Enda McNulty saw good days and bad with the Armagh footballers. In his time with the Orchard County they went from also-rans to feared opponents, a career path which gives him a unique perspective as a sports psychologist and performance coach. He spoke to Michael Moynihan about focusing on big games
* SOUND ADVICE: focusing on everyday work rather than the enormity of the occasion and the hype surrounding it, is an ideal way to escape the ‘noise’ around the event.
YOU’VE heard those experts, don’t pretend you haven’t. Bar-stool pundits blowing froth off the beer after a game, pronouncing solemnly that one crowd were bate before the ball was thrown in, you could tell by looking at them come onto the field.
It’s usually accompanied by a hymn to the other crowd, who came out ready to do the devil and all, the whole game foretold in the teams’ approach to the field of play.
Enda McNulty says a little too much is made of bursting through the dressing-room door, however.
“I would say if the focus is invested in how you walk onto the pitch, or how you line up for the photograph, or how you carry yourself, then the focus is on the wrong thing. It’s pretty inconsequential. It won’t have much impact on your performance or on the game itself.”
McNulty, managing director of Motiv8, which specialises in performance coaching in business and sport, has ready examples of the proper approach to hand.
“If you look at top professionals, top soccer players going into the arena, they’re nice and calm. They’re chilled out, they’re not thinking ‘I must stand tall and show my opponent no fear’. They’re relaxed – in some cases before Premiership and Champions League games they’re smiling and talking to their opponents as they go into the arena.
“I think we can learn from these professionals because obviously they’re going into the arena far more regularly than top GAA players. Hurlers and footballers only play championship games six or seven times, while a top soccer player may play over forty high-intensity games over the course of a season.
“They’re not spending any time on anything else.”
The Armagh man is a champion of routine – routine at all costs – for players who want to realise their potential in big games.
“Before an All-Ireland final a player should stick to the routine he had before the first round of the championship. He should stick to the process that has led to the success thus far - maintain it at all costs.
“I remember asking DJ Carey what he’d done before the 2003 All-Ireland hurling final, whether he’d used mental imagery and visualisation, or watched tapes of their opponents. He said he’d been out cutting the grass in front of the house.
“In other words, he was chilled and relaxed and doing what was normal for him. I’ve been in two All-Ireland finals myself, one successful and one unsuccessful, and if I had the chance all over again I’d have a much more relaxed routine – not taking on board the hype, getting away from that and enjoying the build-up in a nice, natural way.”
It’s a holistic approach to routine, however, and one that takes account of superstition without allowing it to influence performance adversely.
“Working with top sportspeople I advise them to stick to the routine at all costs – the routines of sleeping, training, eating, seeing girlfriend or wife – and not to let anything put that routine out of kilter.
“There should be no superstitions, not getting up at the exact time you wanted or not having the exact amount of pasta you want should be regarded as inconsequential, but you can’t be too regimented.
“You can stick to the things that help you reach that prefect performance state without going over the top. If you go over the top, then if your Ipod isn’t working or your right socks aren’t in the bag or the right t-shirt to wear under your jersey, that’ll throw your performance to a certain extent.”
Maintaining the routine may extend to the seconds before hostilities begin; for instance, if a team goes into a group huddle before all games, he advises them to keep that going.
“If that’s what the team always does, stick with it, but if it isn’t, then why try something different? In all the games I played with Armagh, I never felt that because we stood in a certain way in the huddle or for the photograph, I knew we were ready for battle.
“You know you’re ready for the battle months in advance by getting the physical conditioning right, by getting the mental approach right, by working on the tactics, by improving your technical skills, by getting your lifestyle right and conducive to living like a professional athlete – all of that isn’t going to be affected by the twenty minutes between running onto the pitch and standing for the photograph.
“At that stage you’re ready for battle. You don’t need gimmicks, for want of a better word.”
That doesn’t mean plans can’t be made to deal with contingencies, though McNulty is careful when it comes to ascribing responsibility for those plans.
“Two or three nights before the match you could introduce something to help players realise their potential or maybe relax them. But we advise a lot of top coaches and players, in all sports, is not to focus on gimmicks but to focus on what to do if you’re five points up at half-time, or two goals to nil ahead. What’s your strategy then? It’s a no-brainer that that’s going to have more impact on the team than a poster that you unveil in the changing rooms at half-time.
“It’s the fundamentals of the game, that’s where it’s at rather than intricate stuff which has a pretty inconsequential impact on the performance. But when it comes to plans I differentiate between coaches and players – coaches focus on all scenarios, and their work probably goes until midnight the evening before a game, while the players’ work is probably done a week, a week-and-a-half before the game.
“Working with world-class athletes you can see their work is done a week before the event, and it’s the same in GAA, you’re chilled until twenty minutes before the game or whatever.”
McNulty acknowledges the study in contrasts between Kilkenny’s vast experience and the high number of All-Ireland final debutants for Tipperary this weekend. But that doesn’t mean the two sides can’t learn lessons from the past, and McNulty offers one last tip: “I worked with a hurler before a recent All-Ireland final who wanted to ensure he performed on the big day. “When I asked what he did before the game he said he planned on working until the Friday, which was good – it meant he was focused on work rather than the enormity of the occasion and the hype surrounding it – what you might term the ‘noise’ around the event.
“And he performed well on the big day.”
* For more details log on to www.motiv8.ie
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved