Extra Time

Fergus Connolly coaching – Are winners wired different?

Darren Hughes has enjoyed success with both his club Scotstown and with Monaghan

Darren Hughes has enjoyed success with both his club Scotstown and with Monaghan

Are winners just wired different? The short answer is no!

Since I started playing sport I have always asked the question – what makes great players. Do they have a genetic gift? Have they a certain quality? Is it the training they do? Is there a supplement or food they take? As time has evolved and I have worked with many of the greatest players in every major field sport in the world, the answer becomes a little clearer.

I’ve had the fortune to work with Super Bowl winners, Pro Bowlers, Premier League winners, international rugby players, champion boxers and winners in multiple codes. Success leaves clues.

There are no secrets to success. Or if there is a secret, it is doing the basic’s so well that no one can stop you. Like I like to tell young players “Success leaves clues” you have to look for them. Don’t ignore them. In the confusion of stories and myths around athletes here’s some basic truths.

Here are 6 things I know about what makes the best athletes

They are normal

Not one of the best I’ve ever met, worked with or spoken with have ever admitted to having a natural gift or advantage. Not one. In fact I can name players now who shouldn’t have  made it. I know one of the finest rugby players in the world who physically had no right to ever play the game. He was too skinny, struggled to keep weight on and was undersized for his position. Many of the most elite special operators in the world could pass you on the street and you’d never notice them. They could simply appear to be normal workmen. Perhaps a little leaner than average, and more alert but that’s about all. Colin Kaepernick is a player whose start in life would have given him every excuse not to be even an athlete, not to mention one of the youngest NFL quarterbacks to lead his team to the Super Bowl.
The best players are not born any different than you or I. What makes them different is the environment, decisions and their attitude. The environment allows them either practice the game more, spend more time playing the game or listening to people speak about it. This is why some areas of the country are hotspots for talented players, some parts of the world for rugby players or soccer players.

They have no genetic advantage

The role of genetics is overplayed in sport. What people don’t realize is that epigenetics are far more important than genetics. Epigenetics is the study of the effects of environment on genes. What science has recently taught us is that the environment in which we develop can affect us more than the actual genetics we are born with. Genetics do not mean a predetermined route is an automatic given for you. Great players are products of this. In fact I’ve refused to genetically test elite players because it’s of limited value at the elite end. If I am working with an elite player, he has made it regardless at this stage, his genetic profile isn’t going to tell me much of actual benefit.
That’s not to say genetics are not a factor, but they are not the limiting factor. The best players develop themselves and compensate for limited ability in other areas. Players with poor speed like Tom Brady, can compensate with great game intelligence and can even win Super Bowls. When I was working at Wales, James Hook did not have the  best sprinting speed, but his game speed was beyond comparison because he could read the game better than everyone else. Players who may not be the best in regards to everyday intelligences can demonstrate incredible game intelligence.

They work hard

The best players love the game. Steven Gerrard simply loves soccer and loves Liverpool too. Most people don’t know Craig Bellamy, or know that he loves the game so much, that when he had weekends off as a young apprentice he would travel on his own money to watch Ajax just train. Michael Jordan, our new kit partner here at University of Michigan explained how he had a ‘love of the game’ clause in all his contracts that meant he legally could play the game of basketball, the game he loved, any time, any where with anybody. Ronan O’Gara is one of the most impressive winners I’ve ever met in any code. He absolutely loves rugby. Frank Gore is a legendary running back, now at the Indianapolis Colts who played 10 years at the San Francisco 49ers. His love and passion for the game of football is unmatched. Because of this love, training for and preparing for the game is easy for these players. They don’t see what they do as difficult, they accept it and this allows them find a routine. It also means they learn in a more relaxed way. They are not stressed. They are in a place they love. Even Jordan would explain that on the court he felt most at ease.

They have balance

There are players who are good, but to be truly great you must have a sustained career. Those who manage to have that, have one thing in common, they have balance in their life.
Often it may not appear like it, but the best have other things in their life that allow them unwind. The complete picture of their life has balance. Some fly planes, some paint, some read, some cook, some simply choose to spend time with their kids. But they all have a balance. A few years ago I tested two well-known rugby players to look at stress levels. One was a married player who was close to 100 caps for his country. The other was a young student at the time, but an up-and-coming player who now is one of the best in the world in his position. One day, the married player was heading home to a birthday party for his daughter and the other younger player was heading home to relax in his apartment alone. The results of the study were the opposite of what I expected. The married man’s evening was a picture of fun and happiness, with a busy party, but also a long walk with the family after releasing all kinds of relaxing hormones and chemicals. The younger player’s record showed stress from phone calls, friends calling round late and study. The best players find outlets that relax them, and doing nothing is always relaxing.

They can suffer

The one thing that separates the greatest from the rest is the ability to suffer and know when to do so. Everyone works hard, but the best players suffer and can suffer more than anyone else. But one difference is they aren’t stupid. The best, whether it’s Tiger Woods work ethic,  Tie Domi’s off season workouts, O’Gara’s kicking routine, Jerry Rice running his hill, Michael Jordan’s breakfast club, they all can suffer, and go to a place most normal people don’t want to. That’s the difference. But it’s selective. They don’t do it at the expense of performance. They know that they have to train hard, but play harder. Otherwise they just end up training like Tarzan and playing  like Jane.

A Brutal Honesty

Last but not least they have honesty. In my experience the good ones know what to work on but the great ones have an absolute brutal honesty that allows them focus on the things that matter. We only have limited time to train, by being honest with themselves they see and admit what their areas of limit are and they they go work on them. They don’t fool themselves and ignore a weakness. That honesty is the most important. Now that doesn’t mean they will admit it, in fact publicly they will do the opposite. But in private they will critically assess every single aspect of their performance and improve what needs to be. Occasionally they will use friends and coaches, but often they will simply focus on the improvement areas themselves.

Remember, success leaves clues. Are you looking at the right clues?

This column was published in the April 21 issue of Gaelic Life

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