The dog’s head

Two weeks to go until we face the Dubs and John Cuffe is back in the guest slot with some thoughts on the Mayo psyche.

I lived for many years with a fog inside my head. It was getting worse, depression and cynicism was taking over, clouding my view on life in general. Then I read a book called Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. In an instant the cloud and fog lifted, I finally understood where I was and why I was there.

Walking in Eason’s the other day I espied another Gladwell book. It’s titled What the Dog Saw. Gladwell, the son of a mathematician, studies people in a user friendly way. It’s with the same forensic diligence his father brought to maths but without the inherent dryness.

Now I must confess I have only skimmed through this book but I landed on a chapter late last night titled “The Art of Failure”. I was interested and I won’t make a cheap joke about Mayo’s footballers because I have my own theory: to fail you must first have tried. Anyway despite the hour being late, kids out, sleep astray etc., I read that chapter.

Much of it was theoretical and a slight bit over my head but I got a gist. Gladwell chose Jana Novotna’s meltdown against Steffi Graff in the Wimbledon final of 1993.  Novotna was in a virtually unassailable position leading 4-1 plus 40-30 and five points from winning the final. Then she drove two serves into the net and the meltdown started.

Graff won as Novotna wilted in the London sun. The harder she tried, the worse she got. No matter how she tried to gee herself up, it was in vain. Tears and heartbreak after. In a later tournament in Germany she had an even bigger lead only for the jitters to set in again. What should have been a help to her in charting her mind out of a morass instead became a monster that reminded her of her previous Wimbledon collapse.

We can empathise with Novotna. She was a brilliant tennis player but once the gremlins got into her head, they tore her to bits. Remember 1993: Mayo v Cork. James Joyce, a contributor here, noted that Mayo actually played well for the second half in that match. He is correct, I was there and it was for 20 minutes until Cork figured out how to shackle O’Neill and Golding, two boys who fought like demons.

Mayo were let down that day by the older hands who, despite high notions about themselves, mentally were in the wrong film. A lesson learned when Flanagan went down injured was completely ignored four years later when the same player hit the deck. Mayo didn’t change a flat tyre, they changed an entire engine in 1997. Panic set in leading to choke.

The words “panic” and “choke” according to Gladwell are seen to equate with as bad as quitting. Because Mayo swim in the fast river, unlike many counties that dwell in stagnant ponds that a frog would not piss in, Mayo tend to be judged on final day failure not on the entire trip to that final. Looking at the final of 1996, the one seen as thrown away, was it “panic” or “choke” that caught us on the line? I don’t know, by the way – maybe the better team simply beat us?

However the difference is this, I am not expected to know. I pay my money, take my seat, banter or insult who sits beside me. The guy who should know is the manager and his flock. He chose that station in life and it’s up to him to engage the gears. But what happens when a collective “panic” sets in or the old “choke” starts to tighten on the chest? This, folks, is in my opinion where the good old Plan B is dragged from the knapsack and implemented.

Good teams can adapt to Plan B fast because they are coached that way. Daniel Willingham, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, posits this theory. “Explicit Learning” is what we learn when starting to master a sporting art like, say, taking a free or following a team plan. The more we practice the better we get. At some stage “Implicit Learning” takes over. This means we do things unconsciously: watch Ciaran McDonald in his prime as he bent those beautiful arced passes all over the place.

However when stress enters the arena the “Explicit Learning” takes over again. For example in an All-Ireland final it starts to go horribly wrong. Guys tend to go back to the simple thing first. But that might be going back too far. As the “panic” sets in, as the “choke” tightens all under the guise of “stress”, guys who could catch seagulls suddenly fumble and stutter in front of us.

Back to 1997 again, 14 yard free to Mayo. Ciaran Mac steps up and promptly boots it wide. Costly in a three-point game but a funny thing happened later on. Second half we get a penalty. The man who wedged a 14 yarder wide steps up and as cold as ice slots the penalty. What happened there? Was the game gone from us and McD had nothing to lose, the dogs that haunted him away chasing sheep? Or was it as simple as the lad being just unlucky with the early free and back in the zone for the penalty?

Move on nine years and the same boy now switches a series of passes with another class act. O’Neill to McDonald … McDonad back to O’Neill. A sudden stop and a hand pass from O’Neill back to Ciaran; a beautiful arcing shot leaves his left scalpel. As it bisects the posts, McDonald already has his finger raised to the crowd on the way up the pitch … back to the goal. Was he in “explicit” mode or “implicit” mode … or does anyone care?  He kicked a great point.

Then we arrive at the final of 2006. Two men who worked a miracle getting the debris and flotsam of 2004 thrown overboard, Moran and Morrison were themselves  about to get a lesson from the Mayo mind. Surely lessons would be learned, minds would be hair-triggered and gears oiled. Instead we got torpor and the crazy gulls crying a few feet from me in one of the stands, game over and an hour of flogging ahead.

So what ? Kerry threw the kitchen sink at us and we wilted. No Plan B, “explicit” now merged with “implicit” with disastrous results. Or to look at it another way, were Kerry simply that much better than us?  Maybe they were for they did something similar to Cork in the final a year later.

Mayo football tends, for me at least, to operate on the “implicit learning” mode. When we are good we are artful and masterly to watch. Throw in the 1970 League final, 1985 drawn semi-final against Dublin, 1996 for most of the two games, Tyrone 2004, Dublin 2006, Cork last year. Mayo, ball in hand and running at ya, now that’s a sight to behold. But when an Eoin Cadogan or Noel O’Leary (two men whom we mannered very well last year’s quarter-final by the way) throw a shape or two as they did in the league final, we suddenly went all “explicit” again.

In 2009 as the Meath quarter-final entered the melting pot stage I watched as Mayo, the better team by the way, make life hard for themselves. Now I do acknowledge that a poor set of officials added to the burden. Mayo were still in the game, still salvageable. A kick-out from O’Malley was essayed to his wing-back. The wing-back was in the “implicit” mode but the game was now hinging on inches and graft. Suddenly a fairly ordinary Meath sub raced from behind our man, won the ball from the kick-out and planted a killer deep into our soul. We has switched into the wrong frequency and paid the price.

That was then and this is now. Somewhere inside the Mayo set-up I see a good mind guy, not a psychologist but perhaps someone who has worked with winners in the past. The collective is now working to a plan not a ten-minute guitar solo as we often got before. John Fogerty once said about hit singles – if you cannot get them in under three minutes, don’t bother recording them. Somewhere within us a person has that figured, not the three-minute single but the collective sacrifice for the team.

As we draw closer to the day of destiny I feel a confidence I never felt before, a belief. Maybe I am wrong, maybe it will go belly up and the yahoos will be unleashed to torment us again. And then maybe not, maybe inside some of the old dogs’ heads out on the pitch, maybe, just maybe, they will have said, we have suffered enough … this is our time. One thing is for sure though, in the words of some hard in the films – we will be back!


9 thoughts on “The dog’s head

  1. We are very hard on ourselves as a county, we have bought in too easily into the chokers label. In 2004 and 2006, we were beaten by a better team on the day. Cork and Dublin both suffered big defeats to the same Kerry team and did not suffer the same labelling.

    All our troubles go back to the 1996 and 1997. If we had won either of them games, we would look back on the defeats in 04 and 06 differently, as games we just lost and not games which reflected psychologically inadequacies.

    In terms of this “choker” argument I’m suprised that 1989 doesnt get raised more often. That was more a Jana Novotna situation that 2004 or 2006 ever were.

  2. Interesting points considering posts in another thread.Something in what you say too. We don’t do expectation well and so need to lessen expectation which starts in September every year. Hype is not the same as support. Lots of counties show great support without hype.interesting that Mayo Kerry and Dublin and others have used the same motivator/psychologist from your adopted neck of the woods John with different results.
    It’s the monkey off the back syndrome really.
    I believe it will happen and we will have one great week when it does!
    Till then we support not create hype and maybe just maybe it will be this year. I’m not so sure but I do believe we are laying the foundation and that’s a good place to begin.
    Thanks for the thoughts John. A lot to ponder.

  3. As ever an excellent piece and a joy to read, agree with your optimism as there is an awful lot of the opposite when it comes to the Mayo team, a pessimism that has pervaded the people on the streets in the county for the last 40 years that I remember. ‘how are we going to do this year’ one would ask and the likely answer would be ‘we’re goin nowhere as usual’ or ‘I wouldnt go to the bottom of our field to watch them ,if they were playing there’ ………I always got the feeling that this was not the way people felt in their hearts but a way of shielding themselves from yet another disappointment and I get the same feeling from reading the negative posts on here……….after all it has been a way easier to be right and predict a Mayo loss at headquarters than a win………..BUT the stats over the last few years are more positive and they have ‘knocked on the door’ a few times, probably more than any other county in the country, and as the saying goes ‘if you knock often enough’…………..A few recently compared present players with Mc Gee ,Langan and Morley (rip) ,they were good but not good enough to get out of Connacht……..that in itself speaks volumes for Team Mayo of now……….Lots of worries whether Alan Brogan will be back or not, the loss of Andy, the fear of hype and the dire need to keep under the radar are all negative and typical of that pervading fear mentioned above. Let us have those who despite a multitude of failures,rise up and try again, because as the man put it ,you can’t fail if you don’t try or make it there to try.
    In the end after all analysis, all that has to be done is to outscore the opposition. Some will think that to be the ravings of a lunatic …..but that is the only way

  4. Ps meant to say that this squad more than any of the past is capable of the ‘outscoring’ bit

  5. Strangely enough I have been reading the book for about a week and read that chapter a few days ago.
    In reference, to choking and panicking, it is interesting that he mainly talked about individual sports.
    To see the majority of a team play badly may be choking, it may be panic, but sometimes the other team was just better and it may be easier to say “we” were at fault, than “they” were better than us.
    I am sure that the current Cork, Meath and Kerry teams don’t even give us a backwards glance about us owing them one for games from 20 years ago
    The Kerry semi last year and this year’s Cork league final – we were outplayed when it mattered, but I didn’t see any collapse like 2004 and 2006

  6. As I read John’s post I was drawn to two short phrases in his final chapter namely ‘day of destiny’ and ‘we have suffered enough’. If the players truly believe that we have suffered enough then we will win in two weeks. We have been waiting since ’51, our hunger is savage and we are about to see if this Mayo team can finally throw off the shackles and claim its rightful place at the top table.
    It’s been a long lead-in to Sept 2nd and it’s good that we are finally about to find out if we can hack it at the top table. We came up short when it mattered against Kerry last year and against Cork this year. Have we improved sufficiently to close the gap ?
    We have had a few light hearted diversions because of the long lead-in ….. I’m thinking of Willie Joe’s difficulties in landing a decent shoulder charge on that most elusive of opponents the WIND who had the additional safety net of being highly relevant and posting under Willie Joe’s own headline ‘BREWING UP A STORM’ !
    I wont go as far as the WIND in hoping for a windy day on Sept 2nd but I do hope we can brew up an almighty STORM. It’s time to blow someone’s house down.

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