Going for gold: Olympic sport psychologist Kate Kirby on what it takes to have a winning mindset

Leading sport psychologist Kate Kirby talks to Kieran Shannon about what it takes to have a winning mentality.

 Dr. Kate Kirby, head of psychology at the Sport Ireland Institute, pictured at the National Rowing Centre, Farran Wood, Co. Cork. Picture Denis Minihane.
Dr. Kate Kirby, head of psychology at the Sport Ireland Institute, pictured at the National Rowing Centre, Farran Wood, Co. Cork. Picture Denis Minihane.

THERE was a time when this was all new to her as well. Long before Kate Kirby began working with Annalise Murphy when the Olympics silver medallist was only in her mid-teens, Kirby once sat in the same seat Murphy would occupy, being introduced to someone called a sport psychologist.

A handy hockey player but an even better sailor, the Clonakilty-born Kirby was a member of the national junior sailing squad when Craig Mahoney, an Australian lecturing in Queen’s University at the time, walked into the room and proceeded to blow open up her mind.

“Back then I had a really terrible temper. And my thinking would have been that it was just something you were born with.

“That talk (by Mahoney) was the first time I realised that you could actually do something about it. I won’t say that I did something about it — I was a hot-headed teenager for another few years— but it got me to think, ‘That (job) would be a really cool thing to do.’”

Now Kirby does that “really cool thing” for a living while maintaining her own cool. She’s recently back from Prague where she was assisting top pentathletes like Natalya Coyle and Arthur Lanigan-O’Keeffe qualify for a World Cup final.

As head of performance psychology for the Sport Ireland Institute, she works with many of our Olympic prospects such as Murphy, as well as being a consultant to the Gaelic Players Association, just as she worked extensively with Rugby Players Ireland in the past.

Often she’ll be aiding athletes cope with the realisation that success is rarely linear, and what possibly helps her connect with them is that she can relate to them. Again, she was that soldier. There was nothing straightforward about her own career.

Inspired by Mahoney’s guest talk, she signed up for psychology as her undergraduate course in UCC. “I clearly hadn’t researched it, though,” she quips. “In my three years, there wasn’t one single module on sport.”

Like a lot of arts degree graduates, her next step was a tentative one, signing up for a training programme in the propriety trading game. Again, as someone now married with two children, aged five and there, and living in Dublin, she has lived and can even laugh to tell the tale but there was little amusing about that job at the time. “It was unbelievably stressful. And it was a very male-dominated environment. Where I worked there were 40 traders and only two of us were women.

“While the lads would go big and either win a lot or lose a lot, I found the women were more conservative. I found it really hard. If you lost a certain amount of money, you were eliminated for that day and could lose your job.”

Harsh lessons were absorbed which she could apply later when retracing and connecting the dots. Walking into a dressing room like the Cork men’s senior footballers whom she’d help to a 2015 national league final appearance didn’t unnerve her a bit — it could hardly be more testosterone-filled than her old office. And it brought home to her just how tough life and sport can be, being judged by a number.

I learned you mustn’t take it so personally. When I lost money, I almost felt others were doing it to spite me, rather than go, ‘Okay, that was the wrong decision, but learn from it and move on. Accept things don’t always go your way.’

“In sport you can invest your heart and soul into it and still not win but that’s what you signed up for. There is no guaranteed result. I wasn’t good at accepting that back then.”

A brief stint in the job acting as a mentor to new recruits brought home to her that she’d rather be developing people than clicking a mouse, so she went back to college and over to Britain to study for a masters in sport psychology in Brunel before returning to do a doctorate in UCD under Dr Aidan Moran. There she got picking up applied work and for pretty much the last decade has been one of the most in-demand and respected practitioners in the field.

What gives her credibility is to be continuously present for and around the athletes while offering real practical examples and advice. She doesn’t so much conduct sterile lectures as engender natural conversations.

If a team of hers are playing away she doesn’t necessarily give a synopsis of all the literature on home advantage. Instead, informed by that knowledge, she guides a dialogue with the players and coaching staff on what interventions and approaches they could take ahead of such a fixture.

While her most frequent interactions are usually related to anxiety and confidence for young athletes struggling to make the transition from underage to senior competition — “They could be going from being a good athlete in their club and country to being back of the field”— she now

recommends certain strategies and skills to help them more than she might have previously. “I’ve started to use a lot more of the concepts of mindfulness and acceptance with athletes.”

That change of emphasis would have been informed by her attendance at a conference a couple of years ago where she was among 40 or so other Olympic sport psychologists at which they discussed a new school in psychology. Most sport psychology enhancement interventions had been based on what would have been known as the second-wave of cognitive-behavioural therapy. The conference was now advocating a third wave, which instantly resonated with Kirby.

The second wave was all around the idea of mental strength and thinking positively and negative thought-stopping. Those terms all sounded great in theory but, in reality, I don’t think anyone who stands on the starting line is truly going, ‘I love this pressure! I feel amazing!’

"That’s what the textbooks were saying but nobody thinks like that, nobody has that level of control over their thoughts. I certainly don’t.

“And yet we were instructing athletes, ‘Don’t doubt yourself, back yourself’, so then when they started to doubt themselves in competition they were already feeling like they’d failed in what you had asked them to do.

“With the third wave, you’re going in armed with the knowledge that you probably will be afraid of messing up and wondering if you’re good enough and wishing you could be anywhere else. More than likely, at some point, you will have those thoughts. But the key point is that they don’t have to be the predictor of the outcome.

“You’re almost preparing yourself that those thoughts will come but that the level of impact they have and how much attention you give them can be minimised. If those thoughts come into your head, you can go, ‘That’s fine, I knew that would happen. But now I can focus on what I need to’.”

The focus can be on “your senses or your breathing, so then you’re not giving all your attention to those doubts. You’re taking control and diverting your attention to something that will facilitate your performance.”

It could have come in useful back when she was a sailor, or when she was a trader. But thankfully for sport in this country, it’s coming in handy to many Irish athletes she’s helping daily.

'Understand how pieces of puzzle fit together'

What tends to block people from achieving the success they want? How do we tend to get in our own way? For sport psychologist Kate Kirby, it’s a bit like a jigsaw and all about energy.

“A common thing you’ll find, especially in the more physical sports, is people training too hard and not respecting recovery enough. They’re stretching themselves too thin and sometimes they mismanage their energy.

“Even in sports that wouldn’t traditionally be [as endurance-based], they’ve become more professionalised and there’s been a demand to specialise earlier, that has created the perception that the harder you work, the better you’ll be, but there is a line that you can cross.

“The key is to understand how the pieces of the puzzle fit together. What you eat impacts how you feel. The same with sleep and how it affects your mood and mental sleep. How you train affects not just your body but your mood.

“It’s important for an athlete to have the confidence to say, ‘I need this day off. It’ll actually be more valuable than adding on another session.’

“It can take a while for that maturity and realisation to occur and to see the bigger picture. That actually skipping a session and making the next one a better quality session is more beneficial than just pushing through it.”

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