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Talking to sports psychologist can help players deal with traumatic effects of defeat

SUCCESS is wonderful to behold. Just look at the joy that came with winning the All-Ireland title for Dublin footballers and Clare hurlers and their supporters.

On the other side is the losing experience for the footballers of Mayo and the Cork hurlers. This is the place nobody wants to be.

As a group, there may be some small consolation in the immediate aftermath in the shared misery, but ultimately, each individual, be it on the management team or the players, has to deal with the impact of defeat.

This experience can be traumatic and devastating for an individual's morale and self-image and can affect them in many different ways.

Supporters may not care very much beyond the result, but what about the individual who has so publicly suffered a traumatic defeat?

Sport and performance psychologist Créde Sheehy-Kelly of Tiger's Eye Performance takes a broad perspective on this.

She notes that people talk about GAA players – and other elite sports people – as "putting their lives on hold" while they apply themselves wholeheartedly to their sport.


Unfortunately, however, life does not stay on hold for anyone. Worries about money, relationships, college, future prospects, family and work – all these are factors that have to be dealt with, and they can affect performance in the sports arena.

Another glib term one hears is "getting the work-life balance right."

Again, the external pressures and events in life tend not to fall easily into balance, so the challenge is finding that balance within yourself to deal with all the demands placed upon you.

This is where mental health is crucial, particularly for athletes and sports performers. Everybody suffers setbacks in life, but defeat in an All-Ireland final is right up there in the setback stakes, so what is the solution? How do you recover? What steps do you take? Is there any coming back from a devastating anti-climax after all the pre-match hype, hope and expectations – particularly for a team like Mayo?

Sheehy-Kelly has worked with teams and individuals in different sports and notes that one of the first issues is the abrupt end to a season.

"Given the nature of the GAA season, and the abruptness with which it ends, it's understandable why dealing with a season-ending defeat can be quite difficult," she says.

"Players go from training intensely and spending huge amounts of time with team-mates and coaches, to effectively being left to deal with the most difficult defeat of the season on their own.

"This is true for all players, whether they reach an All-Ireland final or they get knocked out in the qualifiers."

Defeat hurts, but the nature of an individual player's experience of losing can have a big effect on their mental health.

"The Mayo and Cork teams will continue to roll on next season, but players have to make the decision as to whether they want to pick themselves back up and do it all over again," Créde says.

"Motivation is one of the most common challenges to be overcome in situations like this."

So, a clap on the back and an exhortation to "forget about 2013, let's drive on" won't work then?

Créde replies: "Players will have to deal with defeat as a team, but they will also have to deal with defeat at an individual level. Not all players will react to defeat in the same way.

"If a player feels they gave their all in the final, they may react better than a player who feels that they underperformed. Also, you can't expect motivation to be high directly after losing an All-Ireland final. Players need time to reflect and to switch off.

"After that, the next step is a commitment to participating next season. Motivation and confidence can be built back up step by step in the same way you would build your fitness up again after taking time off between seasons.

"If players understand that the mental aspects of performance can be worked on in the same way as physical aspects, it can help them to perceive being de-motivated as a natural and transitory phase rather than being a problem in itself."

Créde notes that this time of year is seen as a down-time in the GAA inter-county calendar, but suggests it offers an ideal opportunity to benefit from sports psychology support.

"From a more positive perspective, there are always lessons to be learned in defeat. It's definitely possible to reflect on the season's performances and use this knowledge as a springboard to come back stronger the following season," she says.

"This sounds easy, but putting it into practice takes a lot of work. This is where individual players can really benefit from talking to a sports psychologist to proactively work through the impact of defeat and create a structured plan for improvement."

Créde says that the key to coming back from a defeat is to set short-term goals. For example, if a Mayo player starts looking towards next year's championship, the task will seem monumental.

"By adopting a more short-term perspective the task is broken down into much more achievable targets.

"Players will be setting goals over the winter relevant to the particular phase of the season in areas like nutrition, strength and conditioning, recovery or injury rehabilitation.

"This means the achievement is completely within their control – for example, progressively increasing their dead-lift or squat weight in the gym.

"The idea is to create and track experiences of success, no matter how small, which in turn will start to build confidence, motivation and hunger for the season to come."

Irish Independent