Friday 15 December 2017

Mind games can help Mayo defy odds -- McNulty

Kieran McCarthy

IT'S a well-worn tale in Kerry that is worth recounting one more time. Darragh O Se was never one to follow the crowd just for the sake of it. He always called it as he saw it. It was either black or white. Never grey.

And, years ago, when Kerry boss Jack O'Connor decided to shake things up by bringing in sports psychologist Declan Coyle to give Kerry that extra edge, O Se wasn't having any of it.

He didn't buy into that mental aspect of the game. Set in his ways, it simply wasn't for him. And Darragh never budged on that.

But whether he likes it or not, sports psychology has now become a major player in Gaelic games, and it will have a huge part to play in the Kingdom's All-Ireland semi-final against Mayo on Sunday.

Just ask former Armagh footballer Enda McNulty, who works in the field of performance excellence.

While Kerry's recent Croke Park record against Mayo -- three All-Ireland final victories since 1997, as well as a quarter-final win in '05 -- might tempt some Mayo supporters to stay under the duvet covers this weekend, McNulty is giving James Horan's men every chance of causing an upset, providing they have the necessary mental toughness.

"Kerry's good record against Mayo will definitely have a bearing. How much of a bearing is a different matter," said McNulty, who set up Motiv8, which deals in performance excellence, in 2005.

"But one major advantage that Mayo have is that they are the absolute underdogs.

"No matter how many times Jack O'Connor tells his players that this will be a tough match, subconsciously they might believe that it could be quite easy.

"However, that's only half the story. The other question is whether, deep down the Mayo players really believe that they can beat Kerry. If they have that belief, they won't be far away on Sunday because there is not too much difference in the teams, in terms of talent and physicality.

"The ability to stay composed is a huge part of mental toughness and that's something Mayo teams have lacked in the past."

But how does a county like Mayo, who have suffered at the hands of Kerry so often of late, change the mindset of its footballers, some who were involved in those losses to the Munster champions? McNulty has the answers.

"Mental toughness can be developed in the same way as physical fitness or physical toughness," the Ulster man said.

"The good news is that Mayo would have got a major confidence boost from their win over Cork in Croke Park; it was a fundamental stepping stone towards being more mentally tough, beating the All-Ireland champions."

Suggesting that a mental toughness programme would aid Mayo -- one that would see them replicate in training match-day scenarios that are likely to happen against Kerry -- McNulty said it's also important that the players work on their own mental toughness away from the pitch.

"It's important to mentally rehearse how they want to perform against Kerry, mentally rehearse themselves being confident, cool, composed and tough under pressure, and mentally rehearse themselves winning the game.


"Instead of their only thought process being that they will win this game, it must be changed into the thought processes around performing: how will they work, how will they tackle, how will they pass the ball, how will they play around the Kerry mass defence, and so on.

"Every team left in the championship -- Dublin, Mayo, Kerry and Donegal -- all have chinks in their armour, but will Mayo have the mental fortitude to exploit Kerry's chinks? That will have to be done early in the game and regularly in the game. To do it once or twice will not be sufficient," McNulty (below) added.

"If you are not expecting a dogfight and suddenly it comes up on you, it is much more difficult to deal with it.

"It's like somebody ringing your doorbell in the middle of the night, it will create a bit of a shock and it will disturb you slightly.

"But if somebody bursts open your door with a sledgehammer in the middle of the night and goes up to your room and grabs you in the bed, then that has a greater impact on you.

"Mayo will have to burst in the door with a sledgehammer and really challenge every single aspect of Kerry's play: physically, tactically and mentally."

And maybe, just maybe, if Mayo have the mental toughness to complement everything else, that Kerry hoodoo can finally be laid to rest.

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