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'What do you have faith in? If you don’t believe in God or the universe, do you even believe in yourself?'

Gerry Hussey on the mindset of elite athletes, mastering flow state and why ego hinders performance.

WHY DO SOME sportspeople thrive in high-pressure situations and others don’t?

Kyle Hayes Kyle Hayes looking composed during last year's All-Ireland hurling final. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

In last year’s All-Ireland hurling final for instance, Limerick’s 19-year-old Kyle Hayes saved his best performance of the season for the biggest stage of all.

In front of 82,300 spectators, the centre-forward clipped over four points from play and provided the assist for Graeme Mulcahy’s crucial first-half goal. 

Hayes put himself about the field, hungry to get on the ball and unafraid to make mistakes. Man-of-the-match honours followed for the teenager and Limerick ended their 45-year wait without the Liam MacCarthy Cup. 

The week after the final, he gave a little insight into the Limerick approach that was reinforced by the management team in simple terms at half-time: “Stick to the process, keep going, keep hurling.”

His undoubted ability aside, what was it about Hayes’s mental approach that allowed him pull off a clutch performance in the white-heat of his first senior All-Ireland final? Are some players more capable of being clutch than others?

“It’s interesting,” renowned performance psychology coach Gerry Hussey tells The42.

“If we knew it and could bottle it we’d all be happy people. For me, it’s just your mindset. We become overly emotionally attached to outcomes – and that can be a sportsperson or someone in a job, with a promotion or interview.  

“What happens is we build up everything about us, the successor identity gets attached to that outcome. We carry a lot of pressure and stress into the game, interview or exam. And that over-focus on the outcome takes us away from the process.”

Ray Moylette and Gerry Hussey Ray Moylette relaxes in the dressing room with Gerry Hussey during the 2011 IABA European Boxing Championships. Source: Conor McCarthy/INPHO

Hussey played a key role in Irish boxing for years, while he’s also worked with a host of Olympians, rugby players, golfers and various inter-county sides – including the Tipperary hurlers for their All-Ireland success 2016.

“What I find with a lot of athletes is they actually love what they do and they’re intrigued by it,” he says. “They have a fascination about the game. For a boxer, he loves being in the ring. He loves trying to outthink the opponent in front of him.

“He’s engaged in the process and he’s not actually overly attached to the outcome. What he knows is the better he gets the process, the more he performs in the moment. So the more he performs in round one the more likely he is to win round 12.

But he’s not thinking about it. So in pressure situations, the pressure really is only inside your head if you’re overly dependent on the outcome. When you can become more attached to the process and winning the moment in front of you and not being defined by the moment, you’re not afraid to fail, you’re not afraid to make a mistake. 

“And if you do, you can respond really quickly. With athletes I work with, we have a process we call WIN – What’s Important Now. If you’re in round one you’re focused on what’s important now, if you’re playing in Croke Park and ten minutes are gone and it’s just not going well, you focus on what’s important now.

“That’s the difference. Some athletes and people get far too attached to the outcome and then they get the process wrong. Whereas real quality athletes actually love their ability to show their skill, their understanding and knowledge of the game, their game craft. And they’re so absorbed in the moment that the outcome just takes care of itself.”

Many athletes who’ve reached the top are naturally gifted at getting themselves into the right headspace to achieve peak performance under pressure, but it’s a skill that can be learned too. 

Issue 9 Hussey is one of the lead ambassadors of the upcoming WellGood programme.

Hussey helps players train the brain to think calmly under pressure by using techniques that quieten the mind during competition.

“Your subconscious mind is designed to keep you safe and keep you away from anything that’s perceived as a threat or dangerous situation,” he explains.

“So let’s say in a game with five minutes to go, your body language is tight and you’re breathing heavy – your mind is beginning to panic. Everything there is signalling to your subconscious mind that you are in threat.”

It engages the ‘flight or flight’ response in the brain’s stress centre, which shuts down the prefrontal cortex – the place that controls decision making and spatial awareness.

When sportspeople are perceived to be ‘choking’, science tells us they’re simply operating from the wrong part of the brain.

“In that moment, the athletes I work with would have very simple but effective reset triggers,” he says. “They involve breathing and body language, a reset. When we play games, it’s very hard to focus and concentrate for the full thing.

“What we do is we break that down into microgames. So every two minutes is a game and we’re resetting after every two minutes. When you then develop that mindset, you’re controlling your breathing and body language all the way through the game – you’re resetting it all the time.

“Even though there might be five or ten minutes to go, the more you control your breathing and body language at that stage your subconscious mind doesn’t actually know it’s the last play of the game. Because your subconscious mind isn’t looking at the clock, it has no concept of time.

“The only tools it has is, ‘What’s my breathing like? What’s my body language like? What are my thoughts like?’ The more we can control that, it doesn’t actually matter if it’s the first five minutes or the last ten minutes.

“When some people underperform we get so close to the finish line that we try to rush it. We abandon the process – we abandon controlling our breathing, our body language or our thoughts. They’re the building blocks of how everything is built.”

You often hear athletes reference getting into the ‘flow state’, whether it’s a golf tournament, marathon or GAA match. In 2017, Dublin footballer Paul Flynn divulged his mental routine to The42, one he rolls out for every championship game. 

“You don’t always get into the flow-state but you’re trying to get there,” he said. “I kind of feel I’ve got my preparation in order that I’m able to get into it

Flynn added: “Sports psychologists will always talk about when you’re in the flow state, you’re in the present. You’re playing in the present. You’re not thinking about anything at all.”

Paul Flynn arrives Paul Flynn ahead of last year's All-Ireland final. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Flow is usually described as the art of not thinking – what’s commonly referred to as mindfulness.

It centres around the connection between the mind and body. By quietening thoughts – or stopping the chatter in your mind – athletes can get out of their own way and just let the body perform. Let it flow. 

With average attention spans dropping due to the prevalence of smartphones in society, it can be more difficult for modern players to achieve a state of flow. Hussey advises his athletes to practice regular meditation which helps strengthen their ability to concentrate.

“People think flow state is a state, flow state is actually nothing,” says Hussey. “It’s pure consciousness. That’s why I’m not actually thinking I’m just free. In order to get that I need to take away everything that’s stopping me.

“So you take away distraction. A lot of us nowadays are not trained in distraction control. I walk around and I see people constantly distracted by phones, emails, multitasking.

“Very few people have the ability to be present. So what we need to do is redevelop and restrengthen our concentration muscle which is the ability to be in the moment.

“If you go and jump into the sea, in that first 15 or 20 seconds there’s nothing to distract you because something has captured your thoughts and your emotions. It’s a multisensory feeling.

“You’re using the senses to bring in that flow state. Flow state is simply the absence of distraction. But in order to be able to achieve that on a big day you have to practice anti-distraction regularly.

“And that is around turning your phone off, it’s around meditation, visualisation. Your brain’s neuroplasticity means your brain can build new neurological pathways all the time. If you’re willing to practice repetitions of mindfulness, repetitions of visualisation, you’re building that concentration muscle.

“Concentration is flow state and just being in the moment. I’m not actually thinking about anything. Most people think then that there’s a process for getting into flow state, there’s not.

Adam Nolan Hussey and members of the Irish camp at the 2012 AIBA European Olympic Qualifying Event. Source: Cathal Noonan

“There’s simply a process of getting rid of distractions. If you try to chase flow state, you’re not going to find it. So you need to identify what are the distractions externally and internally going on right now and how do I surrender those distractions out of my mind? Then when there’s nothing left, that’s flow state.”

Another interesting aspect of sports psychology is the relationship between ego and greatness. There’s a school of thought that some form of ego is necessary to drive athletes to the top of their sport, but Hussey disagrees.

To explain his point, he uses the example of sports stars who thank God in the aftermath of their biggest victories. There’s often a collective-eye rolling at Katie Taylor’s tendency to reference her faith following her wins in the boxing ring.

Indeed, her Twitter bio includes a line from the bible: “The Lord is my Strength and my Shield.”

But there’s something bigger at play when athletes display their heavenly gratitude. Strong faith indicates, according to Hussey, an absence of ego which can help alleviate pressure and bring out peak performance. 

“Ego is a sense of separateness,” he says. “It’s where I think I control everything and that puts massive pressure on people. We have to develop an understanding of connection. We’re connected to something bigger.

“So it’s not actually about me, it’s about the team. If I make a mistake, I know the team will back me up. If I scored the goal, it’s only because I’m part of this team. Then you move beyond that and ask, ‘What in this universe has given me the skill and talent in the first place? Something somewhere must want me to play football. So it’s not about me.’

“Ego is where we develop a sense of separateness. I am me and I determine my life and I am responsible for everything in my life. What a horrendous way to live. When you look at the great athletes and that idea of faith, ego is edging God out.

“You look at some of the athletes who have a profound faith whether it’s a profound faith in God or a profound faith in their team, or a profound faith in the universe.

“‘It’s not all about me. I will do my best and if this is meant to be, it’s meant to be. But I will trust in the people around me and I will trust in this universe.’

“It takes a huge amount of pressure off people. Ego, people who are very egocentric, are people that are very individualistic and they seem to lack faith.

Katie Taylor celebrates Katie Taylor often references her strong faith in post-fight interviews. Source: Tom Hogan/INPHO

“That’s why they’re so anxious. The less spiritual faith we have in the world, no wonder we have a world full of anxieties. Because what do you have faith in? If you don’t believe in God and you don’t believe in the universe, do you even believe in yourself?

“Ego is a sense of separateness where I think I’m separate to my team, I’m separate to this universe and I control things, I make things happen. That’s a very lonely and a very hard place to live I think.”

The conversation moves on to the role of performance coaches in inter-county set-ups.

A number of high-profile additions have been made to hurling backroom teams in recent months including Kieran Donaghy in Galway, Dessie Farrell with Dublin and Dougie Howlett in Cork. 

From Hussey’s experience, performance coaches work with individuals and help remove distractions. They can range from stress at an upcoming exam to dealing with a gambling addiction.

“Behind every county footballer or hurler is a human being. In my role, I was always getting to know the human being. What’s going on in their world? How can I create more space so they can concentrate more fully on what they do? It’s not about adding more stuff in it’s actually about taking stuff out.”

Issue 2 Hussey, Roz Purcell, Philly McMahon and Lee Tracey are all involved in the WellGood programme.

“Because every county has strength and conditioning coaches, football coaches, analysts. But none of those do anything for the humanity of the guy in front of them.

“For me that was always my role, to help bring a sense of focus and calmness but take the distraction out of the dressing room. To take the distraction out of the mind of the player so he can be committed and present. When he’s training, he’s training.

“That sense of presence that’s developed in his everyday life becomes his secret weapon on the pitch, he’s totally present. 

“It’s amazing with county players now, the one thing they’ll all say is they’re so busy. They’re running and racing all the time. And it’s no wonder when they go out on the pitch they can’t be present and they’re making mistakes.

“So you’ve got to look at that whole lifestyle approach to life. How I think, how I speak, how I handle myself as a human being – that has to come first. Then that will transfer into how I will perform as a player.”

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KBC is back as presenting partner of WellFest for 2019. Taking place May 11th-12th in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, Dublin WellFest will be offering an experience like no other with the biggest and best line-up yet. Sign up to the KBC WellGood Challenge. WellGood is a completely free 21-day plan, featuring tips on healthy food, mindset, exercise and more from Roz Purcell, Gerry Hussey, Philly McMahon, Lee Tracey and Orla Walsh. Visit www.kbc.ie and www.wellfest.ie for more information.

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About the author:

Kevin O'Brien

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