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Sports Psychology: Fact or Fiction?

We live in an age of instant messaging, instant answers; instant everything. Even the average run of the mill young professional’s phone will usually include the Headspace app. Even the most ordinary of us often finds the need to use mindfulness or meditation to help us focus amidst a sea of cellular waves. It seems fair to assume that now more than ever elite sports people would need to avail of the use of sports’ psychology. 

Sporting events are becoming bigger, more corporate and of course more lucrative in the case of professional sports. Generally speaking, sports psychology as a whole is broken down and rebranded as “mental fitness”, “mental toughness”, “visualisation” etc. This breaking down of the concept of sports psychology as a whole is probably an attempt to market it at sports men and women. After all, “mental toughness” does sound a lot tougher than “sports psychology”.

The Linkedin profile of Ciaran Cosgrave, an Irish “mental toughness” coach famous within sporting circles says “Preparing to win in sport and in life is about getting an edge. It takes just a little extra to get that edge, but you have to have it. In modern sport there is very little between the top teams – being mentally fitter than your opponent will give you that extra 1%.” 

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There are many well-known, and very well-respected Irish sports psychologists in sport; maybe more so than any other country. Among their names is former All-Ireland Football Championship winner Enda McNulty; one of the most revered names in the game. However, arguably more impressive is Ciaran Cosgrave; a man who, by his own admission, holds no formal qualification. 

He professes to having experience and “an endless supply of determination”. Having known the three Ella brothers during a spell in Australia he noticed how two of them had amazing talent and the third brother did not. But, all three went on to be capped for Australia. Cosgrave attributes this largely to the attitude of the least talented Ella brother. He claims this inspired him to make a career working with people with this will to succeed.

Cosgrave’s record speaks for itself. He has turned around the fortunes of every team he has been involved in. Among his previous clients are Paris Saint Germain F.C., Watford F.C., Manchester City F.C., L.A. Lakers, International Rugby Board, Professional Golf Association, Florida State A.F., Wales Rugby, Wigan Warriors, Aston Villa F.C. Most recently Cosgrave was involved in helping Galway to winning the All-Ireland Hurling Championship in 2017. 

So, it is clear that this “mental fitness” training works, or at least makes a difference to the attitudes of players. But is this just a perception? Something that players should have developed themselves, and mostly fail to in modern sport? One doesn’t have to look far beyond the Derby County FC seasons of ’69 and ’70 to see the grit the team under Brian Clough had to win promotion then achieve a top four finish in England’s first division. 

The reality is, some people have it naturally. In the same way that some people have vision or speed beyond anyone else on the pitch, some sports people have a natural “mental fitness” which far exceeds that of their peers. Paul O’Connell is a perfect example of this mental toughness; hard as nails with a relentless work-rate; O’Connell was never an outspoken advocate of the use of sports psychology or any of its component parts.

Many people’s natural reaction to training mental toughness is reluctance and wariness. Perhaps that is an Irish characteristic, a reluctance to buy into new trends that are immaterial and invisible. But on closer examination the training of the mind is both ethical and effective. If nobody honed any skills or physical attributes sport wouldn’t be enjoyable. If elite athletes didn’t train their brain the game would similarly be of a lower standard. In the same way as most competitors will never reach the level of Lionel Messi or Christiano Ronaldo in speed and skill, most people will never reach the levels of mental fitness of the likes of Paul O’Connell. However, this does not mean that it isn’t something that can be improved over time.

As a friend reminded me recently “You’ve gotta do your brain-weights”

 

Matthew Dillon – Sport Editor

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