Sunday 15 September 2019

Joe Brolly: Why I can't lose with a career in the bullshit industry

Why bother with real science and professions when you can make a career out of waffle?

Mayo dejected after defeat to Dublin in the 2016 All Ireland final
Mayo dejected after defeat to Dublin in the 2016 All Ireland final
Joe Brolly

Joe Brolly

On Tuesday, I received an invitation from the prestigious Mayo Weather Institute (@MayoWeather): "Dear Joe, would you like to be the keynote speaker at our inspirational holistic weather digi-summit on the side of Croagh Patrick in February?"

In truth, the law has been grinding me down. The endless trials. The late-night preparation for cross-examination. Reading complex legislation and case law. Being in daily contact with real-life misery and desperate hardship. Working with addicts, sociopaths, psychopaths. The grieving parents. The suicides. Seeing the fallout of austerity on the poorest people in society as public services are eroded and young mothers turn to shoplifting and worse to make ends meet.

Then there is the nightly work with cystic fibrosis and transplant patients and Optforlife. So I contacted Mayo Weather Institute (Motto: Sureitsonlyadropofrain) later that day and after some discussion, I have agreed to begin my new life as a Thought Leader with a lecture on the subject of 'Controlling weather fronts by visualisation. Internalising the power of nature.' (Fee: €10,000 plus VAT)

The beauty of this new career is that motivational coaching and sports psychology and all the rest of it is unprovable. Success or failure cannot be measured, unlike the established professions. To further disguise it, its established language is gobbledegook. George Orwell warned in his 1941 essay 'Politics and the English Language' that a new, disingenuous language of mumbo jumbo was being invented and that if we didn't stamp it out, it would swamp the earth with slurry. How prophetic he was. These people have become expert at very earnestly saying more or less nothing and being paid for it.

As a small example, Frank McCune, who describes himself as a Master in Applied Sports Psychology (@FrankSportPsych) condescended to criticise my column from last Sunday. I looked up his social media profile. A random recent statement (to someone called @CoachAndinspire) is this: "Isn't this a mind map of what the map creator thinks about when they break down the potential inputs for a pass?" I have no further questions for this witness, members of the jury.

The inaugural 'Journal of Sports Psychology' hit the shelves in 1979, triggering a movement that has become all-pervasive. Adding the word Sports to Psychology gave it a scientific flavour and created the notion that it was an evidence-based science. This is similar to what happened with positive psychology. This 'science' was established in 2000 by Martin Seligman, an entrepreneurial psychologist who saw that with new developments in anti-depression medication etc, business opportunities for conventional psychology were shrinking.

Linking 'Positive thinking' (which had been scorned and derided as false science by the psychological establishment) with 'Psychology' gave it a badge of credibility and launched it into the booming new-age industry at the perfect time.

Students, particularly those who played sport, quickly poured into the universities offering courses in sports psychology. The first sports psychologists working with teams duly appeared around the mid-1980s. Now, they are everywhere, making statements of the obvious and doing vague work with no obvious benefit.

Kieran Shannon

Derry have one. And Leitrim. And Antrim. Mayo have had rakes of them. Kieran Shannon (pictured) is a respected sports psychologist and writer who has strongly criticised my analysis of what I call the bullshit industry. Kieran was brought in by Mayo under James Horan. The team hovered inches from Sam Maguire for several years. Kieran's job, as their sports psychologist, was to nudge them over the line. He failed. Or did he?

During his tenure, their problem remained the same. Since he left, it has remained the same. They can beat everybody, but not in finals. After the replayed final this year, the Irish Examiner turned to him for an expert psychological insight into what had happened.

In a column entitled 'The hard questions Mayo must ask to reach the summit', he wrote: "The first time I spoke with that group of Mayo players a little short of five years ago in my role as performance consultant, a fundamental principle we laid down was that victory had to be earned." (Can I just say here: Jesus wept).

He then wrote about "committing to the process" and gave an example of this, describing how the Mayo players religiously brushed their teeth with their left hand in order to try and improve their kicking with their left foot. (Jesus on the floor, kicking his legs in the air laughing.)

At the risk of heresy, can I just say that I am, and always have been, left-footed, yet right-handed, and being naturally right-handed never helped me to master kicking with the right. No matter how much I practised, and I practised like a Chinese table tennis player, the right never matched the left. Perhaps I should have double-bluffed my brain and washed my teeth with my left hand? Shit! I just thought of that . . .

The piece continued with the usual banalities about "smacking the ice", an idea that Robert the Bruce made famous in 1320 when at a very low ebb, sitting in a cave, he watched a spider toiling up the wall, only to fall and then begin the long ascent again. Is there a child who doesn't know the punchline: 'If at first you don't succeed try and try and try again.' Robert would be proud that his inspirational ditty has been co-opted by the sports psychologists. Kieran then comes to the nub, explaining why Mayo have not made the one breakthrough that matters. But before that, a warning. I have read this several times and even as a barrister used to reading difficult law on a daily basis, I cannot make head or tail of it.

"Because, in a nutshell, the virtue and philosophy that drives them forward is also internally compromised."

No dictionary can help you here. At least no human one. But there it is. If no one understands it, it cannot be wrong. And if no one understands it, it cannot be tested. Straight face. Furrowed brow. Confident delivery.

There's a lot of "guys" and other such Americanised lingo. "Smacking the ice" is trotted out again and again, in the manner of any American sportscaster named Bob. Finally, he suggests another, less scientific explanation for Mayo's failure . . . That Aidan O'Shea needs to do more shooting practice. (Jesus hyperventilating on the sofa).

The gurus would have us believe Mayo’s failure is down to Aidan O’Shea not practising – but it’s not

Since Kieran left Mayo, they have been through two more experts: Des Jennings, the high performance consultant at SINI, the Sports Institute of Northern Ireland, and Jennifer Kilroy, who describes herself as a performance coach. Their results were exactly the same as Kieran's. Two years of replays against the Dubs. Four games Mayo were in a position to win but didn't. How do we judge the contribution of sports psychologists? Happily for the industry, it is an impossible task. Which is why, perversely, under-performance is never blamed on the performance expert.

About six weeks ago, we noticed that one of our under 16s suddenly wasn't playing with confidence. We wondered why. I watched him carefully one evening during a training match I was refereeing and noticed that when he was kicking the ball with his natural left, he was rolling his left shoulder back and stretching his left arm out from his body. So, when he struck the ball, he was leaning back, his left arm was pulling him off balance and with his body slightly skewed, he was no longer striking the ball with the sweet spot of his foot. After the session, we spent 15 minutes getting rid of this affectation, holding his head down while he kicked, pushing his left shoulder from behind to keep it in position. We worked on this again at the next session. The problem was solved. His kicking was back to normal. His confidence returned. Am I a sports psychologist?

Djokovic: On road to title? Charles Krupa/AP Photo

Part of the problem is how gullible sportsmen are. So, the news last week that Novak Djokovic (perhaps the greatest tennis player the world has ever seen) has retained the services of Pepe Imaz, a former tennis player and now a life guru who specialises in meditation, long hugs and mantras of love, is no surprise.

A video is doing the rounds showing Djokovic sitting in a group of people with Imaz, saying, "We need to be able to look inwards and to establish a connection with the divine light." It will no doubt be an amiable distraction for Djokovic, but when he hits his stride again soon, it will establish Imaz as a doyen of motivators. Athletes and top teams live in a bubble, often lonely, always searching for an edge. So a charismatic, convincing communicator who takes their side can be irresistible.

At a recent wake in Belfast, I was shooting the breeze with a group of Antrim players from the John Morrison era. John is a highly-respected coach and performance consultant who was at the helm with Mickey Moran when Mayo reached the All-Ireland final in 2006 after an epic semi-final win over Dublin. He has a weekly column in the country's only dedicated Gaelic games newspaper. His services are in big demand all over the country.

The Antrim boys told a brilliant, revealing story. When John was the manager of Antrim, he brought in a performance hypnotist to change the players' losing mindset. Before the quarter-final against Cavan in 1996, the hypnotist spent time with the group.

As they sat in the changing room in Casement Park before taking the field for the big match, John placed a boom box in the centre of the room and played a recorded message from the hypnotist. The voice exhorted the players to hold an imaginary balloon in their hands and allow it to inflate, then deflate. The players sat there in silence, holding their balloons on their laps as the soothing voice intoned, "you will be calm on the pitch. You have visualised performing at your best today and this will happen. On the pitch you will be focused and composed."

The boys reminisced how their arms rose and then fell as the air went in and out of the imaginary balloons. Finally, the countdown. "10 . . . you are feeling totally relaxed, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3 . . . you are ready to perform at your best, 2 . . . all you are aware of is your breathing, 1 . . . You are ready for Cavan." At which point they described how the changing room exploded. Led by their captain, they jumped to their feet, shouldering each other, punching the door and roaring.

After 10 minutes the score was 1-4 to 0-0 to Cavan and the game was already over. Sitting in that wakehouse 20 years on, helpless with laughter, they were incredulous at how they had been so completely taken in by it at the time. If Antrim had won the game, the players - in their minds - would have attributed it at least partly to the absent guru. Morrison would have been hailed as a genius. It is all a matter of perception.

The beauty of this industry is that it is impossible to know if it is right or wrong. There is no way to measure it. Unlike the professions, where we are held to account, they win - win, lose or draw.

So I have decided to abandon reality. Give up the grind. I have instead decided to become a performance consultant. I have begun working on, or rather visualising, a book (with accompanying DVD) which will inspire people in every walk of life to transform themselves.

It is entitled "Forget about your organs, transplant your mind #optforyou". I have already been invited to do the tour of the chat shows, sit on the couch on afternoon TV shows tasting the celebrity chef's recipes, sip wine ("It's fruity, and I am sure I can smell French oak doors, hay, and perhaps a little crap. . .") and do a motivational talk for the Derry team entitled, "How directionalising paths via the map creator enhances map visualisation for the input pass provider." Followed by a half-hour hugging session where the Slaughtneil lads can bond with the Dungiven boys.

PS: After all that awkward left-handed and right-handed teeth-brushing over the course of several years, in this year's drawn final and replay, not a single Mayo player scored with his weak foot. Just sayin' . . .

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