DERVAL O'ROURKE: How elite athletes can turn criticism into rocket fuel

Motivation is a funny old thing. It can come from many different sources.

It can be intrinsic, meaning it comes from you personally, or it can be extrinsic, meaning it comes from something separate to you.

Last week I was driving from Cork to Dublin and to pass the journey I was listening to the Second Captains podcast. They were chatting about all kinds of topics but one that jumped out was sportspeople using criticism as a form of motivation. The ‘haters gonna hate’ attitude is seen so often in sport.

That outlook is something I would have used quite a bit when I was competing. I had a place in my mind where I used to bank all the negatives and tap into them when I needed motivation.

They ranged from comments made in print, on television or anonymously on internet message boards regarding my form on the track. No matter how many good comments were made, I remembered the negatives most of all. Even if the people who said them didn’t remember them, I always remembered! Listening to Eoin McDevitt chatting to Kilkenny hurler Jackie Tyrell made me smile on my drive to Dublin.

There was a lot of noise made by the Kilkenny hurlers after winning their 35th All-Ireland title about the negative criticism levelled at them. Even Brian Cody took a pop at the media criticism. He seemed to take issue with the notion that Kilkenny had an ageing defence that is over the hill, which is clearly not the case.

Listening to Jackie Tyrell was interesting because he felt he had been personally singled out and also that people were having a pop at the team. The thought that people were questioning the team spirit of Kilkenny didn’t sit well at all.

From my experience, feeling underrated and unappreciated is not a comfortable sensation for any sportsperson. The impression from Tyrell was that the Kilkenny team were feeling a bit of both before they notched up their latest All-Ireland title. They are undoubtedly one of the most successful teams of all time but this doesn’t make them immune to the critics having their say.

When it comes to criticism, logic often doesn’t come in to it. Anybody who does anything in the public eye will face their fair share of attention. The vast majority of the time, the attention is positive but when it’s bad it stings. It doesn’t make much sense to notice the negatives and forget the positives but that’s often the nature of the beast. I can’t tell you many of the good things were written about me over the years but I can certainly remember some of the bad ones.

Letting negative criticism infiltrate your consciousness as a competitor is only a problem if it undermines your confidence. In Kilkenny’s case it seemed to make them even more determined. If people were asking questions they were more than ready to answer them.

I recently read an interesting story about American basketball player John Wall. He is the point guard with the Washington Wizards. He kept a list on his phone of the slights and criticisms that were made towards him and his game. He reads this list before training and games. He recently took offence at being named by Sports Illustrated as the 31st best player in the league. He tweeted that it was more motivation for him to go out and play well.

There is plenty for John Wall to be positive about. He is the central figure in the Wizards’ team. When he plays well, the team generally wins. All the statistics indicate he’s the real deal, when a game is on the line, he’s the man that you want to see with the ball. Yet Wall doesn’t focus on all those positives, they are probably not written into his phone. It seems the more criticism he receives, the more he wants to show the world what he can do on the court.

When people take to the field and they are hungry for battle, that hunger can come from many places. It’s common to find that it’s the need to defy a notion about your talent or ability. When criticisms are expressed, they are rarely a personal attack by the person expressing them but they feel personal to the athlete.

When I was trying to run fast it felt like the most important thing in the world. It was really difficult to separate myself from my performance, I was incredibly emotionally attached to running well. So I understand why Kilkenny, John Wall and many other sportspeople focus on the negatives and use them as fuel. Clinging to the extrinsic motivation to prove the doubters wrong can be a powerful tool in the face of huge pressure to perform. No matter how illogical it may seem to those who don’t face that type of criticism or pressure.

The road from Cork to Dublin seemed much shorter after listening to that podcast. I was casting my mind back to the negatives I banked and the performances they helped. Nothing was quite as motivating as strolling out onto a track with a point to prove.

You gotta love the critics!


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