GAA Football

Danny Hughes: Managing expectations is key to success in Gaelic games

Gaelic footballers could do worse than take a steer from how golf sensation Rory McIlroy approaches his life and deals with expectation and pressure  

MAYBE I have been living in the past.

Last week, I stated that Tyrone players usually opted to play for their county during the Dr McKenna Cup, preferring to nail down a starting place with the county team  as opposed to playing for their university.

The next day in The Irish News, St Mary’s UC’s Dr McKenna Cup panel contained a number of Tyrone players in their ranks. Therefore, for that inaccuracy, apologies all round.

I would say that the same Tyrone representatives on that St Mary’s side would have been welcomed in Kingspan Breffni Park when Cavan brought an end to a six-year winning streak.

I doubt there will be many Red Hand fans, supporters or indeed players losing much sleep over this fact. I admit that, in all my playing days, you would rarely have had a dominant period as a member of a winning team without knowing that, around the corner, losing a game or games was inevitable.

In American football, a lot is made of a winning season or losing season. It is a little bit different in Gaelic Games when trophies and medals are considered the definition of a ‘winner’ or ‘loser’.

Last Sunday, I read Paul Kimmage’s interview with Rory McIlroy and it was fascinating to get a better understanding of the Holywood man. I am not a golfer and never will be. I find that the adrenaline buzz and competition you get in a team environment is markedly different to the isolation of walking around 18 holes.

In fact, in mid-swing, I would be more likely to be teasing the other players, laughing or cajoling the player into making a mistake. It is interesting, though, in interviews with sportspeople - especially ones as successful as McIlroy - you can see that despite the huge earnings, they suffer from the very same afflictions as amateur players who are serious about their sport.

McIlroy described how Jack Nicklaus learned that, despite his success, the fundamentals of his life were based on his family and stability at home. Could he have won more? Yes.

More wins, though, could have come at the expense of his sanity. This is a huge admission, something I would not have guessed given Jack Nicklaus’s roll of honour. What I picked up from McIlroy’s interview was that he has become a lot more than just a golfer with a huge global brand. His personal life has become much more settled.

The media glare of dating an international tennis star was in itself too difficult and this pressure seemed to be manifesting itself in McIlroy’s own form on the golf course. This was arguably clear to see when he won a couple of Majors after stepping away from this particularly difficult time in his life.

I grew up in the ‘Tiger Woods era’, when this man became virtually Mr Golf. Nike, Gillette and a number of other major corporate sponsors could not get enough of Woods. The pressure took its toll. His home life, his golf and the winning streaks all ended.

I think it was Muhammad Ali who said, that when you love something too much, it will eventually destroy you. McIlroy cannot even go to dinner with Tiger Woods such is the level of scrutiny that Woods is under.

Would Rory McIlroy swap his life for the Majors? The answer now is ‘No’. A very different attitude to five or even 10 years ago. McIlroy has ambitions, though, and has lost none of his fire. Trying to beat the Major honours of Nicklaus or Woods does not appear to be one.

What relevance has this to Gaelic Games, you may ask? Well, I think that we are increasingly becoming more preoccupied with achieving unrealistic goals. Gaelic football is evolving. We are in a period when it appears the demands are becoming increasingly unrealistic. Only one team will win the Anglo-Celt. Only one team will win Sam Maguire.

Given the history of Down, I came into inter-county football believing that I could win Ulster and All-Ireland titles. I believed it wholeheartedly each and every year. Realistic? When I finished playing, I knew that we didn’t have the team to compete for a title in Ulster never mind an 
All-Ireland crown.

For me this was a complete sea change. All the defeats, the disappointments and the injuries had left me in a negative state. This ‘all or nothing’ mentality was one of the reasons why I never enjoyed inter-county football as much as I should have throughout my career.

For me it was a serious fear of failing myself and my family and friends. It was losing that caused me the most anxiety. The win was not enough in itself. Being able to compete at the highest level was not enough. At the end, being able to play a role in the team in whatever guise and enjoying this was alien to me. 

All or nothing. The benefit of experience, especially life experience, since finishing my career has made me appreciate that I approached the game mentally in a very blinkered and unhealthy manner.

A lot is made of the psychological element of sport. The introduction to Gaelic Games in recent years of sports psychologists is viewed by some as important additions to a management team, while others view them as a ‘fad’ to address things which a kick on the backside and a few expletives would probably solve.

While I do not consider myself a fence-sitter, I am on the fence on this one. I think there are a fair amount of bluffers in their profession, but for some people I think sports psychologists can become the difference between winning and sanity and winning and insanity.

Danny Hughes got Bruce Springsteen's autobiography in his Christmas stocking  

I was fortunate to have been left the Bruce Springsteen autobiography in my stocking this year. Springsteen, who has battled his own demons over the years, described how he visited a ‘shrink’ when it was all getting a bit much for him.

He wanted to know why he kept getting into his car at 2am and driving past the home he grew up in. Typical of the shrink, he asked him why he thought he was doing this. Springsteen said ‘well, that’s what I am paying you hundreds of dollars to tell me’.

The shrink eventually concluded that he kept getting into his car and driving past his childhood home in an attempt to ‘fix’ something from his past. ‘Accept that you can’t,’ he said.

What I take from psychology? Brilliant if it works for you, embrace it. I wish I could ‘fix’ a lot from my footballing past. Now I just accept it.

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