I’ve been fortunate to play on a team where winning was second nature. That wasn’t always the case — it took some time for it to become like that — but winning became standard. It became the expectation of ourselves.
All-Ireland wins became our barometer for success. We set many records together, one being 36 consecutive competitive games undefeated. Not an easy task, but one achieved by a group hungry for success and even hungrier to avoid disappointment.
We won every All-Ireland final that we competed in, including five in a row twice. The current team added one more to that tally this year, making it their first six in a row. This dominance of ladies football, over a period of 11 years, was unimaginable, considering success had eluded Cork until 2005, when we won our first championship.
This dominance and winning mentality was cultivated on the training ground, where we worked to develop a winning mentality as much as a winning skillset. Confidence can take years to build up and moments to knock, which is why it is so important to success that confidence is fact-based. People’s opinions of you, and even your opinion of yourself, is subject to change. But facts are the truth, they are emotion-free.
While self-belief is undeniably a crucial ingredient in success, there is much more comfort in the knowledge that something is achievable because it already has been achieved before — preferably by you. I don’t necessarily mean that in terms of large-scale achievements, more in terms of the small ones.
Break down a success — a win — into its components. It is obvious that a big win is a series of small wins you already knew you could achieve if you and the people around you worked hard and stayed focused.
Anyone can turn belief into knowledge, which is much more durable and reliable under the pressures associated with sport.
It starts from the ground up, with the basics. On a personal level, you have to know that you can be committed to all that your goal encompasses, that you can make the runs you need to make, hit the speeds you need, beat a player bigger and faster than you, kick the ball between the posts from whatever angle necessary or hit the net with three players marking you. The only way to really believe that you can do it, as opposed to simply hoping you can, is to turn your self-belief into the cold hard facts that make up your knowledge — by practising.
For me, facts formed my confidence in sport. I practised a lot and not just until I knew I had achieved the ability to perform a skill. Achieving something once or twice can be just as much luck as ability. Leaving it at that is leaving it to chance.
I would practise shooting and free-taking from the same spot over and over and take a mental note of my stats scoring from that place. I might have appeared a cocky player or a risk-taker during my career, but in reality, I had already made those shots before and I knew the probability of recreating them was strong, all other things considered.
It is relatively simple. If you put in the hard work, you can do anything you want to. If luck is on your side it helps, if it isn’t, you can overcome that with more practise.
The best free-takers and scorers don’t leave things to chance and just believe they can do it when the time comes. They spend countless hours practicing the same mundane skills tirelessly, observing their stats, reproducing the match scenarios and amassing experiencing at specific skills.
They know the rough probability of making any shot and if they don’t like their chances, they improve them. They use percentages to steady their nerves because statistics don’t lie.
In a way, preparing like this is the antidote to pressure. A big occasion or an emotional one can break a player or a team. Placing confidence on the side of knowledge instead of belief can steady a player through the most intense self-doubt.
Many excellent free-takers fall into the trap of losing confidence when one or two opportunities are missed. If the focus is based on the result of a small number of recent misses rather than a broader perspective of probability, the player can all too easily forget their overall success rate and plummet rapidly into a negative state of mind.
One of the most important things I learned during my career is that practise makes consistency. The way I look at it, if you miss an average of one in five shots, then missing two in a row means you will get the next eight in a row. That is much more reflective of reality than thinking you’ve missed two and now you’re suddenly not able to perform that skill to the same ability anymore.
or a team to achieve a winning mindset, the players need to win the little victories for themselves, whatever they may be. Everybody is different. As one cohesive unit, they must bring all of the little wins together so that their belief in themselves as a team is really a knowledge that side by side they can win the small wins and it will all add up. This is part of the clawback effect, coming back from the brink one small win at a time. It is the same way you break through in the first place.
For the Cork team, once we initially broke through and achieved a championship win, we had experience and evidence that we could win again the next time. From my perspective, that evidence was our knowledge, and that knowledge became powerful to us when we faced challenges.
ome of the highlights of my time as a player — and what the Cork team are perhaps most recognised for — are the comebacks. As a team, we were involved in quite a number of turnarounds over the years. Our most famous one, in the 2014 All-Ireland final against Dublin, must have appeared to be a show of extreme self-belief. But to me it was an exhibition of our knowledge that we had the ability to come back if we worked hard for each other.
It wasn’t a sudden ability to come back from the brink — we had done it before. We had practised it, so to speak. In 2011, we won against Dublin in an All-Ireland quarter-final, having been down 2-7 to 3-10 with 16 minutes to play. We came back to win 2-14 to 3-10.
Skip ahead two years and we meet Dublin in the All-Ireland quarter-final at the same venue. Again, we fell behind, this time 2-9 to 1-6 at half-time. But we drew on the knowledge that we could come back and beat them and in the last 20 minutes of that match we scored 1-10 without reply. Fast-forward to the following season and the scene is set for a “third time lucky” episode for Dublin. We were 10 points down with 17 minutes remaining. We scored a few points and a goal. I remember thinking we had been in this position twice before and succeeded, so if we did it before we could do it again.
There was a pattern leading up to our Croke Park comeback — it was to win the little things on a personal level, win as a team, repeat.
Winning is a habit that is hard to create on a large scale but is very achievable on a personal level. Coaches and team-mates play a huge role in forming positive mindsets about playing, winning and success. Creating opportunities for success within training can form the foundation for confidence through experience.
However, there is no substitute for creating realistic personal goals and going about achieving them with purposeful practice and a practical observational mindset. Believing isn’t knowing but knowing is believing.
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