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Fergus Connolly Coaching – Psychology matters

14_Fergus Connolly

Fergus Connolly was a coach with Dublin

If you ask me I’ll tell you I’m from Scotstown, not Monaghan. Scotstown happens to be in Monaghan. My first memories are of Gerard and Cormac Sherry coaching me in underage games in wet fields in Ballinode.

McCarville’s, Mulligans, Mullens, Caufileds, Sherrys, Moyna’s and many, many others all gave their time to teach me and others valuable life lessons through football. They taught me so many things that allowed me fulfill dreams and be successful. That’s who I owe any success to and as Malcolm X once said, “Only the mistakes have been mine”.

You control yourself

Apart from my parents, no single person had as much influence on me as Sean McCague. The most critical lesson he taught me was that there is “No such thing as discipline. There is only self-discipline”. He used say that people think they can ‘discipline’ someone, but that’s not possible. He’d say “A person who tries to discipline someone else is called a bully”. He would say “There is only self-discipline, self-confidence, self control or self doubt”. Anyone who’s worked with me knows I have often said “I’ve never worked with a good psychologist”, and they know I say it only half in jest!

My career has reinforced a steadfast belief in mental strength and attitude. Never quit. Suffer and bleed, but never quit. You are never out of the fight. One of the most engrained understandings and assumptions we make is that psychology or the mind is separate from the body. A huge myriad of what people refer to as performance and mental issues are closely related to physical issues and in fact they are all intertwined. I do not separate the two. You cannot separate the mind and body. Yes, some issues are predominately mental or physical, but you can’t treat a mind without treating the body and vice versa. Equally important to remember is that preparation for optimal performance encompasses a combined mental and physical approach, hence my term psychophysiology.

Life is tough. Get on with it

Remember, the role of Gaelic Games is as a national sport, to give young people the skills for life. It’s to teach them basic physical and mental skills that can help them achieve great things in life after they no longer play. This is not ever supposed to be a professional game, nor should it ever be. And we should all be grateful for that. The most important lesson you can help young people learn as they play this game is that life is tough. You will lose. Learn you will get knocked down, learn how to get over it and learn how to get on with it. That’s sport and that’s life. There you go – you don’t need the GPA wasting thousands of euros on an ’awareness’ campaign for that free reminder.

Selective use of experts

Brendan Rodgers used say “small is big” when he was referring to backroom teams. He was correct. The best backrooms I’ve seen work are small and tight, but refer out for expertise readily. Bill Belichek is similar in how he runs his teams. General Stanley McChrystal, US Ranger and OC of the Iraq conflict had a similar approach. Successful staff teams are small and tight. When Brendan started at Liverpool, I gave him a book written by Steve Peters, the British psychiatrist, called “The Chimp Paradox”. Steve is the best mental skills coach I know and he has trained, not as a psychologist, but as a psychiatrist. Brendan eventually brought him in to work for Liverpool.

The Chimp

Steve himself agreed with me on the model I used at the 49ers and other places. We need to recognize life is tough, but the majority of problems we face are small stuff and ignore them and get on with it. People who try to make big issues out of small things or prey on people’s weaknesses are the lowest of the low in my book.

Use psychology carefully

When it comes to psychology the optimal approach is to manage the majority of issues, but refer out to an excellent expert when needed. Having a psychologist hanging around all the time, like other ancillary skill sets, nutritionists etc, is just confusing and non-essential. Lean efficient staffs, mean lean and efficiently performing teams. That’s not a criticism of the professions, it’s a critique of the manner in which they are used. There is a rush to employ an expert for everything when this is not needed in many cases. Experts are to be on speed dial, but not a speed bump to success. It’s a proper and optimal use of resources.

Be wary of the pseudo psychologists

Because we can measure fitness and be more accurate we assume psychology is a grey area, or harder to measure. While this is partly true, it has left the area of psychology open to a lot of nonsense and essentially bullshit. In elite sport this isn’t even entertained. In Judgment and Decision Making, Vol. 10, No. 6, November 2015, called “On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit” Pennycook et al, outline the popularity of bullshit in the popular psychology and twitter domains. Real true psychologists can be very helpful, but the Deepak Chopra’s of the world are of questionable benefit at best. As the paper outlines, the Oxford English Dictionary defines bullshit as, simply, “rubbish” and “nonsense”, which unfortunately does not get to the core of bullshit. Psychology in sport is best handled by coaches, unless the issue is one of great complexity and then we refer.

We are all teachers

The other bigger concern is that resilience is not developed in young men and women. Clive Woodward, has always been generous to me with his time. One morning over breakfast in London he explained his philosophy on psychology was to ensure he had every one of his coaches as psychologists. He never had a full time psychologist with England when they won the RWC. With Dublin in 2103 we never had one either. Incidentally, Clive reminded me that every single one of his coaches had trained as a teacher, and this is often overlooked when people evaluate his World Cup success. Teacher training helped manage minor psychological molehills that other coaches would allow grow into major molehills. Resilience in life is a skill, and the GAA teaches it every day in every drill and game we train.

Gut Feeling

Since the mind and body are all one, it makes sense when I tell you 70% of all brain chemicals are made in your stomach and therefore food is your medicine. So those people who feel they suffer from psychological issues and concentration the field often have poor dietary habits.  For example sugar has drug-like effects –  bingeing, withdrawal, craving and cross-sensitization. It affects neurochemical changes in brain that also occur during addiction to drugs.
Sugar also causes neural adaptations (including changes in dopamine and opioid receptor binding, mRNA expression and dopamine and acetylcholine release).
Caffeine on the other hand elevates mood and perceived increase in energy, which makes espresso a handy pre-workout drink. but it also inhibits the release of GABA, a brain chemical, which contributes to our feeling of alertness and inhibits neuronal activity to cause relaxation and sleep. I could go on, but essentially the bottom line is what you put in your mouth, you put in your brain and as we know, brain chemistry matters. It gives a whole new meaning to the term “gut-feel”.

Only get what you need

Many years ago I was asked to speak to a top Premiership backroom team. I was presenting on training approaches I’d had success with elsewhere. Afterwards the doctor and I spoke for a bit and asked my thoughts on what they had in place or were doing. I gave my thoughts and casually asked after “What about psychology? Have you a psychologist on staff”. As we walked to the canteen for lunch, the doctor nodded over his shoulder and lowered his voice
“As long as we have the man in this office, we don’t need a psychologist”. I looked over his shoulder. The shiny brass metal name plate read “Sir Alex Ferguson”.


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