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The psychology behind sport

Published 7 months ago 27th June 2022 by Ronan Quirke

Touraneena is not too far away from us here in South Tipperary. And it is home to a man who has broken through in his chosen field in a dramatic way in over the past two years. Seamus Power is a West Waterford native. His Dad was a noted handball player and was instrumental in getting a community centre built locally, along with a handball court. Using the court designed for handball, Power started playing racquetball. He excelled, and by the age of 12 he was ranked inside the top ten players for his age in the world. He took up golf at the West Waterford Club outside Dungarvan and excelled, winning three national youth championships. He won a scholarship to East Tennessee State University, graduating with an accountancy degree. Whilst there, he was a two time Atlantic Sun champion.

His early golfing life as a professional was hard. Playing on mini-tours, trying to gain access to a developmental tour called the Tour. He eventually made it on this developmental tour after going through a qualifying school. Needless to say, there was no great money to made on these low exposure golf tours. Here, no doubt, everyone dreamed of the big lights and big rewards of the PGA Tour proper. Power tries, failed, tried again, failed better. In 2015 he finished 72nd on the money list on the Tour, which guaranteed him another year on the developmental tour. Still hard graft, still small money. In 2015, he won a tournament on this tour and in 2016 represented Ireland at the Rio Olympics. This opportunity came after Rory McIlroy declined the invitation for fear of the Zika virus. Our collective knowledge of virology has come on a lot since then.

In 2017, Power finished tied for 25th on the Tour earnings and had earned $40,625. He needed a top 25 place to gain access to the PGA Tour. Going into the final three holes of the Tour Championship that year, Power was in 26th position. He made bogey on his third last hole but parred the final two. His Tour Card was now out of his hands. Matt Harmon was in 25th place at that point and still controlled his own PGA Tour opportunity. He needed to make par on the 18th to secure a Tour place and consign Power to another year on the Developmental Tour. But Harmon missed from eight feet and walked off the green in disgust, his putter broken in two places in rage. Matt Harmon still plays on the Tour.

Now, Power could make some money, rise up the world rankings and realise a long held dream to play at Augusta. This week he ranked 36th in the world, has won once on the PGA Tour and has amassed over $7 million in career earnings. Most notably though he has competed in the three major tournaments already held this year, making the cut in all three. He was tied 27th at the Masters, tied 9th at the USPGA and tied 12th at the US Open. He is older in age than Shane Lowry but his arrival onto the golfing radar of the general public is somewhat recent.

He had elbow surgery in late 2020 to clear up something he had regarded as a niggle and once fixed, he understood was affecting his swing more than he knew. And shortly after that, he called to see Bob Rotella.

Bob Rotella is well known in golfing circles as a sports psychologist. Pádraig Harrington and Darren Clarke credit him for much of their success. Power was living in South Carolina and so made a short visit to Virginia to visit Rotella. At the time, Power was ranked around 120 in the world. That meant that he really needed to make cuts to get paid. He couldn’t pick and choose which tournaments to play in, he needed as many as possible to keep his tour card which looked precarious in each passing year.
“He wasn’t too far away in Virginia so I went up there for a couple of days and he was just brilliant, simplifying and clarifying and getting me back on the right track.

“Sometimes in golf you think you are the first person through certain things and then you realise that just about every golfer that has been successful has gone through moments like that.”
Power always felt that he was good enough. Had he not felt that, surely he would have packed it in. Maybe the accountant part of his brain was saying that this was false accounting. Playing on mini-tours is not a cost effective way of being a golf pro. But the competitor side of his brain told him to keep going. He was good enough. He just needed the affirmation that Rotella provided.

“You’re just trying to remember what he told you and just trying to keep it as simple as possible. He got me just back on the correct path. A lot of things have led me to this point, but that was a huge kind of help. Coming down the stretch in tournaments and in those pressure situations, it’s absolutely huge.”
Joe Brolly isn’t a fan of sports psychologists. (I would argue that Seamus Power’s bank manager might have an alternate view.) Brolly feels that they have no ‘concrete skills to offer’. Other figures in the GAA also disagree. Four time All Ireland winner with the Dublin footballers, Kevin McManamon completed a Masters in the subject whilst still playing. He was recruited by Bernard Dunne to work with the Irish boxers at the Tokyo Olympics last year.

McManamon looks back at his career and identifies his own shortcomings.
“I was traditionally very hard on myself, I thought it would be a source of motivation, that if I was hard on myself I’d try harder in training,. Without realising it, I was basically just chiselling away at my confidence.”
Caroline Currid is a sports psychologist in much demand in GAA circles. Her current role is with the Limerick hurling team and one thing is for certain with the Limerick hurlers, they are not lacking in confidence. She worked with the Tyrone team that won an All-Ireland in 2008, the Tipperary hurling team in 2010 that also won an All-Ireland. When Dublin created their football dynasty in 2011, Currid was in their ear, and now Limerick. She isn’t just a GAA psychologist. She worked with Kenyan 800m runner David Rudisha before the London Olympics in 2012. He won gold in the Olympic Final and broke the world record in the process; that world record still stands.

You could argue that Limerick often had great teams but lacked the self-belief to get them over the line. In 2010 journalist Henry Martin wrote a book on the inside story of Limerick hurling. It’s apt title was ‘Unlimited Heartbreak’. Think back to the All-Ireland semi-final of 2018. Think how close Limerick came to blowing it. Remember Nicky Quaid’s intervention on Seamus Harnedy? Remember extra time that day? On such small margins do great events turn. Had Kerry held their nerve in 2011, we might never have seen a Dublin dynasty develop. Had Cork held their nerve in 2018, Limerick may have never became the king pings of hurling. We will never know the answers to those ‘what-ifs’ but what we do know is the value that Limerick captain, Declan Hannon and former Tipperary manager Liam Sheedy have both placed on the contribution of Currid to their success.

Many of us have used the phrase ‘the players need to pick themselves up after that’ etc from time to time. One can only imagine how deflated the Tipperary dressing room must have been after the Cork defeat ended our interest in this year’s Munster Hurling Championship. Worse still, perhaps the Tipperary dressing rooms after defeats in Croke Park in 2009, 2011 and 2014. The effort required to make it to the climax of the All-Ireland final coupled with the anti-climax of not winning it. Defeat hurts. And when you have cocooned yourself into a network of teammates and then suddenly the season is over, the network crumbles, and the hurler or footballer is left to deal with it alone. No two players are the same. The Mayo footballers seem to have an inexhaustible array of techniques for picking themselves up and going again. Committing to another season of inter county training must be incredibly difficult when success has eluded you. Surely. building motivation and confidence at the same time is crucial in gathering a team around you each autumn for another tilt at the summit.

This is not easy, and a sports psychologist alone is unable to achieve success. Obviously, like Seamus Power, you need talent, hard work and commitment. But then there is an X-factor, an uncontrollable, like confidence. And no matter how hard you train, confidence is not something that you can acquire without outside influence. Affirmation.

Seamus Power’s year to date has been spectacular to observe from this side of the Atlantic. Like them or not the Dublin football dynasty was spectacular to watch, they won games they should have lost. And the Limerick hurlers have married something they always had, talent, with something missing for 40 years, self-belief.

The play book for 2023 has already been written by Caroline Currid, Seamus Power and maybe even Bob Rotella.

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