Negative vibes and newspaper clippings

“WHEN  is this going to appear?” asks Dr David Hickey, a flicker of roguishness in his query. “Saturday? That’s okay then — so Mayo won’t have much time to read it.”

These were the brilliant opening lines in John Fogarty’s Irish Examiner article published on the morning of the All-Ireland Football final just a few weeks ago. I couldn’t wait to read it. To soak up the sheer honesty of a man giving an opinion without a filter. It didn’t matter whether it was true or not. It roused great chatter over breakfast tables and social media for the day.

Up until then, chatter was in short supply. People who might normally run their mouths off stayed quiet. Either because they couldn’t be found as they were cooped up at home or perhaps they were afraid that opening their mouths might tip the fates against finishing the championship.

Honesty isn’t seen as any kind of reasonable policy in the GAA. All interviews are monotonous and dull. As someone who made a living for a long time interviewing these players and managers my heart used to sink when certain people were wheeled out to parrot the party line. A pointless, bland exercise where the only winner was a sponsor. And probably the player who banked some cash as well, so in fairness, it wasn’t too pointless for him.

I digress. One of the main reasons why their interviews are as flavourless as bacon and cabbage boiling away for far too many hours on a Connemara stove on a damp winter’s evening is the fear of giving the other side some ammunition.

We all know that Dublin do  not fear Westmeath but imagine the outcry if Jonny Cooper was perfectly honest in an interview and said ‘look I’m sure Westmeath train just as hard as we do, if not more, but let’s stop pretending we’re losing sleep worrying about them.’

David Hickey was stirring that Saturday morning. He knew it, we knew it and we all loved it. Even those of the Mayo fraternity who denounced it from an altar higher than John Charles McQuaid could ever dream of having, were delighted to have something to vent about. To feel an emotion attached to football again. To be enraged by something as unimportant, yet so important as an opinion in a newspaper. I knew exactly where the discourse would be taken; ‘well, that’s great motivation for James Horan. He should hang that on the dressing room wall.’

Even Hickey thought it might happen, surmising; “But I don’t rate Mayo and I don’t think Mayo will be close at the end of the game. They could be putting this article up in the dressing room in Croke Park on Saturday!”

I haven’t got a clue what James Horan hangs on any of his walls, but I can tell you now, there is no evidence whatsoever that pinning a newspaper article that wasn’t very complimentary toward you on a dressing room wall is a wise thing to do. It is at best a waste of time, and at worst, can damage performance.

“Mayo win all the All-Stars awards and the Player of the Year and all this sort of crap but they always do because they’re such a tragic outfit. Andy Moran getting Player of the Year — he played half a game in every match. The Mayo goalkeeper (David Clarke) getting the All-Star ahead of Cluxton there one year.”

What manager in their right mind would think that’s a good message to be feeding their players? If you’re questioning the motivation of a team that has gone for so long without that final glory, you’ve already lost the battle. By the same token, being annoyed by someone’s opinion of you, when you know yourself how hard you have worked shows either a lack of self-confidence or a misplaced focus of attention.

I know some teams have done this and a manager will say it was a good idea as they were ‘flying in training after it, taking lumps out of each other.’ One would say they probably forgot how to play football or hurling too while they were pretending to be kickboxers. Inevitably, the focus is lost. It is not good for game-plans or mental preparation. It’s a recipe for the loss of control. Yellow, black and red cards.

On a more serious note, we are all well versed on the dangers of abusive social media commentary. It can have devastating consequences.

Once upon a time, you had to go to the effort to buy a paper to be picked apart, or go to the local;  now people tag you in their opinions 24/7 and that can get into your head. Why would you invite that kind of potential danger into what is supposed to be your safe space? Just because it was done before, doesn’t mean it was right nor does it mean it was in any way useful. You’d be very naïve to think that Donegal’s success in 2012 was just down to Jim McGuinness repeating what people wrote about them to rile them up.

Perhaps you’re not giving the training they did the credit it deserves. There is no proof whatsoever in any kind of evidence-based intervention that it is positive reinforcement.

Just because stuff like this was done back in the day, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t evolve with the evidence, when you know that it may actually hand the whisper of an advantage to the other side. Because you’re fighting with words that mean nothing, while they’re playing the game.

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