"One man practising sportsmanship is far better than 100 teaching it"— Knute Rokne, legendary Notre Dame coach.
Watching Donegal and Tyrone on Sunday brought me right back to when I was just 17. I played my first full season with Tralee’s Super League basketball team — the Tigers. I was a young kid who had never experienced playing against seasoned Americans before.
The very first game I played in the Sports Complex, I was matched up against a 6’10” Yank from inner city Washington. From the tip-off, this guy didn’t stop what they call ‘trash-talking’ across the pond. He incessantly badgered me about my appearance; my goofy haircut in particular seemed to amuse him— in fairness, it wasn’t the coolest of cows-licks you’ll ever see — he spoke about my family, my game.
Nothing was out of bounds, real nasty stuff. Psychological warfare at its finest. Each insult he threw at me was more cutting than the last. It was like a scene from ‘White Men Can’t Jump’.
I was in shock, green as grass. I spent the whole game trying to think of smart retorts to throw back at him. My focus was gone, more interested in trying to clobber this guy than playing my own game. Head reeling.
But I learned quickly, and he thought me a great lesson about the battle to win the six inches between your ears.
That’s what ‘sledging’ is all about. It’s the battle to break you mentally; to get you to react, throw a dig out of temper or just lose your focus, and we saw an exhibition of it in Ballybofey last Sunday.
The term first appeared into common GAA vernacular back in 2012, and referred to incidents of trash talking where players exchanged insults and verbal intimidation on the field of play like my buddy from Washington.
But sledging isn’t new, it’s existed under different guises for a very long time; remember the clatter Páidí O Sé hit Denis Allen of Cork in the ’75 Munster final — you’ll find it on YouTube, the one where Páidí nearly decapitates his man with a left hook in full view of a referee and wasn’t sent off.
Wasn’t Allen (who had started that game very well) after telling Páidí after about 10 minutes that Kerry were warming up subs and they’d be taking him off soon. Bang. Sledging in its infancy.
GAA managers love to talk about the importance of mental strength. It’s universally recognised as a key component of all successful sportspeople and teams. The top tier potential All-Ireland winners all train as hard as each other, they all have good players and are tactically astute, sometimes, what separates champions from the rest is their mental fortitude, those top six inches. Those small margins can come from an ability to maintain focus and be oblivious to any chatter from the opposition.
If opponents see a crack in that mental wall, and feel they can get you to react by telling you that ‘you wouldn’t get a kick in a stampede you useless f**ker’ or roaring into an opponents face, like Frank McGlynn and Paddy McBrearty did after Donegal’s late first half goal on Sunday, they’ll do it.
And they’ll keep chipping at that wall until it crumbles and your focus is no longer on being an effective member of your team. It draws you into a battle where there are no winners.
One of the problems I have with the term ‘sledging’ is it’s too all-encompassing a term and doesn’t differentiate between the really nasty stuff and the more harmless banter. I don’t mind saying that during my playing days, I can recall countless instances in games where I was both the recipient of, and also source of some degree of sledging.
If I had a euro for every guy on a football pitch that told me I couldn’t run, ‘you’re as slow as a hearse’ or ‘you could put down roots you move so little’ — or one of my favourites; the smart Cork half-back who loved to ask me every single year ‘where did they get a jersey to fit you boy… did they paint over Fossett’s circus tent?’.
Silly schoolyard jibes to take your mind off your job. More trash talking —the lighter side of sledging if you will.
What we saw last Sunday in Ulster by both sides was hard-core sledging, and gave an otherwise excellent game of football a really nasty feel to it. I accept players aren’t robots, and with a crazed will to win in a gladiatorial atmosphere, heated words will be exchanged on the field, and guys can get caught up in the drama and atmosphere of a big game.
But what is crystal clear from last Sunday is, the threat of black cards does nothing to stop teams slinging verbal spears at each other.
In modern day NBA basketball, if you engage in sledging (as we define it), you get a technical foul assigned to you faster than you can blink. Two Techs and you’re out of the game. Simple. Fans argue that the game has become over-sanitised as a result of the clamp down. But all the smack talk led to intimidation, the intimidation led to brawls, and brawls are bad for the business side of basketball.
In an attempt to begin some degree of sanitisation, the GAA launched their Respect Initiative a number of years ago which was really aimed at educating kids and tentatively at adult players, coaches and parents about what is acceptable and what is not on the field of play, and on the side-lines. It will be a long process but hopefully a sustainable one into the future because sledging is proving virtually unpoliceable for officials at all levels.
If referee Joe McQuillan didn’t feel he could stand over dishing out black cards for the amount of blatant sledging that went on last Sunday, we surely won’t see one this summer. And I would be very critical of him and his team’s performance in that regard.
Emphasising key elements of the Respect Initiative and teaching kids about the importance of sportsmanship and respect for your opponent is the only sustainable solution, though it is not a quick fix.
Fanciful I know, but a long term view, coupled with a greater degree of enforcement from officials now, will help curb the blatant sledging that has infiltrated our games.
Because at the moment, the black card has proved about as effective at reducing sledging as tea is at curing ebola.
Players need to be more responsible also, and realise that what we saw last weekend damages the fabric of the game and negatively affects how our games are perceived by the masses.
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