Sharp O’Neill knows when to play the joker

This time it won’t quite feel like walking on eggshells with Roy around.

Martin is around as well. If anything emerged from the new Irish manager’s press conference and all the profiles about him over the weekend, it is that the man has a sense of humour. Some of the hacks didn’t always get it last Saturday but the players will. At times it will arm them with confidence, at times it will disarm any arrogance and at others diffuse any overload of tension.

It’s something he probably picked up from the dad’s barber shop in Kilrea and really understood the value of in his time playing for Brian Clough. More than once, when the old maestro and his sidekick Peter Taylor sensed the players were overly tense before a big game, they’d tell the players a joke and out they’d go, suitably relaxed to perform.

Michael Jordan’s mentor at North Carolina, the incomparable Dean Smith, was the same, reminding an overly-hyped player that a billion Chinese people couldn’t care how the game fared.

Even during games, a laugh can go a long way. Literally. In the NFL they still talk about The Drive, a play John Elway’s Denver Nuggets conjured up in the 1987 AFC Championship Game. With just over five minutes to go, they conceded a touchdown that left them trailing the Cleveland Browns. Then they muffled the restart, meaning that when Elway trotted onto the field he was starting two yards from his own end zone, and a whole 98 yards from Cleveland’s. The tension in the huddle was palpable, until offensive guard Keith Bishop quipped, “We got ‘em right where we want ‘em!” Cue laughter and probably the greatest clutch play known in league history.

Martina Navratilova could relate to that. In the recent 30 for 30 film Unmatched about her friendship with Chris Evert, she recalls a watershed in their epic rivalry. She had lost the first set of the 1978 Wimbledon final to Evert, just as she usually lost to Evert, and early in the second completely fresh-aired a smash. Then in a rally by the net the ball thumped Navratilova in the forehead. She staggered to the net, theatrically fell to one knee and began to laugh. What more could possibly go wrong? All of a sudden she felt a weight off her shoulder. She duly went on to win — and dominate Evert and the sport for the next decade.

Navratilova would later work with Dr Jim Loehr, an eminent sport psychologist. Loehr contends that smiling inwardly or even outwardly is one of the most effective and misused strategies in competition. A smile, a laugh, releases serotonin, which relaxes any muscle tension and gives a sense of wellbeing and confidence. It gives you the biochemistry to perform. Why did Jimmy Connors so often play with the audience and poke fun at himself? Because it broke the stress cycle during match play.

Phil Mickelson found the same worked for him. In the run up to his major breakthrough at the 2004 Masters, a friend observed he played his best when he had a smile on his face. On Sundays in the Majors he never had a smile on his face. That one magical Sunday in Augusta, he did.

Smiling as a strategy isn’t that common in Gaelic games or soccer, at least on the field; maybe players are worried it would be frowned upon, so continue to frown themselves after a mistake. There are though the odd exceptions.

Ten minutes into the 2009 All-Ireland final, Kerry full back Tommy Griffin allowed Cork’s Colm O’Neill to give him the slip and rifle an unstoppable shot past Diarmuid Murphy. Did Griffin’s world cave in? No. Did Murphy curse him out of it? Au contraire. Instead it was Griffin who turned to Murphy. “Jeezus, Murph, would you save it, for Why the fucks sake?!” They had a laugh about it. Cue one of the great shutdowns by a full-back line in All-Ireland final history.

You can’t beat a laugh off the field either. I’ve been involved in the Mayo backroom for the last couple of years, including when Conor Mortimer departed the panel days before the 2012 Connacht final. It was a tense moment in Mayo GAA, compounded by a family statement, but diffused pretty quickly in the dressing room. The following night, one of the other forwards who had marginally missed out on a starting spot came in shaking his head, issued a teammate to his side and then proceeded to dictate to him a draft personal statement about his disgust about being omitted as well. Trigger the entire panel in convulsions, not mutiny, and a very good run for the team.

The last year or two under Giovanni Trapattoni appeared to have become something of a grind for all involved.

Under O’Neill they’ll learn — including Roy — you can have the odd laugh in training without making training a laugh. And that sometimes you need to play with a smile on your face to put a smile on everyone else’s.

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Wednesday, April 14, 2021

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