language of impending doom and glimmering hope, of unspeakable malice and the lightness of love. And I see all as simply the battle between good and evil.
As I sat down to write my final 2020 contribution to Gaelic Life, I realised that within the world of GAA, there, too, is a battle between good and evil, and that somehow it has crept up upon me, in intentional exile from the GAA, and has forced me to play a role.
On the one hand, we have The Fellowship of the Ring in Michael Murphy, Paul Galvin and a host of inter-county players who have spoken openly about the benefits of mental training. On the other, Sauron, Joe Brolly, who believes everything outside the realm of tangible and measurable is bullshit. What they are contesting is ‘performance’ – Middle Earth.
I have been working as a therapist for a few years now, and have a large elite athlete client base. From what I have seen, the biggest inhibitor of positive performance is stress, the main culprit of stress production are thoughts, and not just those regarding our chosen sport; thoughts about our relationships, our work, our children, our boss, our bills, produce stress chemicals which inhibit our performance.
Managing our thoughts manages our stress levels, which puts us in the best possible position to play well – but it doesn’t guarantee playing well. I’m not a sports psychologist, and to be honest, I don’t really know what one does -but I know positive results when I see them, and there are plenty to be seen in all sports.
Ask any high performing athlete what are the non-negotiables when it comes to high performance and they’ll tell you that mental preparation is key.
In a recent interview for the Sunday Times, arguably Donegal’s greatest ever player, Michael Murphy, spoke candidly about the importance of psychology in sport, and how a holistic approach creates “a better player.”
Turning down physical preparation for a more centred and fun approach creates a better environment to perform. Murphy even touched on something that I have been speaking about for a long time; when stress is increased, because the player can’t control their thoughts about the game, then the chances of injury increase too. Your thoughts cause injury.
This new holistic form of thinking and preparation is the ‘good’ in the world of GAA, and psychology is at its core.
The benefits are two-fold, you create a better individual within their family circle and community life, and you also create better results on the playing field. The bad however, in the world of GAA, are those who would deny its importance, and Joe Brolly has, inevitably, made himself the spearhead of the nay-sayers.
I first came into contact with Joe’s negative opinions around sports psychology a few months ago, when he wrote his Curing Covid article for Gaelic Life. Before that, I wasn’t aware of his opinion, as I had been very far away from anything GAA since around 2009. I moved to France to pursue a career in literature, and had given up interest in my boyhood sport, citing that some of its supporters were a bundle of ‘narrow-minded pricks on ego trips’ that I wanted nothing more to do with.
So Joe’s article (Why I can’t lose with a career in the bullshit industry) in the Independent in November 2016, passed me by. It is only now, some four years later, that I set eyes upon it. It did little to soften the opinion I had in ’09.
Brolly reminds me of certain retired players from my village – he has a harsh, sharp tongue, and it passes for the truth, and for some it creates idolatry.
Idolatry being the intended effect when you are no longer assured of the ground you stand on, when everything you have previously stood for is being turned upside down.
When the masses no longer listen. Brolly, paraphrasing from George Orwell’s essay ‘Politics and the English Language’, states that a new disingenuous language of mumbo-jumbo was being invented (by sports psychologists) and that it would swamp the earth with its slurry, unless it was stamped out. Just because he says it with passion and wit, doesn’t mean it’s true.
Don’t get me wrong, I too don’t believe that brushing my teeth with my left hand will make me better with my left foot, and I do think that there are some people who are out of their depth and whose inadequate abilities harm the reputation of the field in general, but sport is not only a physical thing, and performance is not only improved by physical training. For Brolly to deny, even mock the importance of psychology in sport, and to compare those working within the GAA frame as charlatans is simply childish.
Coherence will always win over incoherence, good will always trump evil, the reign of Sauron was ended by a furry-foot hobbit. And Brolly’s opinions will eventually be destroyed in the fiery pit from whence they came and the importance of psychology, therapy and mental coaching will prevail.
P.S Legolas embraced Gimli during film two, and they ended up winning the battle for middle Earth, so hugging sessions between the Sleacht Néill lads and the Dungiven boys might just be the answer.