Saturday 18 November 2017

When mind games turn ugly

Most mental 'gurus' a waste of money and 25pc are harmful, top psychologist warns GAA bosses

AT some stage this week, a GAA county panel, their manager and selectors will listen attentively to a voice which sounds persuasive and authoritative.

They will have done the same last week and are booked in for another session next week and probably the week after that too. They will try to take in the messages and adapt them to their individual and collective needs in the hope that when they play their next game, the wisdom imparted will help them develop a crucial edge on their opponents.

The advice won't have come cheaply. Gurus cost but, hey, this is championship time so who's counting? Maybe the county treasurers, but then they are always allergic to signing cheques because caution goes with the territory.

They shouldn't be the only ones to be wary. According to a leading expert on sports psychology, the complex world of mental coaching for elite performers is wide open to exploitation by opportunists, many of whom may be doing more harm than good. That applies across all sports but is especially relevant to Gaelic games at a time when many counties and clubs are dabbling in psychology as a means of advancing their ambitions.

Dr Tadhg MacIntyre, director of the masters programme in applied sport and exercise psychology in the University of Ulster, Jordanstown paints a stark picture of the mental coaching landscape in Ireland, comparing it to the Wild West, complete with characters from the film, 'The Good, The Bad and The Ugly'.

MacIntyre reckons that up to 25pc of those offering mental coaching under different headings may be damaging their clients, while there's a doubt about another 50pc, leaving only 25pc whose expertise and knowledge can be fully trusted. Since psychology in its various forms is playing an increasing part in the preparation of GAA teams -- especially during the championship -- that's a startling analysis.

Using 'The Good, The Bad and The Ugly' theme, MacIntyre says it's crucial to identify the difference between the three categories before engaging any individual who will be let loose on teams and players.

"There's a real risk if the wrong person is being used. You won't let a physio go near your hamstring unless you know that he or she is properly qualified and also know who they've worked with. It should be the same with psychology. You shouldn't let anyone near your internal world unless you really trust them," he says.

According to him, only around one in four is fully qualified to deal with the psychological aspects of team and/or individual preparation, leaving a large number of teams and players exposed to risks that they don't recognise.

Clint Eastwood (The Good), Lee van Cleef (The Bad) and Eli Wallach (The Ugly) would never have thought that their depictions of the unlikely trio in the classic spaghetti western of the 1960s would resonate in an amateur Irish sporting organisation 50 years later, but MacIntyre regards the three types as a smart way of categorising what is a very complicated area.


The Good? "This is the top group who know what they're at. They are properly qualified and know what they're at. They can be fully trusted," says MacIntyre.

The Bad? "This is the largest section. They have some background in psychology but haven't had that much formal training and are not all that well qualified. Some may be still training. It's difficult to know whether this group are doing harm or good, which in itself is a problem.

"You can study psychology for say, four years over four or five days a week, and you can study it for 30 days a year as part of science programme -- there's a big difference between the two."

The Ugly? "This is dodgy territory. These guys call themselves mental coaches or some such. They're probably doing a lot of harm because they don't have any formal training. They've read books on psychology and that's about it. Trouble is that, very often, the books they read were written by those in the middle group. And since nobody knows whether that group are doing harm or good, things they say should not be taken as gospel by others."

Given that team managers and sports administrators have no real expertise when it comes to engaging professionals to help with the psychological aspects of team preparation, many tend to rely on hearsay or advice from others on who to hire.

"As long as there's a potential to make money, 'The Ugly' will continued to flourish. The market has grown considerably over the last 10 years so it's inevitable that people will attempt to cash in on the psychology side of things. There has been a big increase in the use of psychology in the GAA where, I'd have to say, the coaches are generally better qualified than in other sports," says MacIntyre.

"But even then, it's difficult for them to differentiate between our friends, 'The Good', 'The Bad' and 'The Ugly'. That leaves plenty of room for serious damage to be done. Worse still, counties are probably forking out big money for the privilege of getting wrong advice, which makes it a double hit."

His advice to anybody planning on hiring a sports psychologist is to check out the list of recognised practitioners on the Irish Institute of Sport website or with the Psychological Society of Ireland.

"Look carefully at the qualifications and for the people who are properly trained," he says.

He says there are people -- some quite well-known -- who fall very much into 'The Bad' or even 'The Ugly'.

"I wouldn't let them near my worst enemy, let alone my squad or individual players," he warns.

"The worst-case scenario is where one of 'The Ugly' does a one-off or short-term stint with a squad. He or she offers the world but delivers nothing. The key from a coach/ manager perspective is to be able to differentiate between 'The Good', 'The Bad' and 'The Ugly'. Then we'll be in a much better place.

"That's not easy since coaches and managers have no experience in that field so it's vital that they put in some effort in checking out qualifications and finding out who people worked with. The biggest mistake is to hire somebody you've read about in a newspaper or listen to hype about individuals who are often quite good at generating publicity for themselves."

Apart from the waste of money attached to hiring somebody who isn't up to the job, there's a real danger that the wrong person will do damage. That can lead to players drifting out of a sport, careers ending earlier than they should, more injuries, followed by mismanagement of recovery and damage to performance. There's also the risk of creating a rift in a squad so that it can no longer function properly.

MacIntyre says he knows of mental coaches who insisted at being at every training session over a certain period when it was totally unnecessary.

However, since those who had hired them knew very little about psychology, they were led by what they were told.

On the broader front, there's the risk of hiring the wrong person, leading to unfortunate consequences.

"Sports psychology has the capacity to effect dramatic change. Anything that has that power has the capacity for negative or positive," says MacIntyre.


He is particularly dismissive of what he terms 'Mr Motivator'.

"The chances are that he'll mistake something like burnout for a lack of motivation. The player who is fatigued or stressed through over-use isn't lacking motivation so imagine the damage that's done if he's told that he is," he says.

In essence, MacIntyre's advice is to ensure that only properly qualified sports psychologists are hired. However, since those doing the hiring find it difficult to make a judgment on what constitutes real qualifications, it has left a gap for others, some of whom may be benefit-neutral in that the are doing no good or no harm, which is a waste of time and money.

Worse still, he maintains that 'The Ugly' group at the bottom of the psychology food chain are doing real damage but they continue to get work by selling themselves skilfully and because there's growing pressure on managers to bring in outsiders to work on the mental side of things.

However, he also believes that managers are getting a better understanding of what they want from sports psychology.

"Now is the time to deal with it. More than ever, sporting organisations want better value for money and wasting it with the wrong approach to psychology makes no sense," says MacIntyre.

Irish Independent

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