Thursday 20 July 2017

Aaaarrgh!

The testicle spectacle at a GAA game wasn't the first. Remember Vinnie and Gazza? John Costello on the psychology behind the underhanded tackle

Like gladiators in battle, the Kerry club team stood before their opposite numbers as the referee slowly raised the whistle to his lips.

But when the players of Dromid Pearse extended their hands in the customary gesture of goodwill before battle commenced at O'Moore Park in Portlaoise last Sunday, some were in for a rude awakening.

"When our fellas went to shake hands with them, (three of the 15 Derrytresk players) went for their testicles and pulled them," said the furious manager of Dromid Pearse, Michael Anthony O'Connell, after the final whistle.

The shocking start to the match against the Tyrone champions eventually saw the game spill over into a mass brawl just before half- time as players, subs and fans traded blows.

The unsightly melee left one player with a broken cheekbone, another with concussion and onlookers wondering how a sport can descend to such lows.

"The thing you have to understand is that players feel when they are on the pitch it is a life-or-death situation and all they want is to win," says Gary Jameson, former player and fitness and psychological consultant to the Wicklow county team.

"Whether it is standing on a guy's toes, giving him an elbow or verbally intimidating him, players will do what they feel they can get away with."

But while going for the groin before the ball is thrown-in may be considered extreme, the players from Tyrone are not the first -- and most likely will not be the last -- the aim below the belt.

Vinnie Jones famously grimaced with menace as he grabbed Paul Gascoigne by the testicles and gave them a squeeze that left a lasting impression on then Newcastle United soccer star.

Indeed, 'ball bashing' is so effective that Malaysian basketball player Kwaan Yoong Jing is something of a serial offender. He has squeezed the groin of several opponents over his career and was last caught on camera in August when he sent a player into a fit of rage after temporarily paralysing him with the attack.

"Players are always looking for chinks in the armour of the other guy and look for vulnerabilities they can exploit and take advantage of," says Jameson.

"It is about players wanting to show that they are going to be stronger and tougher than the opposition. They want to show that they are not going to give their opposite numbers any respect and it is really about old school macho behaviour."

Indeed, there are few places a man fears being hit more than the groin, possibly the most sensitive part of the body.

The pain associated with trauma to the testicles is a natural defence used to ensure maximum protection of the area. A direct hit can produce not only intense pain, but also vomiting and, in severe cases, a loss of consciousness.

But just how painful is it?

"I wouldn't be able to answer that," said Giles Warrington, a sports physiologist in the School of Health and Human Performance Dublin City University. "I don't even know how you would define it. But one thing is for sure: it is obviously very, very painful."

However, when players employ such tactics, it is far more than just inflicting pain.

"They are basically school bullies," says sports psychologist, Andy Barton. "They sense a weakness in certain people. Usually subconsciously, that person will then start projecting a future of things going wrong.

"They'll get pictures of Vinnie Jones, or whoever, coming up behind them. The body reacts and is constricted by tension, anxiety and fear. So you're not going to play anywhere near your best. You become their prey."

However, while the likes of Jones thrived in their hard man role, playing dirty can also be a double-edged sword.

"Players constantly think they need to get an edge by such behaviour but it can often backfire," says PJ Smyth, a sports psychologist with the Department of Physical Education and Sports Sciences in the University of Limerick

"That is because they are not focused on what they should be focusing on -- winning the game. Instead they put their energies into other things, such as intimidating their opposition, and they lose the edge that they were trying so hard to gain.

"In fact, do you can recall when England played Ireland in Croke Park, when Martin Johnson and his team stood in the position of the Irish team before the start of the match and refused to move?

"England went on to win that match but what people fail to remember is that they played very poorly in the opening quarter. Ireland played better and it is likely England were distracted by their attempts to gain a psychological edge."

But while attempts will be made by the GAA to stamp out the physical side of on-the-pitch psychological warfare in the aftermath of last Sunday's game, don't expect players to give up on their dirty tricks any time soon.

"Players will always try to do what they think they can get away with," said Jameson. "And if you took that aggression away from players, they would not be the same. It is a tough sport. When the referee is not looking, some players will always try to cross the line. Unfortunately, it is the nature of the beast."

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