There is a scene in the Robert Redford baseball movie, The Natural, which is played for laughs. The hapless New York Knights are on a calamitous losing run, and in a desperate attempt to arrest the slide, the players are herded into a meeting and sat down in a classroom formation. Standing at the top is a diminutive, dapper man in a sharp suit, panama hat and a bow-tie, who is never introduced, but is evidently some species of psychologist.
“The mind is a strange thing,” he says. “You must begin by asking it, ‘What is losing?’” Without throwing the question to the floor, and the dead-eyed jocks, he answers himself. “Losing is a disease,” he says, “as contagious as polio.”
The bad results continue, Redford’s character, Roy Hobbs, walks out of one of the meetings, and the in-house shrink struggles for new angles: “Losing is a disease, as contagious as syphilis. Losing is a disease, as contagious as bubonic plague - contacting one but infecting all.”
And then he says, with a Hollywood flourish: “Ah – but curable!”
The Natural was made in the early 1980s, adapted from a 1950s novel, long before a hinterland of bullish sciences sprung up around sport. As a consequence, the search for a cure for losing has never been as heavily resourced as it is now, even though global incidences of the condition may be at record levels.
In this endless conflict, sports psychology was the last of the sciences trusted on the front line. Part of the scepticism was that its impact was unquantifiable. It wasn’t like gym scores, or body fat measurements, or times clocked on the track, where physical improvement could be stimulated and logged and verified: coaches and players talked about mental strength all the time, and coveted all the things that it was good for, but that didn’t mean they knew how to source it, or had faith in those who said they could deliver it. Because it was abstract, it attracted suspicion.
It is nearly 30 years since Derry’s footballers were the first elite GAA team to win an All-Ireland with a sports psychologist as a declared member of their back room team. Craig Mahoney was an Australian academic, teaching in Queen’s University at the time, who had worked with rowers and hockey players before Eamon Coleman jumped off a cliff and solicited his services. But even then Mahoney’s brief included fitness work too, partly so that he could cultivate the players’ trust by more conventional means first. The mind bit arrived by Trojan horse.
Mahoney’s success with Derry emboldened other managers, especially in football, to explore the power of sports psychology, but it didn’t encourage transparency. The subject was still too sensitive and open to ridicule. In the GAA, any meddling with the mind was equated to weakness: it was the opposite of machismo, the GAA’s most cherished quality.
How long has it taken for those attitudes to change? When Caroline Currid was interviewed on The Sunday Game’s evening programme after this year’s All-Ireland hurling final, it was the first time that the sports psychologist from the winning team had appeared on that show.
Currid has been absolutely instrumental in the four All-Irelands that Limerick have won under John Kiely, repeatedly name-checked by players for her challenging, empowering influence. Her reputation, though, had preceded her: Currid had been involved with All-Ireland winning teams in Tyrone (2008), Tipperary (2010) and Dublin (2011), and yet, her picture had never appeared in a match programme on All-Ireland final day until this year.
It would have been an unintentional omission that reflected the place of the sports psychologist or performance coach, not just in the GAA, but in sport’s many galaxies: usually acknowledged but mostly hidden.
Over time, there has been a parting in the curtain. Not every intercounty team employs somebody in that role, but many do, and they don’t mind saying so now. No explanation was needed, for example, when Donncha O’Callaghan was added to Waterford’s management team for the coming season.
Drawing on his own experiences as an elite sportsman in a demanding professional environment, and his infectious personality, O’Callaghan will make a material difference to the mentality and the mood in that group, just as Denis Leamy did in Tipperary, and Sean O’Brien and Gordon D’Arcy did in Wexford. For generations, hurling people had been resistant to the power of other voices, but that is no longer true.
When Kevin McStay, the new Mayo manager, announced his backroom team recently Niamh Fitzpatrick was named as their sports psychologist. Fitzpatrick has been one of the great pioneers in this field in Irish sport, stretching back to her involvement with the Wexford hurlers in 1996, and beyond. She has performed this role before with Mayo too, in 2017, when Stephen Rochford was the manager and Mayo lost by a point to Dublin in the All-Ireland final.
Earlier in the same year Fitzpatrick’s sister, Captain Dara Fitzpatrick, lost her life in a Coast Guard helicopter accident off the Mayo coast; Fitzpatrick had committed to another season with Mayo in 2018, but that year her health failed and she stepped away. Coming back now feels like a brave and inspired move.
Over the years, every coroner’s report on Mayo’s big match losses would have included a reference to their mental state. It became a self-fulfilling judgement. Tactical miscalculations or technical deficiencies were never allowed to stand alone as the top and tail of why they had lost. Did that always stand up to scrutiny?
Since John O’Mahony brought in a performance coach from the world of business in 1989, Mayo have consistently addressed this component of their performance, seeking out a host of leading practitioners - from Aidan Moran to Gerry Hussey to Kieran Shannon, and others. Mayo simply couldn’t have reached 11 All-Ireland finals in 33 years without winning their share of high-wire matches when their nerve was tested. Did losing those finals undermine the wisdom of that process? Absolutely not.
But losing? Still rampant. No cure yet.