Sunday 19 August 2018

From Jason Sherlock to Jonny Wilkinson - How Dean Rock has become the best in the business

Lee Keegan tries to distract Dean Rock by throwing a GPS unit into his path at the climax of last week’s All-Ireland final. Photo: Sportsfile
Lee Keegan tries to distract Dean Rock by throwing a GPS unit into his path at the climax of last week’s All-Ireland final. Photo: Sportsfile

Sam Wheeler

When lining up a free-kick, Dean Rock has trained himself to block out external factors so efficiently that Lee Keegan would need to throw a breeze block rather than a GPS tracker to put him off.

Rock hears heckles from the crowd and taunts from opposition players, and is aware of the odd bit of mud hurled in his direction, but once the kicking routine begins, he is oblivious to it all.

Nor does the significance of the kick have an effect on him. It makes no difference whether it's a long-distance effort to effectively win an All-Ireland, or a tap-over early on in a club game. He claims to be unaffected by pressure or the weight of expectation.

"I've managed to get myself into a good mindset where I can block out pretty much everything going on around me and all I can hear is my own thoughts and my own breath," he says.

"You notice lads distracting you. You hear stuff from spectators and from players. But I block it out by sticking to my process.

"There's enough things that I have to focus on rather than distractions, whether that's my breathing or my run-up or focusing on an area of the ball that I want to hit."

Dean Rock says all he can hear is his own thoughts and own breath when he’s taking a free. Photo: Sportsfile
Dean Rock says all he can hear is his own thoughts and own breath when he’s taking a free. Photo: Sportsfile

Rock does not have a mind guru. He is essentially self-taught. On the rare occasions when he does miss, he can analyse why - he missed a late kick that would have drawn the National League final in the spring which he attributes to "misjudging the wind".

"I coach myself through hard work on the pitch," he explains. "I do a lot of work with Jason Sherlock on the free-taking.

"When you get to the stage of knowing why you miss frees, then you're in a good position to be an excellent free-taker. With the one in the league final, I knew why I missed it, and I actually I got great confidence, because it was easily fixed.

"If I did start to think about the significance of the kick in the All-Ireland final, what happens if I did or didn't kick it, chances are I would have missed it.

"So it was just focusing on what I can affect. And then the rest of it looks after itself with a good execution.

I have been there before when I thought of the outcome and missed. I knew the importance of the kick (late on against Mayo), and one of my jobs for the team is to put those frees over the bar 100pc of the time.

"I didn't want my mind to run away from me and think, 'Jaysus, this is what I have always dreamed of, kicking the winning free in an All-Ireland final'."

Rock spends a lot of time watching his dead-ball counterparts in other codes, analysing and learning.

"I've followed a lot of the top place-kickers, the likes of Jonny Wilkinson - I've read a lot about him and how he's all process-driven as opposed to outcome-driven. I watch place-kickers in every sport, American football, rugby, soccer - whether it's shoulder position or steps back and different things, I'd pretty much be able to determine straight away whether someone's going to get it over the bar or not depending on their body position or their alignment."

Rock doesn't deliberately set out to replicate match scenarios in training, but his Dublin team-mates "take it upon themselves" to give him some of the treatment he can expect in matches. No-one had ever thought to throw a GPS tracker at him, though.

"I didn't realise what was going on," he says of the Keegan incident. "It was only after the game when it blew up on social media and it became a thing. I genuinely thought it was a piece of muck or something that was thrown, and that was OK. I was just completely focused on a certain point on the ball."

The Ballymun Kickhams man says he comes out of his trance pretty much as soon as the ball leaves the ground, and there is never time for self-congratulation. In the final, he was straight back into position to defend the resultant Mayo kickout.

"I knew the ref would give them one last opportunity," he explains. "So I had no time to sit back and reflect and think, 'Jaysus, I'm a great lad for putting that ball over the bar'."

Rock, son of Dublin icon Barney, wants to be thought of as more than "just a free-taker".

"It's not a bad complaint to have," says the four-time All-Ireland winner. "But I know there is a lot more to my game; my team-mates and management know that. And that is all that really matters to me. I've been happy with my contribution from play, big-time, over the last two or three years."

He is able to put his thought-controlling abilities to good use off the pitch, particularly in his work with people with intellectual abilities with Stewarts Care in Palmerstown.

"People always talk about me being calm, cool and collected… and that comes across in the way I approach my day-to-day life and my job," says the 27-year-old, whose partner Niamh McEvoy scored 1-1 in the Dublin ladies' All-Ireland triumph. "There is a lot of transferable stuff there."

Dean Rock was speaking at the launch of AIG's discounts on travel insurance for Dublin fans.

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Irish Independent

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