When I write about Kerry vs Dublin at Croke Park, a renewal of the game’s greatest rivalry, I don’t want to start with the games of the 1970s, the revival under Kevin Heffernan or the heavily mythologized ways of Mick O’Dwyer. I want to start instead with Professor Geir Jordet of the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences.
Do you remember PlayerCam? It was the option on Sky Sports to follow one player during a Premier League game. More than ten years ago, Professor Jordet came across hour after hour of PlayerCam footage and he began to study the head movements of midfielders. He found that the more these midfielders took in their surroundings, the more successful they were with passes.
“The visually most active third of the players completed almost twice as many forward passes as the least active players,” said Jordet.
Now this may seem like common sense, but it also illustrated that there was a vast area of sport that remains open to be conquered.
A piece for Sports Illustrated more than ten years ago mentioned the work of Michel Bruyninckx in this field. “Football is an angular game and needs training of perception – both peripheral sight and split vision,” he said.
Bruyninckx was then the academy director at Standard Liege in Belgium and was making a case for “brain centred” training.
I recently read an interview with Arsene Wenger where he talked about the unconquered frontier in elite sport. Execution, decision making and perception were the three key elements in a player, he said. But he felt the one that should come first, from a coaching perspective, actually comes last. And that was perception. Kids aged between 6-12 are coached on the technical elements of the game with little, if any real coaching on understanding how to think their way through games.
It is this important area that will decide the game between Kerry and Dublin, it is the area between stimulus and response. That was how Vicktor Frankl described it – between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space, a player makes his decisions. Actually, it’s where all of us make our decisions. The more composure we can find in that space, the more certain we can be that the decisions we make will be the right ones.
The opposite is often the case. The more we squeeze that space, the more likely we are to make rash decisions and that is what the game is for Kerry when they face Dublin. As the stakes rise and the game becomes more pressurised the space is squeezed.
In the podcast I did last year with Gary Keegan, we talked about what we called the four pillars of performance we had at Dublin. They were technical, tactical, physical and psychological. While as a team we focused on ensuring we were always improving in each pillar, Jim Gavin always felt that the greatest unknown in relation to how much we could improve was psychological.
It is even more important at this stage of the season as up to this point teams can win games by being better in the other three pillars alone. Physically teams are now set, especially this year, when the matches are coming frequently. There is little room for improvement at this stage as there is no block that allows squads to stretch their energy systems. The period between games in this condensed calendar is all about recovery, injury prevention and keeping sharp.
Tactically a team is unlikely to change anything fundamentally as well. Primarily, you know what a side is going to do bar a couple of nuances and tweaks to create some chaos for their opposition. For example, teams might try a new opposition kickout strategy, due to what they have learned thus far in the season about their opponents’ trends. Bar 2011, when Donegal surprised us by adopting an ultra defensive approach and while it did catch us off guard, it didn’t take us long to readjust and figure it out. Tactical changes are likely to be reactive to what they know about their opponents but it is the space between stimulus and response where a game can be won. This requires teams to be able to assess what an opposition are doing in real time, communicate with their teammates and adjust accordingly.
Kerry lost to Tyrone last year because of their game management. They had two moments where they made the wrong decision, lost a sense of where they were in the game as the space between stimulus and response shrunk. Game management is just another way of saying perception. It’s another way of saying the awareness of your surroundings and an awareness of the situation at any time. And without the appropriate training to build capacity within your mind, when the game comes down the stretch the wrong decisions will be made.
Kerry made those mistakes last year which were terminal for their season. They have had time to reflect and derive learnings from this experience and if the team and individuals learn from these experiences it can build their mental capacity. If they don’t, history will repeat itself.
You can, through mindfulness and other exercises, purposefully train your mind to be more prepared for those moments. As a team, Dublin valued it. We believed that it was the great intangible and I feel that it is a study still in its infancy in our game. We would often practice mindfulness as a group with the aim of building our mental capacity to remain present and always be aware of what was going on in a game no matter what phase of the game it was.
We also brought this training onto the field through a lot of situational game-based scenarios. One situation might be; we are three points up with three minutes to play and it is our kickout. Rather than playing full length games we did a lot of this type of training so we always had to think our way through drills. These scenarios create muscle memory in the brain so that when you are faced with similar situations in games – albeit in more intense environments- you can see the play that is needed for the team at that moment.
Dublin momentarily forgot some of these learnings last year at this stage of the competition and let a considerable lead slip away to Mayo. Both these teams have been exposed to some of the best performance coaches in Ireland – Gary Keegan with Dublin and, as of this year, Tony Griffin has been working with Kerry. This indicates that value is placed on this element of performance by both setups.
This is a space that will continue to grow in our game as we continue to strive to evolve. “I see the next step being technology used to train our brain,” Wenger said talking about using virtual reality. “We could see that in three-dimensional training. You can put your helmet on and see the game in your position, and practise your brain to make quick decisions, to anticipate what’s going on.”
That won’t help Kerry against Dublin but a combination of experience and good practice can help them with perception. They will need to have that space because already the pressure is building.
The talk is that Kerry need to win and if they don’t they could become another team that is constantly under-achieving. They’re not my words, they are the words from one of their own. This time it is not a bit of ‘yerra’ from Kerry. I fully agree. The key to overcoming that hurdle is in their heads. This is where the game is won and lost. The moments and the mistakes of the game will be seen by all at Croke Park, but the process is an internal one. As the saying goes, it’s an inside job. Dublin might seem like the opponent, but the real challenge for Kerry is in their heads.