For a media working off morsels to understand what really makes Jim Gavin tick, his keynote presentation at the HPX High Performance Conference back in October, when everyone from Maslow to Mandela to MLK got a mention, was rightly considered revelatory.
A thoroughly more insightful explanation into his motivation and why he and his on-field lieutenant Stephen Cluxton curiously — and for some, infuriatingly — refrain from any Cody or Conte-style exuberance upon winning was offered only hours earlier at the same conference out in the National Sports Campus.
Dr Helle Hein never mentioned Gavin’s name, probably because, being from Denmark, she would not even have known of the man who two weeks earlier had led
Dublin to a fourth All-Ireland title in five seasons.
But for Gavin’s maor foirne, Jason Sherlock, who, like Gavin, was in attendance for the entire two-day event, Hein’s presentation, intriguingly titled The Motivation and Management of Primadonnas, was the highlight of the conference.
Hein, whose expertise is in the area of motivation in sport and the workplace, began by recalling the training session of a professional Danish football team which she had observed in her capacity as a sport psychologist.
The team’s star player had acted up in frustration by the lack of intensity and clarity in the session, triggering the manager to bench “the primadonna” for their next game.
Afterwards Hein politely but firmly challenged the manager. Did he know what motivated that player? Did he ever ask him? The coach reared up as animatedly and considerably more defensively than his primadonna player.
“It’s not my business to know what motivates him!” Hein quickly recognised: Copenhagen, we have a problem. And so it motivated her in turn to further explore what motivates athletes, by conducting interviews with 11 leading Danish sportspeople.
One of her subjects was Mikkel Kessler, a four-time world super-middleweight champion who won 46 of his 49 professional bouts. Yet when Kessler was asked about what had been his all-time greatest kick in boxing, he didn’t reference any of his 46 victories.
Instead, without hesitation, he mentioned his 2007 Cardiff showdown against Joe Calzaghe.
“I don’t want you to get the wrong picture here,” Hein explained. “Kessler likes winning. But to Kessler there is one motivational driver that surpasses all others — the call of duty.” For Kessler, any time he walked into a boxing ring, he had a moral obligation to do his best, for himself and the sport.
"That night in Cardiff, he felt he brought out the best in himself — and Calzaghe — and a standard of boxing the Danish public would never have witnessed before. “No one,” he’d tell Hein, “went home disappointed.”
Not even him.
Hein also sat down with Frederik Nielsen who in 2012 won the Wimbledon doubles. While it was undoubtedly the greatest achievement of his career, it was far from his highest kick — in fact, as he’d explain to Hein, it sent him into a downward spiral.
After Wimbledon everyone had told him to stop playing singles — to focus solely on doubles; that way he’d win more matches, earn more ranking points, make more money. But that compromised Nielsen’s primary motivation — his pure love of playing the game.
In doubles he had a more limited range of shots to hit, a more limited space to cover, less opportunity to express his very being.
By then trying to prove to others that he was primarily a singles player, he lost his pure love of the game. He was no longer playing to satisfy his own motives, rather everyone else’s.
Kessler, Nielson, and the footballer who acted up are what Hein terms model Primadonnas — sportspeople who are primarily driven to serve a higher purpose.
“And when they succeed in reaching the highest standard and feel they made for a difference for that higher purpose,” explains Hein, “they don’t necessarily feel happiness. What they feel is existential meaning. And existential meaning is a very interesting motivational driver because it is the one that driver that can never be extinguished. It is a continuous source of meaning and motivation.”
Hein has found there are three other motivational archetypes. Nearest on the scale to the Primadonna is the Introverted Performance Addict, a figure that in her slides closely resembles The Thinker. Introverted Performance Addicts, says Hein, are “classical nerds”.
They get their kick from coming up with creative and innovative ways of “cracking nuts of increasing difficulty”.
When the nut is cracked, says Hein, especially in the form of a serious competitor, they don’t celebrate like most people do.
They can appear like “loners”, who withdraw from, or stay on the periphery of, the celebrations. They celebrate, says Hein, by throwing something of “an introverted party”, in which it’s as if they’re holding and sipping a cup of coffee and nodding approvingly, watching their co-workers bound around more energetically. It may not look like it, says Hein, but the Introverted Performance Addict is “having the greatest party of their life”.
Until, in a short while, they get itchy and restless and go looking for another tough nut and try to come up with ways to crack it.
Remind you of anyone?
As Hein explained the Introverted Performance Addict to us last October, the image of Gavin appeared to the fore of our mind as much as her Thinker infographic. But of course, that’s not what people wanted him to be.
They wanted him planting the flag like an Extroverted Performance Addict would. This archetype in Hein’s model is more along the traditional idea we have for an elite sportsperson — it’s not about being the best you can be but simply being better than everyone else.
While the Primadonna is driven by the cause, and the Introverted Performance Addict is driven by the process, the Extroverted Performance Addict is primarily driven by competition, so they can beat their chest and plant their flag.
The final archetype is the Pragmatist. They get a kick from doing good work — they just need someone to define and acknowledge what good work is.
It is Hein’s contention that workplaces tend to favour the Extroverted Performance Addict and The Pragmatist, because there is an assumption as to what motivates people. And of course the same extends to sport, among coaches, the public, the media.
The danger, Hein finds, is that when you use more extrinsically motivated methods with more intrinsically motivated people like the Primadonna and the Introverted Performance Addict, you ‘crowd them out’.
High performers become low performers. Performance and motivation drops, as it did with Nielsen after he won Wimbledon.
Gavin understands that not everyone in the Dublin setup is an Extroverted Performance Addict, though he caters for them by giving them the best possible chance to win.
He himself is something of a primadonna — there to serve a call of duty. In his professional life it has been to serve the country and its defence forces, and now in his work with the Irish Aviation Authority, to keep Irish airspace safe. As a coach it is all about his players and to maintain and enhance “the traditions and values of Dublin football”.
Last weekend on RTÉ’s Countrywide he was again asked about his low-key celebrations. “I didn’t think I did anything wrong, did I?” he smiled. “It’s all about the players. It’s not about me or the backroom team or the management. I’m there to serve them.”
When he was a player who had been trying to climb the summit for years, he was quite happy to plant the flag in 1995. But in recent years, he’s been just as content to leave that to his more extroverted players.
In that way he’s a lot like another coach who constantly talks about ‘The Process’ — Alabama football’s Nick Saban. Shortly after Saban had led his college to another national championship, a golfing buddy called to offer his congratulations. “That damn game cost me a week of recruiting,” grumbled Saban. Never mind planting the flag, he was already wanting to find another nut to crack, The Process, his existential meaning, continued. As Hein observes, it never goes on.
Stephen Cluxton is a similar spirit. It remains one of the greatest gestures in football history, Tomás Ó Sé marching downfield to present Cluxton with the matchball of the 2011 All Ireland final — there’s your nut, fair play, you cracked it, you cracked us – but as ungracious as it appeared, Cluxton promptly kicked it away and retreated to the sanctuary of the dressing room.
The thrill had been in the quest — mastering his kickout, nailing those frees. Now it had finally resulted in the win, he wanted to be by himself, to take it all in, even if he looked a bit of a “loner”.
Gavin didn’t overreact when Dublin lost to Donegal three years ago. Instead, in keeping with his personality, motivation, and profession, he just surveyed the damage, reviewed the black box, and absorbed its lessons to avoid the likelihood of similar mistakes being repeated.
Last September he remained similarly measured and on task. His plane had landed safely. Was rocky for a while, experienced some serious turbulence there after Lee Keegan’s goal, but in the end the plane landed safely.
No hoopla, no champagne, just a coffee, thanks, the perfect beverage for the introvert’s party.
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