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Dublin: 8 °C Tuesday 23 October, 2018

'Through reading books on different kickers...I understood the power of the mind'

Dean Rock tells The42 about the psychology behind taking frees.

“The responsibility as England’s kicker does scare me. I worry all the time about it, but the important thing is that I know I can worry about it. It’s not a bad thing, or a detrimental thing, to worry. As long as when I go to take the kick, my routine is there, and my visualisation, I can be as fearful as I like and think: ‘I’m really, really concerned about this.’ But as long as everything is in place, the ball will go where you want it to.”
-Johnny Wilkinson, ahead of the 2003 Rugby World Cup

Dean Rock Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

DEAN ROCK CAN count four All-Ireland senior medals, five Leinster titles, an All-Ireland U21 crown, a Dublin county championship, a Leinster club title and two All-Stars among his medal collection.

Given such a long list of achievements at the age of 27, it would be easy to assume that football came easy to Rock. He’s the son of Barney, carrying a famous last name with him that supporters immediately associated with a legendary figure of Dublin football.

But having a high-profile dad brings pressure too and Rock faced heightened expectations, particularly in his younger days.

He was top-scorer on Dublin’s U21 Leinster-winning team under Jim Gavin in 2009 and made the bench for the seniors in their ‘startled-earwigs’ All-Ireland quarter-final loss to Kerry later that year. But it would be a further five years before he’d make his first competitive senior start for the county.

Rock was dropped from Pat Gilroy’s Dublin panel in 2010 and 2012. When he finally stamped down a place in the squad in 2013 under Gavin, he would spent a couple of years as an impact substitute.

When Dublin made a shock All-Ireland semi-final exit to Donegal in 2014, Rock was brought in off the bench in the 47th minute. By that stage Dublin found themselves 3-10 to 0-12 behind, and the game was as good as over.

Ryan McHugh and Dean Rock Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

He admitted fearing at that stage that he’d end up as a good club player and nothing more.

Sometime that winter, Rock came to a conclusion. In order to become a regular in Gavin’s starting 15, he needed to become a near-flawless free-taker.

So he started working on his mind. Rather than seeking the advice of a sports psychologist, Rock hit the books himself. Thirsty for knowledge, he vigorously read up on various elite place-kickers across rugby, American football and soccer.

“It was something that I sought,” he tells The42. “It was something I wanted – to add layers to my game, to make small improvements in my game.

“It was something that I read up a lot about and understood the power of the mind.

“That was one thing I noticed just through reading different books on different kickers, whether it was Johnny Wilkinson or looking at a Jonny Sexton-type figure. Training like that gears you up for big moments on big days.

“It has pretty much developed over the past three years. It probably has brought a lot more consistency to my free-taking in terms of that mental side of focusing on the process of the kick, rather than worrying about if I don’t get this or I do get this.”

Rugby Union - World Cup 2003 - Final - England v Australia Jonny Wilkinson Source: Steve Cuff

Forgetting about the outcome of the kick, and instead concentrating on getting mechanics right was one of his biggest learnings.

“Worrying about outcomes and stuff (isn’t effective),” he explains. “For me it is about a process that is consistent.”

Wilkinson, who kicked the drop goal that won the Rugby World Cup in 2003, used to say that once he stood over a kick he separated himself from the team. Then he focused on getting into his routine. It’s a style closely mirrored by the Dublin sharpshooter.

“Once the game is in open play you are part of the team,” Rock says. “Once a free is awarded and the whistle is blown you shift your mindset into a completely individual perspective.

“For me it is just a shift that I find quite natural now, it just takes a few breaths to set yourself, to go through your kicking routine, your process. The rest will look after itself.

“It is all very precise. For different areas of the pitch you align yourself a little differently. The gist of it and most of the process is the same each time. You won’t see me doing anything mad differently for any kick, it is all quite routine, well drilled down at this stage.”

Dean Rock Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

It’s no wonder Wilkinson became such a role model for Rock, considering the amount of rugby he played in school. He attended Catholic University School on Leeson Street, where there was no GAA team so he was drawn to the oval ball.

“I would have played six years in CUS in Leeson Street. We weren’t the greatest rugby school, but we qualified for the Senior Cup First Round once which was a huge achievement for the school.”

After years of hearing stories about his dad’s free-taking prowess for the Dubs, it was only natural that young Dean was drawn to taking place balls for the rugby team.

“I played at full-back or wing and did some place kicking as well. I would have grown up watching the likes of Johnny Wilkinson, he would have been a huge role model for me.

“I don’t know if it helped my Gaelic kicking, probably not to be honest. It was just something I always would have done, whether I was playing soccer or Gaelic or rugby, I always wanted to take the place kicks.

“I would have played a huge amount of rugby and I would have went to rugby training rather than Gaelic training on numerous occasions. I suppose when I came to 18 I thought which one am I better at and I was slightly better at the Gaelic even though I enjoyed rugby just as much. It was just a decision that I made that I would stick with the Gaelic. Obviously I’m glad that I have done so.”

In 2015, Rock stamped down his place as a starter and, crucially, Dublin’s free-taker in during the O’Byrne Cup. He held onto his spot throughout the entire year and posted 2-29 on their run to the All-Ireland title.

James McCarthy, Paul Flynn, Bernard Brogan and Dean Rock celebrate after the game Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Since he made his first championship start for the Dubs three years ago, the Sky Blues haven’t lost a game in Leinster or the All-Ireland series. A further two All-Ireland titles followed, while the Ballymun native finished as top-scorer with 1-58 in the 2016 championship and in second place with 3-31 in the 2017 campaign.

While Rock has become more of a threat from open play in the past couple of seasons, he’s now widely recognised as the most accurate dead-ball shooter left the game,

He became a reliable free-taker, but like any placed ball shooter there were bad days too. Like the drawn All-Ireland final last year, where he missed four of his seven kicks at goal.

Or his last-second free in the Division 1 league final in April when his free struck the post and handed Kerry the title. Or even in September’s All-Ireland final against Mayo, when Rock sent his first two frees wide.

“I now know if I miss a free kick why I missed a free kick,” he says.

“If I do score free kicks I could maybe have put that a bit closer to the posts, so you are understanding why you are scoring and not scoring which is brilliant. That has all been brought up through that mental resilience piece that I have worked on.”

Shortly after the league final defeat to Kerry, Rock watched back his missed free. He realised he’d misread the wind and, therefore, his approach was wrong. He aimed too far to the right and the breeze wasn’t strong enough to sweep the ball over the bar like he’d hoped.

rock5 Source: TG4

Knowing why he missed the kick gave him confidence. Rock didn’t dwell on the mistake, instead turning a negative into a positive.

All place kickers have short memories and Rock has trained himself to quickly move on from his kicks – whether they go over the bar or not.

“Some of the stuff that you work on from a mental perspective is whether the free kick has gone over the bar or wide, you just have to shift straight back into it. That doesn’t happen naturally, that is something you’ve got to work on.

“Often you’ve missed frees while you were younger growing up and it would be playing on your mind for five or 10 minutes. That is five or 10 minutes of a 60 minute game, then the game is gone passed you.

“So it is very important just to reframe as quickly as you can after the kick. That is one of my main strengths now. Once that kick is gone, I’m straight on to the opposition kickout. That is where I base my game.”

Dean Rock Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

All that work on his mind and learning from missed frees eventually paid off.

When a free presented itself in injury-time in the All-Ireland final, Rock was able to block out everything – including a flying GPS from Lee Keegan – and let fly at goal.

There wasn’t any doubt in his head as he went through his usual routine and took a deep intake of breath to slow his heart-rate down. The ball sailed between the posts and Rock immediately raced onto his man for David Clarke’s kick-out.

No celebration. No fuss. He expected himself to make the shot. He’d been in this situation a thousand times before.

As it happened, five weeks later Rock stood over a crucial stoppage-time free against St Vincent’s in the Dublin county final – and missed it.

rock Source: Dublin GAA

Ballymun were a goal behind at the time and his wide was a costly one. Vincent’s went on to lift the title.

He won’t lose much sleep over it. Onto the next kick.

The42 has just published its first book, Behind The Lines, a collection of some of the year’s best sports stories. Pick up your copy in Eason’s, or order it here today (€10):

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Kevin O'Brien

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