Last weekend, another half a dozen championship games were played. The Leinster final, the Ulster final and four Tailteann Cup games. In total 16-179 were scored. What is striking for me is the 16 goals scored. Sixteen goals in six matches — and there were several other opportunities saved — means lots of moments where the dynamics of each game changed in seconds.
Goals are significant not just because of the obvious fact that they are worth three points. In an overall sense, a team that has hit optimal performance will have goals in the scoreline at the final whistle. But in a more in-game sense, the momentum shift brought about by a goal is often the most important thing.
Goals are not straightforward. It’s too simple to say teams should practise their defence to deny goalscoring opportunities and practise their offence to create them. The game is too chaotic. Full of opportunities to try and expose an opposition. Full of emotion. Full of decisions not in your control. Ultimately full of people expressing their unique abilities.
Each game has conflicting forces at work, consciously and subconsciously. Each team has elusive bonds that unite each teammate in a single play. As spectators, we have the real privilege to watch and witness these moments play out live. But what we don’t see is the diligent work by players well before the TV cameras turn on.
One of the main areas of that work is how to control your emotions. In the pressurised environment of a game, the ebb and flow of momentum will bring a variety of different looks and feels. Players will experience being in complete control and being totally out of control. The better your self-control, the more chance you have as a collective to affect the momentum of a game.
Self-control was considered so important by the All Blacks that they employed a framework designed by former professional footballer and psychiatrist Dr Ceri Evans to help them. There is a constant battle for resources in our brain, between the rational thinking part (the prefrontal cortex) and the emotional part (the limbic system). Evans came up with Red Head-Blue Head. Red Head is when you are Hot — heated, overwhelmed and tense. Blue Head is when you are Ace — aware, composed and expressive. The idea was that players would aim to use personal triggers and cues to stay in Blue Head when it matters most.
Think of last Sunday’s Ulster final in Clones. At no stage in the game was either team more than three points ahead. Both Armagh and Derry put up spectacular points on the run and under extreme fatigue, particularly as the game went on. The last minute of normal time alone contained a black card for Derry, an equalising free for Armagh and a shot at a winner from Rory Grugan’s mark.
The pressure was relentless. Armagh went into the driving seat in extra time. Derry looked out on their feet. Yet it was Derry who forced the issue as time became scarce in the closing minutes of the second period of extra time. And it was Armagh who needed the Rian O’Neill free to survive. Then it was penalties — pressure kicks and diving saves. All in a cauldron atmosphere.
The reason I’ve listed out all those events in the game — and it’s by no means a comprehensive list — is to point out how many macro and micro events each player had to manage across 100 minutes of a performance. Throughout those 100 minutes, each player had many opportunities to practice self-control so that they could effectively communicate, collaborate and connect with their team-mates.
Derry had momentum. Armagh wrestled it back. Derry regained it. Armagh finished extra time with it. It’s a real tribute to both teams that they were able to grab it back when they didn’t have it. Most of the time, when you realise you don’t have momentum it’s almost too late. It’s a grind to get it back. That’s the critical importance of Red Head-Blue Head. Control yourself first.
High performers in sports have the distinct ability to be aware of the tempo required at certain moments. These players have the ability to call specific tactical setups to suit a phase of the game. These same players will bring team-mates into the game knowing they need some touches of the ball to get back into their flow.
When you are chasing momentum, things become physically harder and mentally heavy. In their Tailteann Cup game against Offaly last Sunday, London went 1-8 to 0-0 down after 28 minutes. The size of the margin disrupted the cohesion in their play and they were never able to make up the ground.
The flip side is that when you have momentum, things are rapid. Don’t think, just go. If you watch Dublin’s first goal last weekend, they had five attackers versus two defenders inside Louth’s 20m line, all of them bearing down on James Califf’s goal. It resulted in a simple palmed goal for Paul Mannion. The instinct and intelligence of those three extra Dublin players sensed something 12 seconds previously when they broke on to a Louth kick-out. It meant all the momentum was with Dublin.
It’s interesting to delve a little deeper into the sequence of momentum in highly pressurised moments. In a best-selling book called The Rise of Superman, author Steve Kotler attempts to unlock human performance potential.
He undertook research on adventure athletes such as free-solo rock climbers. Essentially, those people who hang off dangerous cliff faces with no safety rope. One of his insights is that rock climbers certainly don’t climb rocks to get on top of rocks. They crave experiences. And specifically, they look to execute their basic learned skills to obtain those experiences.
This is what Gaelic football players try to do in similar high-pressure moments. There’s no safety rope in the middle of Clones or Croke Park. Each play is an attempt to execute my basic skills at a rapid pace under stress. All the while knowing that as the clock ticks, it’s not just an isolated play at stake. It’s potentially the momentum of the game.
The Ulster final in particular showed us that momentum is always up for grabs. It’s not a perfect science and it’s not straight-forward by any means. Players are looking to remain vigilant and execute extreme simplicity in the biggest moments. They need clarity on their role, they need to accept that role and to play that role. If you can do that consistently each time, you have a better chance of controlling momentum.
Always remember — with momentum, it’s not where you take it from, it’s where you can take it to.