On The Line: Donal Óg Cusack on Hurling

posted 16 Aug 2012, 15:46 by Robert O'Connell
There are two Olympic celebrations going on in London at the moment. On the one hand there's a great party that everybody has turned up to and on the other hand it's an intense sports event that only a few people will leave carrying winner’s medals. You can be in the party or the sports event - but not both.

When I watched the party start and the athletes coming out together for the opening ceremony I got a little lump in my throat. I think the lump was to do with the awe of the occasion but also the feeling if you asked me to spend hours and hours just before the biggest sporting event of my life getting ready for a parade, queuing to be in a parade, passing through security and then shuffling around until the early hours.

After four years of work? There's not a chance I'd do that if I were in the Olympics. I couldn't. It says a lot about Katie Taylor's mental strength that she could carry the flag and do all the standing around etc and still get in the ring at her first Olympics looking so focused and on top of things. And it says a lot about Irish team trainer Billy Walsh and the way he runs and prepares the Irish boxing team.

Irish athletics has always been a bumpier ride so as a sports person I'd identify far more with Derval O'Rourke, who stayed away from the party until the last possible minute.

I've watched some of the Games coverage and am fascinated by Michael Johnson, who is doing analysis for the BBC. Even as an analyst, nothing knocks his concentration. I remember years ago, when Johnston was at his peak as a 200-metres runner, reading about how meticulous his mental preparation for big events was.

You could enter Johnson's room the night before a race and everything would be perfect. His clothes would be unpacked and precisely arranged. His gear, socks, runners and two kit bags on one side. The clothes he would be wearing after the race laid out on the other side. His snack for before the race over here, the snack for after the race over there on the other side. No surprises.

NEGATIVE VIBES

He was asked about negative thoughts sneaking into his brain before a big race. He said that of course those negative thoughts seep in but that he always had positive thoughts ready to beat them away with. The easy answer would have been to say that no, he never had negative thoughts. And that would have been rubbish. Everybody has negative thoughts.

The important point was that you had to be the “author of your day and not the reader.” Prepare for everything. No surprises. Billy Walsh trusted Katie Taylor to deal with the opening ceremony and the flag and would have made it part of her preparations. And she trusted him that it would be ok. No surprises. Derval O'Rourke and her coach had the opportunity to control her environment for as long as possible. So she did. No surprises.
That relationship between coach/management is vital when it comes to the mental game.

The other night on RTÉ, Victor Costello, the former rugby player and international shot putter who is analysing the field events, showed a clip of Holly Bleasdale, the young English pole vaulter. She stood for about half a minute waiting for her coach in the stands to give her the signal to attack the runway. It was a great example of a coach's ego gone mad and of an athlete not being the author of her day. She didn't make it over the bar. It reminded me of a buddy of mine in Cloyne years ago keeping goals during a match and being told not once but twice by the umpire behind him, who was from the club, to leave the ball off and let it go wide. And each time the ball hopped into the net. Kevin, the ‘keeper, was on his own suddenly. Just like Holly Bleasdale.

At the moment I'm injured and helping out with bits and pieces of coaching when I'm asked to. I'm very conscious with the goalkeepers from Cloyne and from Cork that I restrict the amount I do with them just to the level that I've been asked to do. You help but don’t over impose. You have to allow players to express themselves. They have to make their own paths. They have to be ‘let fly’ is the romantic way of putting it. But the reality is that when it comes to Croke Park or any serious game, they're on their own.

I heard of an inter-county keeper a few years ago who liked to have another inter-county keeper behind the goal talking to him. When I was 19 if a fella stood behind the goal - no matter who he was - telling me what to do he'd have got a belt. I think my father found that out when I was about 14.

MENTAL PREPARATION

When Cork and Galway cross the white line in Croke Park for the All-Ireland semi-final on Sunday I believe that mental preparation will have a big part to play. When that ball is thrown in you don't have a moment to be looking at Jimmy Barry-Murphy or Anthony Cunningham hoping they'll tell you what to do next. Being strong and well prepared in your head will tell you.

The pressure the lads come under is unique. GAA guys do certain things that professional sports people just couldn't handle. They go to work for a start. For press nights, say, they finish work, sit in front of 15 or 20 press guys with no media training to help them and then go out the door for a training session wondering if something they've said will come back to bite them.

We don't live in the bubble that professionals live in. In the facility in which I work, there are a thousand other people every day. Most of them GAA people! Our world is too small and crowded to keep a GAA secret in! People have great intentions but as a player you have to develop the skill to handle it all coming up to a dYou feel that as a player, the expectation growing around you. People wonder why some counties seem to have one great performance in them during a summer and then blow up the next time out. The answer is in the world around them. That one great performance changes the whole environment and atmosphere the players live in. The great performance makes its own pressures for the next day.

And Croke Park is different. As much as possible you have to prepare for everything. You need to have the day laid out long before it comes. Especially when you travel to Dublin for a weekend.

For me, looking forward to a Sunday in Croke Park, everything would be sorted out well before the weekend began. Hurleys right. Gear and clothes right. Money right. Music right. I'd bring a bit of bread and honey from at home in Cloyne. Familiar stuff.

I get into the room, hang everything up, lay out what I need. Get the air temperature right. On Saturday night I like a walk down to Raglan Road with some of the lads. A bit of a puck around and a laugh down there. Back to the hotel, eat the bread and honey, listen to the music and visualise the next day. Not intensely, just letting the images come and the day unfold in my head in a good, passive way.

There are things in Croke Park that are different. People find this hard to believe but the crossbars in Croke Park are higher there than in any other hurling pitch you play in all season. You get to know these things. Cusack Park in Ennis would be the lowest crossbar you'd play under (I always blamed Davy Fitz for that!). You visualise and recall those things.

Being familiar with where you are is so important. I remember back in 1999 before the All-Ireland semi-final against Offaly, Jimmy Barry-Murphy took us down to Croke Park on the Saturday for a walk around. It was a great idea. I stood under the crossbar at the Canal End and noticed that it was slanted and was maybe six inches or more higher on the Cusack Stand side. Until that was changed years later I always fed that into my visualisations.

KNOWING YOUR SURROUNDINGS

And you have to take in the geography of the place. You look at Ronan O'Gara kicking in Thomond Park or Musgrave Park and I bet he knows those places so well he's taking his mark from various visual landmarks about the ground. Little things he's familiar with. In Croke Park, for me, the tunnels where the players come out onto the pitch from under the stands are the primary landmarks when it comes to knowing distances and where I am. People say, ‘sure a field is a field’. But standing on the grass in a packed Croke Park you have a different perspective than you have anywhere else. The winds swirl so you can't take a reliable reading off the flags. Look at them the next day you are there. The stands seem to alter the size of everything below them. You hear very little.

For the weekend I'd always try to avoid rooming with a negative fella. A lad can be the best in the world but he might enjoy moaning about everything. On the weekend of a match that would explode my head. I can't be around those guys. Even in the workplace I've developed a skill for deflecting the negatives that come at me from well-intentioned people.

Another thing. The hotel lobby has to be off limits to lads. It's a magnet for too many 'tourist' fans coming by to rubber-neck or pass on rumours or hassle fellas for tickets.

GAME DAY, GAME FACE

Sunday then. Up for the breakfast. Shorts and t-shirt on. Wander down. Looking for positive company. Afterwards I'd always go to the same wall outside the Burlington to have a puck around and a think. I liked the wall because it was curved and the ball would always come back at a different angle and trajectory than I'd hit it at. Perfect.
Back up. Put the grips on the hurley. I got to the stage that if the day was damp I'd change my grips just before the game and again at half-time as well.

Of course men plan and the Gods laugh. After all the preparation there are no guarantees. In 2005, a couple of weeks before the Munster final I went to watch Lar Corbett play a club challenge game down in Cork. I stood on the bank specifically to watch him. He got three goals, putting each of them across the square and across Bernard Rochford's body to his right hand side.

Ha! I had him sussed. Two weeks later, over 50,000 people in Semple Stadium in the Munster final, in the first few minutes Lar came bursting through and I said to myself, ‘there’s no way you’re putting this ball across in front of me Lar’.

And he didn't. He beat me on the near post. I like to think that he saw me on the bank that evening and his mental preparation was just better than mine…

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