Where confidence is everything and perception is dangerous

There are still strange days in this great old game, writes Ronan O’Gara
Where confidence is everything and perception is dangerous

Spent Wednesday listening to a jet fighter pilot trying to convince us of the similarities between his day job and mine. That could take a while.

But the one week in every month I am spending at the French rugby headquarters in Marcoussis doing my coaching badges is under- pinning one of sport’s enduring truisms. Situation management and player management is fundamental.

The more I learn about making players tick from outside the white line, the more I realise there is nothing more important than how do you fill your players with confidence. Confidence is crucial in sport. It’s everything, in fact.

If you can achieve the overall objectives of management and coaching, those twin peaks, then you are in a seriously good spot. If you understand the game and can coach that knowledge, then great. But managing a player you have to exclude for one of several legitimate reasons? Now that’s management.

Stick or drop? It’s a great issue I might return to for my thesis at Marcoussis. Usually such a decision causes a reaction from the player. It can either crush a fella’s confidence or can spark a reaction. The problem for a coach is knowing if what’s coming out of a player’s mouth is fact or not. Is it how he is really feeling and believing? And the same can be said of a coach’s words too, by the way.

Is a player expressing his genuine opinion? How does the coach know? There is only one person who really knows.

A player low on confidence seldom discovers this magic ‘spark’ that rights all his wrongs in one blinding moment. You don’t go from zero to 90 in game with an injection of confidence. It’s more gradual than you think. The worst part of being shorn of confidence as a professional player, the nastiest part in fact, is the journalists chipping away at his confidence from the outside, and weak management taking heed of what they’re saying, basing decisions on that.

This frustrates the hell out of you as a player when you know this should really be where the manager or coach stands firm, and refuses to succumb to public perception. Perception is a deadly dangerous thing.

A coach has to do his own analysis, rely on his own notes on the game. Turn the commentary off and judge your player on what you know about him as fact. Not what you read in the opinion columns. Judge what has to be done to rebuild this lad’s confidence. Confidence is everything.

I

t’s only now I’ve stopped playing that I look back and realise how much of a personal crutch and strength for me was my ability to take the positive road a lot of the time. Was it blatant confidence, or stupidity, but I never really succumbed to fears or anxieties - which ties back to Mr Jet Fighter this week who told us that up there in the clouds, you’re never thinking of it as life or death. And, of course, rugby isn’t, but you could do a fair bit of damage to yourself. Even after the Murrayfield episode when I was supposedly choking, not a bother. You play as if you’re bullet proof because like the jockey losing his bottle, if you stop thinking like that, then it’s time to go.

I came close to psychological meltdowns, for sure. That’s more like a golfer consumed by the yips. The day Munster beat Harlequins 18-12 in the 2013 Heineken Cup quarter-final at The Stoop, I blew two very easy penalty opportunities early on. Sitters. And I thought ‘can I get out of here? Is this beyond me?’ I wasn’t far from walking off the pitch with an injury.

The first one was in front of the posts and I hit it well, but it deviated at the last second and whacked off the post. The next was barely 15m out. Then, of course, I kicked one under the most pressure from the sideline.

At Twickenham, I’ve hit the post from 15m out as well in the Six Nations. Ground swallow me up stuff. Stuff that puts an enormous strain on your reservoir of self-belief and confidence.

But the mind works in bizarre ways. I started to convince myself in this phase it was good to miss the first penalty of the game because I knew then I’d kick all the rest. It worked at the Stoop that afternoon.

Don’t ask me.

Not everything conforms to form and stereotype in sport, thank goodness. And mercifully other things do.

Class is permanent. Look at the All Blacks in the World Cup final. Composure is key.

Look at Dan Carter in that moment when momentum has switched to the Wallabies at 21-17. An instinctive, unbelievable drop goal.

And there’s still a big place for emotion in our game of rugby. Look at Argentina at the World Cup. But confidence is key. And New Zealand are world champions again.I’ll get to chat some detail with Dan Carter when he arrives here in Paris at the end of the month. Racing 92 are parading him before the Toulouse game at the Stade de France on November 28. And the first time he suits up is away the following week in Pau. Mad rugby country down there. Conrad Smith and Colin Slade, Paddy Butler, Sean Dougall and James Coughlan there to meet him. He won’t get a minute’s peace.

Zebo loss would be a hammer blow

Whether the Irish recruits in Top 14 will be joined by Simon Zebo next season is a moot point. There is every possibility that he will have his head turned by Toulouse. The lifestyle in the south of France is beautiful, Toulouse is a cracking club. But I’d still stand by the fact that if you’re from Cork, there isn’t a better team in the world to play for than Munster. That’s the reality.

But here’s the issue. For all my generation of players, nearly every big game was played in front of a packed Thomond Park. That’s not happening now, that atmosphere isn’t there, and that’s something players are going to be taking into account when reviewing their futures. That was always Munster’s greatest strength, the relationship between the fans and the players, but it’s dwindled.

Simon’s not the young buck without a care in the world any more. He must consider the fact he has a partner and a kid now. It’s bigger picture stuff. I don’t know what his thinking is: if he is not happy with his contract in Munster, that’s one thing. If he wants to keep playing with Munster— which I presume he does — he wants to get himself the best deal possible. But if he genuinely wants to explore other pastures, then it’s a complete difference argument, and not one that can be resolved by money. And that goes back to the Munster rugby experience, which you cannot put a price on. Is that coming back to Thomond?

To my mind, Zebo to Toulouse cannot be allowed happen by Munster and the IRFU. That’s a hammer blow too far. You cannot afford to lose O’Connell, Hanrahan, O’Callaghan, Zebo, Jones. What message is that sending to the breakthrough players in Munster? How are you expected to full Thomond without the Zebo factor?

It’ll be a sad day if Munster becomes a feeder club for Europe’s bigger fish.

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