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‘Look at Jim on the sideline. He epitomises all the traits that he’s looking for in his players.’

High Performance Psychologist Anne Marie Kennedy on working with Jim Gavin and his Dublin players.

TIPPERARY NATIVE Anne Marie Kennedy has coached athletes at the highest level in various sports: golf and cricket, swimming and cycling, hurling and Gaelic football.

Kennedy’s presence goes unnoticed among the public because her work takes place behind the scenes. But the success of the Dublin senior football team, under Jim Gavin, owes much to the Mindful Athlete Programme she developed for the Dubs in 2015.

Dean Rock with AMK Sept 2017 Anne Marie Kennedy with Dublin’s Dean Rock after the 2017 All Ireland SFC Final.

 —

17 September 2017.

Six minutes into stoppage time and Dean Rock stands over a free to win the All Ireland for Dublin.

Inhale.

Rock paces back behind the ball and settles his feet at an angle to the goal.

Exhale.

With his right hand, he wipes his jersey across his mouth.

Inhale.

He looks at the posts then eyes the ball and locks on the target again.

Exhale.

Rock shimmies into his stride before delivering the winning strike. 

Inhale.

Dublin lead Mayo, 1-17 to 1-16, and the game is up.

Exhale.

For the third year running, Dublin are champions. All Dubs breathe easy again.

 —

Dublin’s training was geared for big moments. Anne Marie Kennedy, High Performance Psychologist, had been handed the remit by Dublin manager, Jim Gavin. Together they developed a programme that allowed players absorb pressure. At critical junctures, like that late free facing Rock in 2017, they would be mentally equipped to function effectively.

“How to deal with stress is the key component,” Kennedy explains. “We sat down and agreed a programme called the Mindful Athlete Programme (MAP). It was designed to develop the mental fortitude of the players and their mental skills in terms of resilience, emotional control and concentration. We wanted to optimise their mental capacity.”

No more than football coaches aspire to maximise playing ability, sport psychologists prime people to perform under pressure. As a pilot, Gavin appreciated the need for clear thinking in stressful situations. Kennedy, whose late father also served in the Defence Forces, provided the kind of skills that would elevate Dublin when others felt the strain.

“A sport psychologist is a strength and conditioning coach for the mind,” Kennedy relays. “The brain is designed to keep you alive, it is not designed to win you All-Irelands. If you are not programming the brain correctly, its natural reaction will win out via the fight or flight response. The mind has to be trained to keep the brain in check. If you are not doing this, you are leaving a huge portion of your performance to chance.”

Kennedy first sat down with Jim Gavin in 2015. One facet immediately struck: attention to detail.

“You were dealing with somebody who knew what he would be doing six months from now,” she remembers. “He knew exactly what he wanted to do with the team for the following year. That impressed me the most.”

To get a sense of what the Dublin environment is like with Gavin at the helm, Kennedy points to his level of organisation: “The players know, all the time, what they’ll be doing and when they’ll be doing it and why they’ll be doing it. That level of preparation is like nothing I have experienced in any of the other sports that I am working in.”

Away from Dublin, Kennedy is lead performance psychologist with Cricket Ireland (since 2017) and Cycling Ireland (since 2018). Her portfolio now includes corporate clients too, executives who strive for success in business the same way top athletes aspire in sport.

AMK Mark Downey Anne Marie Kennedy with Ireland’s Mark Downey after he won bronze in the men’s points race at the UCI Track Cycling World Championships in Pruszków, Poland.

 “These are life skills,” Kennedy insists. “I have gone into lots of companies with their senior management teams teaching them how to be more responsive in their decision making and in their leadership.”

The challenge, for most people, is changing ingrained behaviours. Pressure moments prompt emotional reactions. Such powerful instincts can sabotage intentions.

“Look at Jim on the sideline,” Kennedy says. “He’s not emotional. You cannot think straight and make good decisions when you’re emotional. He knows that because of his own professional background. He’s completely mindful. The players look at that and they model their behaviour from him. He epitomises all the traits that he’s looking for in his players.”

Gavin is reticent when speaking publicly but a reserved demeanour masks an ongoing conversation with his players. What he preaches behind closed doors is reflected in his body language during games.

Kennedy is succinct on this point: “He walks the talk.”

The regimen for Dublin, in terms of their mental approach, revolved around mindfulness. Effectively, the players went through workouts for the brain. Whether simple breathing exercises or guided meditations layered with psychological skills, the same principle applied: discipline.

jim-gavin Jim Gavin: 'he walks the walk'. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Kennedy elucidates: “When victory is important, victory becomes the threat. We put in hundreds of hours of brain training to be victorious in those pressure moments. Some people have a very strong mindset but schooling the mind should never be considered an add on. It needs investment on a regular basis. Thoughts and emotions are two sides of the same coin, and have a huge impact on performance. If you are leaving your mental preparation to chance, as soon as pressure enters the arena, you will be exposed.”

Mindfulness, unlike shooting practice or resistance training, can happen anywhere, any time. A walk or a meal can easily double as a meditative exercise. And the benefits of honing this trait went far beyond football.

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“It helped to keep the players grounded in their daily lives and in their daily tasks,” Kennedy testifies. “If you’re doing 10 to 15 minutes a day optimising your brain function, you’re going to self regulate better. You’re going to have more clarity, which means you’re going to think smarter and make better decisions.”

At surface level, sport is a series of physical acts. Kennedy delves deeper, conditioning athletes for games the mind can play. She cites golf encounters: “I’ve sat down with players and talked through their rounds, and they have said to me, on numerous occasions: ‘I don’t know where I went for three holes. I was completely gone. I can’t even remember playing my shots.’ That’s the power of the distracted mind.

She continues: “Mental strength is your ability to you come back when have become distracted, and how fast you can do that. In football, you have to be ready. Your thoughts cannot get in the way. You have to be present and see what’s in front of you. When a ball comes to you, you need to know what you’re going to do with that ball immediately and it has to be purposeful.” 

On Sunday, Dublin are playing for a prize nobody has won before. Their opponents, Kerry, were famously denied the five in a row when Offaly stumped them in 1982. Clearly, the Dubs face their greatest challenge. Only players can shape the outcome from here.

“A psychologist should eventually make herself redundant,” Kennedy believes. “I feel that I have given them all the tools that they need. It’s up to them now to implement it.”

Last year, Dublin beat Tyrone by 2-17 to 1-14, their easiest All Ireland victory since they started this run. Of the six titles claimed since 2011, four have been won by a point. Dean Rock’s free, which decided the 2017 final, was a dramatic portrayal of clutch abilities.

“Part of his routine would have been to engage his breathing,” Kennedy outlines. “When we’re engaging our breathing, we’re switching off the limbic system, which controls our emotions and our memories. He was able to drown out everything that was going on around him. His sole focus was the task at hand, what he needed to do.”

dean-rock-kicks-the-winning-free Dean Rock nails the winning point in 2017. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

For a player ill prepared, stress will scramble senses. Kennedy breaks it down: “Your sympathetic nervous system gets triggered and releases the stress hormone, cortisol. The heart rate increases and blood vessels begin to constrict. Breathing increases and thinking becomes difficult. You may lose some control of physical and mental abilities, and your capacity to execute skills. This response is the enemy of decision making, often resulting in rush and panic.

“Everything happens faster. You’re reactive rather than responsive. What I hear from most athletes, when they’re experiencing pressure like that, is that they just want to kick the ball and get it done.”

Players learn, through her Mindful Athlete Programme, to differentiate between responding and reacting: deliberate, purposeful behaviour as against rash, mindless moves. Kennedy offers practical examples: “In the middle of a game, when there’s a foul or a bad ref call, we were teaching the players to stay present and to be responsive. You cannot get distracted by things beyond your control. You must let them go. You get better at being able to switch off the emotional reactive brain. Every time you meditate, the parasympathetic nervous system is getting stronger and becoming a more powerful influence on your behaviours.”

Success has come to seem inevitable with this Dublin team. Having been on the inside, Kennedy offers unique perspective: “I think one of the greatest strengths of Jim is that he decided his coaching philosophy early on. He has stuck by it, which has given confidence to the players. Jim used to say to me: ‘Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself.’ Repetition works because different people will hear your message at different times.”

After four seasons in the front row seats, Kennedy has switched her attention from Dublin. Working with Cricket Ireland took her to the West Indies for the Women’s T20 World Cup last November. The Track Cycling World Championships brought her to Poland in March, where Lydia Boylan won silver in the women’s points race and Mark Downey collected bronze. Already focus has turned towards qualification for the Tokyo Olympic Games.

Next, Kennedy is launching a nationwide series of performance workshops, one of which will feature mindfulness for high performance. Drawing from her experiences in sport and in business, Kennedy’s coaching format is designed for anyone who wants to better cope with stress and develop their optimal mindset.

The right steps, as Dean Rock can attest, unlock hidden depths.

To find out more about Anne Marie Kennedy, check out Anne Marie Kennedy Performance Consulting on Facebook or @sportpsych_amk on Twitter.

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