McNulty brought in to improve Ireland's mental game
Published 22/01/2013 | 05:00
ENDA McNULTY'S appointment as sports psychologist to the Irish rugby team for the duration of the Six Nations Championship is further evidence of how success in the GAA is creating a growing practice of cross-fertilisation with other sports.
Recently, we had Jim McGuinness, Donegal's All-Ireland-winning coach, moving to Celtic and now McNulty, a former GAA player with Armagh, will step up from Leinster to international level with Ireland.
The growing acceptance of the value of the work of sports psychologists has been endorsed by the players in all codes and sports psychologists have become an accepted element of management teams.
Steve Collins, for example, had a mind guru in his corner when he beat Chris Eubank at Millstreet, Cork, to win the WBO super-middleweight boxing title 20 years ago and most inter-county GAA teams have had a psychologist working within their set-up for years.
Astonishingly, though, this is the first time a sports psychologist has been employed within the Ireland senior set-up, although McNulty previously worked with the Ireland U-20 national side in 2007 alongside current senior team manager Mick Kearney.
Interestingly, the practice of having a professional work with elite athletes within a team environment has been advanced more quickly within the GAA than in other sports in this country.
Indeed, when Wexford won the All-Ireland hurling final in 1996 their coach Liam Griffin was effusive in his praise of Niamh Fitzpatrick, who had been brought in to help the players with their mental preparations at the start of the season.
The benefits of having a sports psychologist on hand to talk things through, though, is something modern professionals have incorporated into their routines, especially coming up to big matches. Rugby in Ireland, though, is relatively late coming to that party.
It's a development that Ireland flanker Chris Henry has welcomed and he is hugely looking forward to working with McNulty, referencing the benefits he has garnered from working with Hugh Campbell in Ulster.
"I think if you speak to most of the players it is a great resource for us to have," said Henry.
"It's not something I would go and do daily or even weekly but it is basically whenever I need to have a talk with someone, to get advice, maybe in connection with a dip in form or for lifestyle management or something."
Approaches to sports psychology can vary between practitioners, but the basic concept remains true; it's about helping individual players develop a mindset that allows them to enhance their performance.
A generic, but accurate, description of how a psychologist would help a player is in providing them with the tools by which they can make their emotions work for them, rather than being a prisoner to those emotions.
"It's hard at times in big pressure games that if you make a mistake or something on the pitch, sometimes it can take over a player that you get focused on whenever bad things happen," explained Henry.
"It is something I've been able to work on – not getting so frustrated at small things; it's hard to measure those small things, but if it helps you in your game by a couple of percentage points, it can be a big help."
McNulty's association with the Leinster team will certainly stand him in good stead with the other Irish players, as will his renown as a Gaelic footballer with Armagh.
"Certainly, he has walked the walk and achieved on the GAA pitch, which certainly helps him relate.
"Working with a psychologist is about two-way talk. And some of what you're maybe getting help with is dealing with nerves and making sure you perform at your best under pressure. That Enda has played in All-Ireland football finals means he knows where we're coming from."
McNulty is already in situ with the Irish squad and will remain with them for the duration of the Six Nations. It is an extra string to the team's bow according to team manager Mick Kearney.
"It is an added resource and I actually think it is looking about the marginal gains," said Kearney.
"The gains are so tight at international level that the winning and losing of a game can depend on the tiniest little thing and having Enda on board might be the difference between winning and losing.
"Marginal gains could be a little bit of a buzz word from the British cycling speak, but it is true and it is something we're looking at in different areas whether it is the medical, the strength and conditioning, the psychology or coaching, so it is all about that and trying to maximise what we have in terms of resources and in terms of the players."