Dr Ed Coughlan: Appreciate that greatness takes time

Éamonn Fitzmaurice: Chose brave option when staying on in 2014.

Sport is about results.

Even where kids are concerned, they want to know the score af the final whistle to determine who won.

So maybe the problem is not the score, but how the score is perceived and given weight after the fact.

Worse still, is the possible impact from the people who weren’t even competing. The bystanders, the parents, the fans — there is always someone with an opinion. Someone who thinks they could have done better.

Misguided and misplaced interest manifests itself into advice and so-called words of wisdom that are all too often delivered in a language beyond the targeted ears.

At the end of the day, a player wants to play, and a coach wants to coach. Issues arise when the coach still wants to play and worse still, when the bystanders want to play and coach.

Kids who engage in competitive matches, win or lose, have a lot to teach the adults in their environment.

They have a great capacity to move on quickly and get stuck into something else before the end of the day, sometimes even before they get home, if they’re given the space to do so.

It is often others who keep them from moving on. This is not to dismiss the possible positive impact of some probing questions about the game. However, the radar needs to be on to know when to move on.

They don’t appear to bathe themselves in the warmth of a win or bury themselves in the darkness of a loss, as adults appear to do.

This is not to suggest that they don’t care, they do, but in their innocence, they seem to be able to care just the right amount and still have space in their heads for other equally important stuff, like Lego.

Sport has a great capacity for making experts of us all.

Hindsight is as clever as ever with all the answers to pick and choose from after the fact.

However, if we were more aware of the mechanisms that underpin behaviour change, we might be a little more forgiving, and ideally, more patient with our sports stars and those who coach them.

Last weekend Éamonn Fitzmaurice stepped down as the Kerry football manager amid reports of growing pressures from outside the camp demanding better performances from within the camp.

What’s surprising is that it has come only a matter weeks after they trounced Cork in the Munster final.

A game after which people were convinced that Kerry were once again genuine All-Ireland contenders. How could it go from that to this in such a short space of time?

Quite easily to be honest. That this Kerry team have not hit the consistent heights expected of their trophy-laden fans is not unexpected when you consider the task that Fitzmaurice took on since leading Kerry to All-Ireland success in 2014.

He could have walked away there and then with his head held high. But instead, he chose to look forward and take on the challenges that he saw coming down the path.

Such as the inevitable retirements of seasoned players and the task of bringing through the next generation of Kerry footballers at a time when Dublin were threatening to take over.

But if the challenge of building a successful team is difficult, building another one to follow in their footsteps appears to be even more difficult. Few have ever managed this feat in the history of world sport. Why is this?

It may be because of the difficulties associated with behaviour change. We should never underestimate how hard it is to change a behaviour.

And that is where only one athlete is concerned; you can multiply the difficulty exponentially when you are talking about a team of athletes.

The transtheoretical model of behaviour change is a somewhat outdated and simplistic model for the mechanisms that underpin the processes that people experience as they try to change their ways, but it can serve as a guide for our purposes here.

The first stage is precontemplation, a state of ignorance where one is not even aware that they need to change anything about their behaviour.

The player who is happy with where they’re at and feels no need to change as what they have has served them very well up to that point in time.

Kerry’s Jack Barry reacts to a missed chance. ©INPHO/James Crombie
Kerry’s Jack Barry reacts to a missed chance. ©INPHO/James Crombie

The second stage is contemplation, where one begins to think that there may be something to change about their behaviour.

The player who falls out of form and is unsure why or how it has happened because in their head, they’ve changed nothing. However, at this stage, little is being done about it.

This only changes in stage three, preparation, where one begins the process of putting things in place that will result in a change of behaviour.

The player who begins to chat with the coach about aspects of their game and begins to consider the merits of doing a little more practice on the areas of their game that they’re not great at, but up until this point have managed to get away with it.

Eventually, one reaches stage four, action, where one applies themselves to the challenges of new behaviours.

The player who gets busy getting better, safe in the knowledge it is not going to be pretty for large parts of the process and their resolve will be tested repeatedly to go back to what they once knew, where they were happy and ignorant.

Finally, stage five, maintenance, is the most telling of stages, where the work is now focused on topping up the effort consistently, so the new behaviour is resilient enough to be good enough under pressure.

The player who stays the course, through the uncomfortable period of change and begins to see the new behaviour as the only behaviour, leaving old habits behind.

But all of this takes time. Unfortunately, the model is not linear. People can go from one stage to another and not even in the order mentioned above. They can go backwards across the model.

Not to mention the fact there are no known timelines for how long each stage may last, as it is different for everyone.

Now consider the job of managing the process of getting better for every player in a squad and how complex and intricate it may prove to be.

No doubt, some days on the journey, it will feel like everything is falling into place, but until the sufficient time and effort has been committed to the task by everyone involved, those fleeting moments will remain as glimpses into your potential but will ultimately remain out of reach.

So spare a thought for the coach that you may be delighted to see vacate the hot seat.

All too often, they needed more time, they deserved more time. More patience from those on the outside looking in, as the magnitude of the task very often only reveals itself when you’re in the middle of the dogfight.

Ironically, the impact of a new voice in the dressing room is short lived and what was needed all along was an appreciation that greatness takes time.

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