Dr Ed Coughlan: Champions need to learn to win ugly before they can win anything

This Mayo team have learned one critical thing that separates them from before and that is the ability to win ugly, writes Dr Ed Coughlan.

Elite sport is all about the result; at least for those involved. Spectators and pundits may have expectations of what a game should look like, or how one performance is a crystal ball to the expected quality of the next.

But none of that matters at the elite level. You have to win at all costs, stretching the limits of what the game governs as legal, to find a way. Especially if you are really only competing against one or two other teams. You need to be right for those key encounters, so long as you get through the other lesser opposition en route. Under Alex Ferguson, Manchester United became the masters of this craft. Last-minute escapes against lesser opposition and convincing wins against their true rivals defined who they were for 20 years. The history books list the winners, and if you’re lucky, the runners-up. The back story of how good, bad or indifferent a team was along the way quickly becomes yesterday’s news.

The air is thin at the elite level and the opposition in a final is often a familiar foe. The challenge to keep something in reserve or, better still, to unveil something completely different is the stroke of genius that can prove the difference between two storied rivals. We often hear about momentum and how confidence is directly affected by it. But momentum can also be deceiving. A team on a roll, blitzing their opposition, can begin to believe their own hype. Nothing quite brings about a performance in a final like the feeling that you got there with plenty still to prove.

Mayo have now reached their third All-Ireland senior football final in five years, having competed in every semi-final of the last six, and yet no-one gives them a chance of winning on September 18. We are constantly reminded of how they should look at this stage of the season, as if there were a perfect recipe for success. We are also asked to compare them to the ultimately unsuccessful previous versions of themselves. Again, a pointless exercise. The Mayo of recent years failed to bridge the now 65-year gap since their last All-Ireland win, so it begs the question, why would this Mayo team want to do anything similar to its failing former self?

Previously, Mayo have blown away opposition in the early rounds, winning Connacht championships with such ease as to have people question the merits of the competition that they faced. Quarter-final opponents were swatted away without much hesitation. Their semi-finals have often been the must-see games of the season.

But none of that matters because no medal graces the pockets of the players who have toiled these last six years. They’ve tried the direct approach, reluctantly playing their parts in other teams successes. Playing the type of football those aforementioned spectators and pundits stand up and applaud only for them to poke fun at them immediately afterwards when they fall at the final hurdle.

Playing pretty football and losing through valiant effort never satisfies the hearts and minds of the elite athlete.

Nothing hurts a high performer more than pity and a charitable pat on the head from your victor.

This Mayo team have learned one critical thing that separates them from before and that is the ability to win ugly. To be content to win a low-scoring game by one point. To be more interested in getting a result than looking good chasing it. Elite sport is littered with also-rans of failed performances full of heart and passion. But elite athletes with realistic aspirations of success need to know how to get the job done, whatever the weather, whoever the opposition, wherever the occasion. This is not an innate trait but a skill learned on the training field.

Players coached to perfection are short-changed compared to those coached to cope with imperfection.

Winning ugly is defined as the capacity to do enough. To be ruthless. No doubt, be spectacular if the moment presents itself, but not at the expense of the result.

Winning ugly is a gift that keeps on giving. First, you get the satisfaction of the win. It also provides you with a blueprint for the content of your next few training sessions. Next, it gives your players plenty of motivation to focus their efforts in those hours of training they inhabit away from everybody else. Finally, and possibly most importantly, in the rarefied atmosphere of where medals are won or lost, it keeps your next opponent guessing.

Mayo have four weeks to prepare for an All-Ireland final. Yet none of their key players have consistently shown the type of form that have made them household names and All Star footballers over recent years.

However, they’ll sit down next Sunday, fully recovered from their unimpressive efforts against Tipperary to watch Dublin and Kerry fight for a chance to play them on the third Sunday in September.

And if that is not enough to focus their minds, they’ll also have to sit through the so-called expert opinions of those who will try to convince them that because they haven’t hit top gear so far this year, they can’t expect to do so on the last day of the season.

The Mayo football team that we see this year looks nothing like the teams of old. That’s a good thing, if you’re a Mayo fan. Previous incarnations filled lesser opponents with fear because of the momentum and experience that they brought to bear.

However, better opponents saw familiarity, and one- dimensionality that was easy to plan against as how they played always appeared to matter more than how they won.

Not this team. Not this year. This team have been busy in other ways. Experimenting with formations and player positions in championship matches.

Not content to win one way, but to win any way. Mayo under Stephen Rochford, are prepared to stutter and stumble in order to peak once and for all.

The author has worked with the Mayo footballers for four seasons and is a skills acquisition specialist with extensive experience in football and hurling at the inter-county level.


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