Ireland’s failure at the hands of the Scots in Edinburgh highlights a theme in sport that we are more than familiar in Leitrim: the inability of the underdog to deliver the bite required of a favourite. In national terms its most often our rugby players or our soccer team that fail when faced with the expectation of victory.
Having been coached in the position of the underdog so long – charged with rising to the occasion, upsetting the odds, silencing nay sayers – they fail to deal with the mental adjustment that comes when you are on the other side of that scenario.
I guess it’s in our nature in many ways; the Irish, from our outpost on western Europe, small in numbers and frequently vanquished down through the centuries by various marauding European powers, like to look upon ourselves as striking guerrilla style against the accepted powers of sport.
This has served us well and has led to many giant killings. Jack’s Army were probably the best example of this. Eschewing the conventional international football styles of the time (of actually passing the ball from defence through midfield into attack!) they literally ‘put ‘em under pressure’ and tried to get the ball as quickly and directly as they could to where it could most hurt their often illustrious opponents: in their box.
It wasn’t pretty, but it worked, as the Italians and the English to name but two learned at the Euro ‘88 and the World Cup in the US in ‘94, respectively. Now we have to factor in that Jack Charlton had at his disposal players of the quality of Paul McGrath, Ray Houghton, Kevin Sheedy, and the twin towers Quinn and Cascarino who played with and against the best in the English league week in and week out and therefore suffered no inferiority complexes when playing on the world’s biggest soccer stages.
Declan Kidney has a group of players at his disposal who are playing for three of Europe’s top club sides at the moment, Ulster, Munster and Leinster, not to mention perhaps the world’s best all-round rugby player for a generation in Brian O’Driscoll. His achievement as coach in winning the Grand Slam back in 2009 – our first for 61 years – promised to be the start of a new era for Irish international rugby. It was a great achievement. Since then the team has suffered a series of disappointments, highlighted by the poor overall performance in the World Cup in New Zealand.
True, the team put in an incredible performance to defeat Australia in one of the all time great Irish rugby wins. But it was from the position of underdogs. Once they went into the quarter finals as favourites against Wales they once more fell foul to that troublesome tag. It has happened several times since, too, most recently on Sunday.
In Leitrim, we have had many great wins as underdogs but very few as favourites. Expectation followed the lads from the FBD like a foul smell and while we travelled to Limerick more in hope than expectation, we rightly welcomed Clare to Carrick-on-Shannon as favourites in my mind. I often look upon Leitrim as being a microcosm for our nation’s sporting exploits on the international stage.
We revel in the role of underdog. We often lose our bite when collared by the favourites tag.
So, if we come from a nation (or a county) who like to see ourselves as underdogs, how do we overcome this default mindset, and subsequently the challenge that arises when we find ourselves carrying the expectation of victory? It’s not an easy thing to do.
But the first most obvious step is to stop coaching the underdog mindset. We must always coach as equals. We must stop thinking about the opposition and focus on ourselves. We must work to our strengths at all time and we examine the opposition, respect them, highlight their weaknesses and attack them in those areas.
It sounds so simple when you write it on a computer, but what I am proposing is more than mere tactics. It’s about changing a culture. And changing cultures takes time, and buy in from all those people who create a culture. And the culture of a team is made up of more than just its players, although this group, along with the team management are those best placed to enact change. A team’s culture is also connected to its past, linked to its supporters and reflective of the community it represents.
The media also plays a part – it is the vehicle with the voice expresses a culture. When people talk about the theory behind what is required to enact change they say that the first thing that is required is to recognise that change needs to take place. Once that has been agreed then you implement the new state you want to prevail and you lock it in through consistent application of the appropriate behaviour.
We need a change in our mindsets if we are to reach our full potential and we need to recognise that a change is necessary. We can learn a lot from our golfers who operate consistently at the highest level internationally. Likewise, in the equine world, we are class leaders. If we can transfer some of the secrets of success that these individual pursuits have amassed and transfer those to our team dynamics then you’d never know what might change. The trouble with team sports is that you need everyone in a panel buying into that winning ethos. One weak link can break that chain. But what’s the alternative?
Keep on doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results? As Einstein said, that’s one definition of insanity.