Elite GAA players have the confidence to be afraid to fail

Elite GAA players have the confidence to be afraid to fail

Seamus Callanan in action for Tippearary against Limerick last summer. He was seriously doubted at times in his career as a top-level hurler. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

ON The Sunday Game last weekend, Joanne Cantwell was talking to a guest about his career just as we flicked over.

He was explaining how his team had a good year in 2010 but he lost his place in the team, how he had ups and downs in 2011/12, didn’t get much game-time, how 2013 he started the first game and then got taken off and was on the bench again when they were knocked out in the qualifiers and how his time at inter-county level was sort of slipping by without note.

We hadn’t focused properly on who was actually talking and it honestly sounded such a letdown of a career that we were just about wondering what poor misfortune they’d invited on at all before we copped who it was: Seamus Callanan. You might have heard of him by the way: Tipp hurler, four-time All-Star, three-time nominated for Hurler of the year, scorer of 29-169 in championship since 2014.

In some ways it gets right to the heart of the typical great athlete mentality, a sort of focus on the missing years and the ones that got away as much as thinking about the years of success. It also said a lot about the journey that can take place as well, becoming a top-level successful GAA player can happen quickly and without fuss, but for the majority there’s a slog and years of lack of form and doubt mixed in with all the good days and weeks and years.

Callanan scored 2-18 in three years of championship hurling from 2011-13; in 2014 he scored 9-50. The difference was experience of course and the awareness of what it takes to get up to the type of performance influence that can be the main man in winning All-Irelands, but mainly it was Eamonn O’Shea’s ability to turn someone who the player himself says was wondering in his own head if he was at intercounty level at all to someone who can score a goal in every single championship match in a season five years later.

There are nuances to this kind of development but there’s certainly something remarkably consistent in the stories of players who have that breakthrough year or period, generally, a coach or manager who believes in them and convinces them to play freely.

You’d nearly think that Callanan’s emergence was a fluke if O’Shea hadn’t done something very similar with Lar Corbett previously. Corbett tells the story of one semi-final in Croke Park where he had missed goal chances and was half-embarrassed/half-worried coming off at half-time but O’Shea reassured him to keep taking those shots on; he scored three goals second half.

Nigel Pearson told the story last year of signing Jamie Vardy for Leicester and the striker being low in his first season with few goals, how the coaching staff just kept on with that message of belief and that they knew he could turn it around – he went on that run that fired them to the Premier League. Players often need that sense of trust to perform.

There’s something else too though, this cycle of scores leading to confidence leading to a willingness to take on more shots to score leading to more confidence and so on. The kind of flow that convinces say, a full-forward, that they’re going to score a goal in every game in a hurling championship. In the recent book The Hot Hand by Ben Cohen, the idea of a player finding this kind of rhythm is explored, mainly the idea that a player can enter a hot zone of shooting where they’re more likely to score simply because they’re in a run of scoring.

For years this concept was thought real by basketballers in particular, who were convinced that there were times they were more likely to score when they were on a streak (a hot hand), but had been ruled out by research and statisticians out there who’d considered it a falsehood. This has been reversed slightly recently where the numbers used were realised to be slightly flawed, so there is evidence now that it’s possibly true.

There must be something in the psychology of it if not the science, that feeling that a player gets when he feels he can’t miss, or even the idea that it doesn’t matter if he misses because another chance will be coming along shortly and he won’t miss again. This is partly process and partly just being out on the pitch and having that idea that you’ll take anything on and score.

Keith Wood and Ronan O’Gara had this discussion recently where they both pinpointed the most important factor in producing the goods in throwing lineouts and goal-kicking – confidence. Wood reckoned that more than technique and alterations to his method and preparation, that his throwing was most affected by his ability to remain confident, even after an error.

For O’Gara, he outlined the four states of kicking (in confidence, out of confidence, unsure and rock-bottom), how he could hit everything one day and nothing another and not know the reason why and how lost confidence towards the end of his time was such a huge impact on his game.

Some players might have that kind of mentality naturally. Kevin McStay gave a great description of Jack McCaffrey recently when saying he played with an abandon, where he was willing to take on a shot and not worry that much whether he scored or not as there would always be another chance. Patrick Horgan has had his ups and downs in being valued for Cork but that always seemed a perception from others that was the problem more than Horgan’s form or self-doubt.

But we’ve all had this tendency to write a player off based on maybe a year or two of evidence, to decide that one poor Munster final (or even at club level, a clutch miss in a big championship game) is the basis for that player not having it. It took some time for Donncha O’Connor for example to become a major Cork footballer, to have that belief that he belonged and could, needed to, influence games at inter-county level.

One former Cork player described to me one time how they weren’t quite able to transfer their club form to inter-county because they just never got comfortable in trying something extra, that they couldn’t make that leap from taking the safe option all the time for that fear of it not coming off against a Kerry or a Dublin.

Sometimes it’s just that small intangible feeling of having that environment of being able to play naturally, of being given the chance and yes, confidence to find that flow state.

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