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How do Dublin deal with the psychological pressure that comes with a five-in-a-row bid?

Former Kerry forward Mikey Sheehy recalled feeling “drained” just 10 minutes into the 1982 All-Ireland final.

IT’S HARD TO believe that a man who had the presence of mind and calmness to chip Paddy Cullen with a close-range free in the 1978 All-Ireland final would report feeling drained 10 minutes into the same game four years later. 

As Mikey Sheehy will attest to, strange things can happen to players and teams who stand on the cusp of the five-in-a-row.

michael-sheehy-kerry-2391984 Kerry legend Mikey Sheehy. Source: © Billy Stickland/INPHO

In the six All-Ireland finals he played before 1982, Mikey Sheehy ran up a personal tally of 4-23. He finished as top-scorer for Mick O’Dwyer’s side in five of those games. In the only final he wasn’t Kerry’s highest scorer he still managed to grab 1-4, but was bested by Eoin ‘Bomber’ Liston’s tally of 3-2.

During the four titles in succession Kerry strung together, Sheehy’s final tallies were 1-4 (’78 vs Dublin), 2-6 (’79 vs Dublin), 1-6 (’80 vs Roscommon) and 0-5 (’81 vs Offaly).

And he only found himself on the losing team on one occasion before ’82 – his first final in ’75. Even with five Celtic Crosses in his back pocket, a veteran forward like Sheehy was affected by all the hype surrounding Kerry’s bid for history.

Against the Faithful in ’82, he scored just three points – his joint-lowest tally in a decider – and saw a crucial penalty saved by Martin Furlong. 

“It does get into your psyche,” he admitted earlier this year. “I would probably said that before that (’82 final) – I missed a penalty at a crucial point in the game – I would have said that day that I just didn’t feel right myself.

“And I kind of felt it was tension thing that I felt drained. I felt after about 10 minutes in the game, ‘Jesus Christ, have I done any training for this game?’

“I was stuck, stuck to the floor, it was just a tension, drained. It was a mental thing. Different players. I think the players nowadays are totally differently tuned to the way we were.”

the-kerry-team-1982 The Kerry team ahead of the 1982 final. Source: INPHO

The manner by which the Kerry players dropped deep to protect their lead in the closing stages of that final against Offaly was striking. It was probably done subconsciously but the space Kerry gave out the field to Liam Connor allowed him to deliver in the perfect ball to Seamus Darby for the most famous goal in GAA history.

Interestingly, Dublin coach Declan Darcy admitted that his side looked a little nervy in the first period of the semi-final against Mayo.

“I think there were a lot of nerves in our group for some reason,” he said. “They were a bit tentative. 

“I wouldn’t say tentative, but you just don’t know how fellas are going to respond to a game. In every situation, sometimes if a goal happens early in a game it settles lads down really quickly. 

“But if things aren’t going well and they miss (chances) then that apprehension heightens by what they’re doing on the pitch. It can easily be something that can settle them down in the game.

“And if it doesn’t happen early enough then you can have a little sense of, yeah, they’re finding it hard to figure things out. 

“I thought there was a little bit of that, but I think they were over-thinking it, to be honest.”

So how do the Dublin players avoid finding themselves in a situation like Sheehy’s, where their energy levels are affected by the pressure in the build-up?

the-dublin-team The Dublin team ahead of the 2018 All-Ireland final. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“You’ve got to look at everything, so how was he eating, how was he sleeping, what’s he thinking?” performance psychologist Gerry Hussey told The42.

“So it’s easy to say ‘my legs were heavy’ but there’s always loads of different reasons why your legs are heavy. From a psychological point of view what happens is we exert so much energy before the game that by the time we hit the game we’re almost hitting with 40% of a tank of diesel. 

“Our fuel tank has been emptied and it’s that fight or flight stress response. It’s very hard to want to go into battle if your subconscious mind has perceived it as a threat.

“Particularly if it’s perceived as a threat that it’s terrified of losing, it’s very hard to be full of energy and full of passion about that. 

“Psychologically, the power of the mind is incredible and it changes the physiology of the body all the time. A very simple way of looking at it is, if we have a sad thought we’ll start to cry.

“If we have an embarrassing thought we’ll go red, so the blood vessels of the face will dilate. So we know from those two simple situations that the mind and the thoughts we have physically and psychologically affect blood flow and heart rate.

“So if I’m in a stressed limbic state, it’s going to affect me physically and physiologically.”

Hussey believes the collective mindset Jim Gavin has instilled in the group means they are well-placed to cope with the psychological demands of a five-in-a-row bid.

“What we know about the Dublin team is they are incredibly process-focused,” he said. 

“They focus on the moment in front of them and they win that. They don’t go out to win a game, they go out to win as many moments as they possibly can. They pride themselves on things like composure, decision-making - so they’ve put a lot of time and effort into developing mentally as a team.

“The on-field stuff is really important. Then the immediate off-field stuff is the culture. What’s the culture in the dressing room? Is this a continuous improvement culture?

“One where we’re always asking, what makes this team better and how can we move forward? And also how do we celebrate success? In some teams there’s a lack of fun, there’s a lack of passion. 

paddy-andrews-and-ciaran-kilkenny-celebrate-after-the-game Dean Rock, Paddy Andrews and Ciaran Kilkenny after the semi-final. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“These guys are amateurs, they should enjoy it, there should be a sense of fun. In some of the counties, I wonder how much fun they actually have. What sustains that constant improvement is a sense of fun, a sense of clarity and constant feedback to players.

“They need feedback all the time. Whether they’ve had an incredibly good game or incredibly bad game. They need feedback all the time and they need focus.”

The value of the feedback provided to Jim Gavin’s players was witnessed in the second-half of the semi-final. 

Dublin trailed Mayo by 0-8 to 0-6 points at half-time and were operating way below their usual level up to that point. Much of that was down to Mayo’s strong start to the game.

Dublin’s strike runners like Brian Fenton and Jack McCaffrey were turned over by Mayo defenders, as Dublin coughed up possession 11 times in the tackle during the half. 

What happened in the 12 minutes after the restart may go down as the greatest spell of dominance ever seen from this team. 

What exactly went on at half-time?

Darcy paints the picture of a serene dressing room under the Hogan Stand.

“It’s as simple as half-time is a rest period, so they come in and have a reflection themselves and have a few pointers they want to raise. Then the coaches input back into them and then out they go again. 

“It’s a very short window, there’s not actually as much time as you’d think with them. Because really what it is, is a rest period. Where they recharge themselves for the second-half. That’s basically it.  

niall-scully-and-michael-darragh-macauley Niall Scully and Michael Darragh Macauley talk before the Mayo game. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“I think sometimes when they get in and reflect on what they’re doing and realise this isn’t as complicated as what we thought it was. They just need to do things better in a simpler way. And just take a little bit of pressure off their shoulders and just go after it and not think about it. 

“I think that’s the problem with players sometimes, if they overthink it they start to not function correctly. They seize up and there’s tension. 

“But if they just have that trust and let it go and not think about it – think about it after the game but not during the game. If you can get them into that state of mind, that’s when I think they function at their best.”

The key for Gavin and his coaching team will be having the players relaxed but focused during the pre-match pageantry that comes before the All-Ireland final throws-in.

As Michael Darragh Macauley put it earlier this week, ‘It means everything and it means nothing.” 

That’s a good way to look at it.

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About the author:

Kevin O'Brien

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