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'Christy Ring wasn't au fait with sports psychology but he practised an awful lot of its principles'

In the third and final part of our series, sports psychologist Kieran Shannon explains the GAA’s open mind when it comes to mental preparation.

Mayo manager James Horan:
Mayo manager James Horan:
Image: INPHO/Cathal Noonan

“THERE’S ALWAYS BEEN an element of sports psychology,” Kieran Shannon says as he dashes through a potted history of how the GAA became so obsessed with mental preparation.

Craig Mahoney, an Australian professor, worked with the Derry footballers in their 1993 All-Ireland winning campaign. Dr Tom Moriarty was a regular presence in the Dublin backroom under Dr Pat O’Neill in the 90s.

The Wexford hurlers had Niamh Fitzpatrick when they won their All-Ireland in the glorious summer of 96.

The list runs and runs. It’s nothing new though.

“What is it but a study of human behaviour and performance?” Shannon asks. “Sure that’s always been going on.”

Take one of the game’s all-time greats as an example: Christy Ring and all nine of his Munster titles and eight All-Ireland medals.

“If you demystify Ring as a genius which implies he’s otherworldly and just look it at him as a brilliant mind, and that genius isn’t unreachable, what made him so good was that he had a brilliant way of thinking.

Christy Ring was an unbelievable performer and mentally tough. He wasn’t au fait with sports psychology but he practised an awful lot of its principles.

A sports journalist long before he was a sports psychologist, Shannon’s first involvement in inter-county GAA was when Malachy O’Rourke brought him in to work with Fermanagh in 2008.

The Ernesiders made it to their first Ulster final in 26 years but Shannon is the first to admit that his work was only one piece of a bigger picture.


INPHO/Lorraine O’Sullivan

In 2008 he was living in Clare and only made the 300-mile round trip to Enniskillen for half a dozen training sessions. These days, in his work with James Horan and the Mayo footballers, he prefers to be much more embedded.

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“You have a real gauge of what’s going on and where the group are exactly at that point and the little nuances.

Sports psychology isn’t just about going in and giving three or four teamtalks and then goodbye, I’ll talk to you the next time I talk to you. You’re support staff. You get to know the group really well.

That’s the point though. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach, no simple solution that works for every county straight out of the box.

From Shannon’s experience the GAA has a very open mind when it comes to mental preparation, but there’s still that element of suspicion and distrust. In some quarters psychology is seen as an academic pursuit, its practitioners descended from ivory towers armed with technical mumbo-jumbo and an insatiable thirst for deep, probing questions.


INPHO/Cathal Noonan

Brian Cody said that he’d never worked with a sports psychologist and surely what’s good enough for the Kilkenny hurlers, arguably the greatest team of all-time, is good enough for the rest of us?

“The way it’s often portrayed in the media is that it’s something that’s just rolled out – we’ve done sports psychology, tick.

Not all sports psychologists are the same. It’s like coaching — there are some good, some bad, then some who are good in some situations and not so good in other situations. There’s chemistry.

The most successful backroom teams then are those where no one element seeks a monopoly, either in terms of its influence or the credit it receives.

If everyone has the same basic understanding of where they are, where they want to be and what they need to do to get there, it’s a lot easier to keep the mind focused.

“The physical, the technical, the tactical — they all link up with each other.

“It’s not all about being composed on the big day; you’re more likely to be composed and confident on the big day because you have put in the work on your skills and on how you take care of yourself. That’s all inter-related.

“In a lot of what I do you’re dealing a lot with the players, one-to-one stuff as well as group work, but you’re also working with coaches and selectors.

Ultimately you might do X, Y and Z but the selectors and management will be doing things that might be wrong practice. They are impacting upon performance as well. You’ve to give these principles to the whole setup.

Part I: ‘In 1995, doing things like warm-ups and warm-downs was rocket science’

Part II: ‘Stats are there to confirm the coach’s opinion, not to direct it’

About the author:

Niall Kelly

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