Shine your spotlight
A Critical Introduction to Sport Psychology
The conversation with Professor Aidan Moran could meander into each and every tributary of sports psychology, if only we had the time. Dipping our toes in the ocean of mind control, we settle for three strands (with two subsets, Rafa Nadal and Riverdance!):
• The Ireland place kicker at a “hostile Twickenham” or equally unnerving “silent Lansdowne road”.
• The Mayo football conundrum.
• The labyrinth that is Padraig Harrington’s mind.
“You need to understand how the mind works, which is my job, but you also need to understand the structure of the game and that’s where some psychologists fail, if they are not well trained or knowledgeable. Nowadays, there are many, many ‘experts’ in the field,” says Professor Moran, UCD School of Psychology.
We remain focused, our eyes dilating over breakfast in Booterstown while this esteemed Fulbright Scholar discusses A Critical Introduction to Sport Psychology and his life’s work.
“There are different types of distractions,” Moran states. “The fundamental principal is what I call ‘shining your mental spotlight’ – that’s extremely crucial for successful athletic performance no matter what level, whether you are a coach or player.
“Distractions come and go but the challenge is to do something that I think psychologically is really unnatural – and that’s to focus on the here and now. That’s why we struggle all the time in any job – whether you are a kicker like Johnny Sexton and have to block out the roar of a ‘hostile Twickenham’ or an equally unnerving ‘silent Lansdowne Road’.”
Professor Moran worked with an Irish kicker in the 1990s who dreaded the respectful silence of Lansdowne Road because he had trained his mind to block out noise. “That’s something that has interested me since the mid 1990s when I wrote this book called The Psychology of Concentration in Sports Performers.”
Moran worked with the Mayo footballers before they reached the 2004 All-Ireland final (when they were beaten by Kerry). So the story goes, depending on who you believe, that Mayo are cursed or bottlers or just desperately unlucky as, since 1989, they have reached the GAA’s red letter day on nine occasions yet failed to capture the Sam Maguire.
“I think deep down they haven’t been good enough… Maybe they didn’t really believe they could win in the 2017 game. There were signs. I think they had settled for a replay and stood back. Look at that last picture there was virtually no-one in there.”
I don’t believe they are cursed. Bottlers, no. Unlucky? I think you can be unlucky from time to time but I don’t think you are consistently beaten by an opponent like Dublin in recent years without learning lessons.
As an amateur golfer Padraig Harrington would read a putt but at the last second the thought would enter his mind “Is this really the right line?” “We built in a step where he says to himself, “I’m happy with my choice. I am going to act on this now”. Even if it is wrong, it is better to be decisive, then come what may.”
Harrington graduated from Professor Moran to working with Dr Bob Rotella on the PGA tour. “If you are thinking too much about of performing the job that’s what they call paralysis by analysis”, Moran continued.
“Shining the spotlight inwards is probably a bad thing. Shining the spotlight too far ahead is also a bad idea. The only thing to do is to focus your spotlight on the job you are doing right now.
“Lots of performers have struggled with not thinking. For example, Rory McIlroy – and this fascinates me – uses his caddie in between some shots, not to get advice, but to talk to him about anything other than the shot. The key is to think at the right time, which is when you stoop over the ball and weigh up your target, decide upon your shot, get rid of your thoughts. Be happy with your choice.”
He continues, “There is a famous snooker player, Mark Williams, who I describe in the book. It was 16-all in the world championship final against Ken Doherty. It was very tight, he felt himself getting very nervous. What did he do? He started singing Delilah to himself. The singing inside his head took his mind off what he was doing and brought him back to automatic pilot. The worst thing you can do when you have an automatic skill, that you have spent thousands of hours working on, is to start thinking about it.”
Nowadays, there are many, many ‘expert’ sports psychologists – there has to be a few quacks? “That’s in the title of the book. Criticism is the whole theme of being sceptical. One should be sceptical.”
Thankfully, for everyone who loves sport, Vicente Feola didn’t listen to the sports psychologist Brazil brought to the 1958 World Cup. “Don’t pick that 17 year old, he is too immature,” was advice Feola decided to overrule. That 17 year old? Pele!
“Sports psychologists have always been there – we could go back to the Greeks for the use of psychological strategies – but they are not always right!”
Professor Moran on…
“The pre-performance routine is under the control of the performer but the ritual/superstition controls the performer. The problem with the ritual is it starts earlier and earlier in the week. You have got someone like Nadal who is a victim of a huge number of superstitions in his routine (Roger Federer isn’t). Organising water bottles in a line. All of that comes from wanting to repeat past performances that were successful but, somewhere along the line, he crossed the boundary between superstition and routine. The simple distinction is if you were in a real hurry – if something happened where there is ten seconds left to kick that ball over or the game is over – someone with a superstitious orientation probably couldn’t do that.”
“Years ago I was asked to give some consultancy advice to Riverdance. I was wary about what was involved in that but I discovered, as such a successful touring performance, the organisers face the challenge of getting the dancers to come down after a standing ovation at 10pm day in, day out across several months of touring. The way the performers had been coping had been to party and do things that were bad for them. Being on your own is one method – just letting things sift – but that’s very hard in a team environment. Professionalism is everywhere; not just on stage or the pitch, it is before and after. You can party occasionally but sustained top level performance needs professionalism.”
Professor Aidan Moran was in conversation with Gavin Cummiskey (BA 2001), sports journalist with the Irish Times.