FEATURE: A winning mindset

By Shaun Casey

AN unexpected phone call from Glen manager Malachy O’Rourke was just the start of a rollercoaster ride for Gareth Fox. In the past two seasons, he helped the Watty Graham’s men collect back-to-back Ulster titles along with that much sought after All-Ireland crown.

Fox, a mental skills and culture coach from Armagh, also worked with Cushendall hurlers last season as they ended five long years in Dunloy’s shadow to reclaim the Antrim title along with provincial silverware.

The Maghery native was working with a local team, Wolfe Tones, when Glen first reached out. And it all snowballed from there. “I didn’t really know much about Glen or Derry football,” said Fox on his first involvement with the now All-Ireland champions.

“I had previously worked with a couple of the players individually and that was my first year working with a team. I was sitting on the bus driving to Croke Park pinching myself, what am I doing here?

“So, I was basically learning on the job and learning from great people who have been involved for a long time. With Cushendall, I met Neil McManus for a coffee and we talked about performance in sport.

“I heard Neil talking at an event and I wanted to meet him to learn from him and from that I joined in with Cushendall. I was one night a week at each.

“There is an awful lot of travelling involved in it, but I try to be available and let players see that I actually care about them because if you’re not there, you’re ticking a box but you’re not actually showing that you’re interested.

“I go up and the majority of the time I’m not doing anything but it’s important to be there. All my work is done over Zoom calls and coffees in behind the scenes.”

Helping to create and develop cultures inside squads is something that Fox is passionate about but when he entered the changing rooms of both Glen and Cushendall, he soon realised they didn’t need much work.

“I have two key areas. One of them is mental skills, so providing the players with the mental skills to perform under pressure. Then, depending on the team that you’re working with, there’s a place for you to help enhance the culture of the group.

“If you’re looking at the group and how well the group gel, there might be space for you to do something within that group but not every group needs that. There are certain groups that you go into where that already exists.

“There are some groups where things are a bit disjointed and players are going in different directions, so how do we bring that back in together again? That’s why it’s difficult to call yourself a culture coach when there’s certain groups that you don’t need to add to it.

“People think it’s this thing that exists that you step into but it’s not,” explained Fox. “Culture is just a bunch of actions that happen all the time. You have good actions that add to the group, and you can have actions that take away from the group.

“A bad culture is when all the actions take away from the group. It’s not always positivity as such; a positive group isn’t always a successful group. When you step in you see that the group are doing things that adds to everyone playing well.

“I remember reading things about culture in books and going to those teams. the things I was reading, I was seeing, but they weren’t enforced, they were just happening naturally between the players.

“ Ownership is a huge word with successful teams and the best teams own their own mistakes and they don’t look for blame anywhere else, they don’t push blame, they put their hand up.

“The more you can highlight the things that you’re not doing right the faster you learn as a group and that only happens when players take responsibility for their mistakes. If I push a mistake onto you and you don’t own it, then we’re not going to learn from that mistake.

“In fact, you’re going to hide mistakes because you don’t want to be called out on them. One of the key things in a good culture is not hiding from mistakes, putting your hand up and accepting what you’ve done wrong.”

From a young age, Fox feared playing sport. Nerves and sickness were usually hand in hand before a game and as a youngster, Fox played both soccer and Gaelic but soon gave it up through lack of enjoyment.

“I try to do the role that I would have needed myself when I was younger. I played sport underage, soccer and Gaelic, but I was petrified of playing, I would have been sick with anxiety before every game, performance nerves and things like that.

“By the time I was 18 I stopped playing because I couldn’t deal with it anymore. I was always sick and always nervous and never wanted to play. Then I gave up sport and moved away for 10 or 12 years and didn’t even think about sport.

“I played a bit of pub football over in France and I enjoyed it so then it was just through reading and podcasts that I started to notice them describing me when I was younger. I began to understand how that worked.

“I just followed up that interest and decided I’d love to do that; I’d love to provide that role that I would have needed. It potentially wouldn’t have made me any better, but it might have made me enjoy sport more than I did.

“I did my own studying. I was living in Germany and I got in contact with some players I knew and talked through things and maybe learnt from their experiences or gave them little tips and tools that I was reading about.

“That grew from word of mouth between players. I then went and studied a Masters in Performance Psychology and then through some of the players that I’d worked with individually, I got asked to join teams.”

O’Rourke has been a positive influence on Fox and the former Fermanagh and Monaghan manager is no slouch when it comes to the mental side of the game.

“He must have done a serious amount of research. Everything I was learning, I was going up to Glen and seeing Malachy doing it. He has a keen understanding of what brings the best out of players.

“But like he said himself, you need great players. It’s like that phrase, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. All great players drink and that’s not specifically down to management, that’s down to them. A manager is vital, but the players are the important part.”

One of the biggest challenges for Glen this season was their All-Ireland semi-final against Kilmacud Crokes, the team that dashed their All-Ireland title dreams the year previous. Played in the thick fog hovering above Páirc Esler, the Derry men mounted that obstacle.

While the rest of the country preached revenge and justice, Glen went about their business as usual and the wounds that had been opened up at Croke Park in January 2023 were healed long before the two teams locked horns once again.

“The mindset for that game started after the final the previous year. It was stripped apart, and we discovered that Kilmacud were better than Glen, and for the group, that ends the dialogue of that game.

“It wasn’t spoken about before the semi-final. It wasn’t a wrong that needed to be righted or anything. It might have been something that we wanted to right in terms of performance: let’s get a better performance than they do and if that’s enough then we’ll win the game.

“My own personal role for that was, when the lads would jump on a Zoom call, how can we get your performance right for that game? We know we’re going to be under pressure, a huge crowd, we know that there’s a buzz around it, but how can we step out of that?

“What do I need to do in this game to win? It’s not about getting back at Kilmacud and it never was that, which was really refreshing, because I didn’t want to be a part of a revenge story.

“To be around a squad that wasn’t talking like that was brilliant but that’s what makes a successful team.

“They control what they can control, they disassociated from outside noise, and they just want to be at their best.”

It’s been a couple of years to remember for Fox, but he’s continuing to learn and bringing his experience and expertise to different groups and ages to grow his own knowledge for the future.

“This year I wanted to get even more experience in domains that I don’t work in.

“That looks like Armagh ladies and Antrim u-20 hurlers because I think it’s really important to have an understanding of underage,” added Fox.

“They’re players just coming out of minors and helping to bring self-awareness into a player so that when they make that transition into senior then it’s more seamless, so I wanted to see how younger players function.

“I wanted to see how ladies function as well. I wanted to see if there’s anything you could learn from that group or just see if there’s transferable skills, because I want to be as useful as I can when players want to make use of me.

“Therefore, you have to throw yourself into different environments. I want to see what I can learn, what patterns exist or what’s different and then accumulate all that knowledge and put it all into one place.”

Pull quote

“Culture is just a bunch of actions that happen all the time. You have good actions that add to the group, and you can have actions that take away from the group.”

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