Subscriber Only

Joe Canning: You will convince yourself of anything to gain a mental edge

I once stood in a river twice a day for a week to get my foot right for a game. Placebo effect or not, it worked.

Why do underdogs win games? Why do favourites lose? I watched Wexford beat Kilkenny on Saturday night and, like everybody else, the main thought I had was that this Wexford team was unrecognisable from the one that drew with Westmeath the previous week. How does that happen?

They didn’t become better hurlers. They didn’t get any more skilful in a week. They didn’t get any stronger or faster. The only thing that improved in the space of a week was their mentality. They went to Kilkenny with their backs against the wall. They had no chip on their shoulder against Westmeath but they were desperate for a win against Kilkenny. That’s where they found their edge.

It tells you an awful lot about top-level sport. We’ve seen it countless times in lots of different sports. One team doesn’t come into a game in the right frame of mind and it costs them. Another team finds that edge and gets it right mentally and suddenly you have an upset.

For me, the key element to a good build-up is not feeling comfortable. I always craved that restless, cranky feeling going into games. I wanted people to be on edge when they thought about the game. I wanted us to worry that we hadn’t done enough. If we had an A v B game the week before, I was always happier when the Bs won. I didn’t mind it being messy. The best scenario for me was that the lads on the As went home thinking they had to really knuckle down and push it to fix things before Sunday.

I hated feeling at ease preparing for games. I was good at switching off before and after training and having the craic but I’m sure my team-mates thought I was an awful pain once the whistle went. If I felt that the mood was relaxed at any stage, I’d be on it, giving out straight away. I’d say at a certain point they all just thought, `Leave him off, that’s just Joe, that’s just the way he needs to be’.

That’s how dressing rooms work. Certain people need to get themselves into a certain mood or way of thinking in the build-up to a game. I knew lads down the years who would have been big into making a speech in a team meeting the week of the game. They could be thinking they were having a big influence on the group but plenty of us would just be sitting there thinking, ‘Sure grand, whatever he needs to do to get into the right frame of mind’. And I have no doubt that’s what they thought about me giving out all the time.

That was just the way I felt I had to prepare. I always wanted to be in that mindset of thinking `there’s more I could be doing here’. I wanted the pressure of thinking I wasn’t good enough. If I was after having a good game, I always told myself I had to be better the next day. Partly this was so I wouldn’t get too comfortable. But it was also out of necessity.

Since everything you do is analysed to death by the other team before your next game, you have to bring something different the next time you go out. The lad marking you is going to concentrate on where you got your scores from, how you like to receive the ball, whether you instinctively look for one player over another, all that stuff. If you play the same way the next day, any good defender will shut you down.

Sometimes the discomfort is completely real. In the run up to the 2018 All-Ireland semi-final against Clare, I had a bone bruise in my foot. It was a pretty bad injury and I had to get an injection to play the game. I didn’t mind, obviously – you’ll do anything to play. But in the back of my head too was the fact that if we got over the semi-final, there was a three-week break to the final. Plenty of time to rest it up and have it right by then.

The game threw up two problems. First, I got another belt on the foot during it so it ballooned up in the dressing room afterwards. And second, the game ended in a draw, which meant we had a replay in Thurles the following weekend. That’s a bit more discomfort than I was bargaining for.

Thankfully, Gearóid McInerney had a plan for me. There was an old story about his father Gerry back in the ‘80s where he had spent a week sitting in a river in Kinvara to fix a hamstring problem. Now, the story had grown over the years to the point where Gerry basically lived in the river for the week and had people bringing him breakfast, lunch and dinner. Whatever the truth of all that, he was able at the end of it to turn up to the match and play, hamstring fixed and not a bother on him.

I was prepared to try anything so, the next morning, I drove to meet Gearóid in Kinvara and we went to find this bit of river. You had to climb over a gate and cross another river and go through a couple of fields to find this rock pool basically where the flow of the water was really fast and cold.

So every day that week – and some days twice a day – I went to Kinvara and stood in this river in a pair of shitty old runners. At the gate that led down to it, there were maybe four or five pairs of old runners that people had left behind after they’d done the same thing. They were basically no good for anything else only standing in the river so they left them there for the next person. So obviously Gerry Mac’s story had spread down the years and I was far from being the first desperate player to come and try my luck.

I’d say I was down in that stream 10 or 11 times across that week. Away from it, I was in a moon boot every day. I wasn’t really training in between the two games. But it worked. I played the game and didn’t even have to have an injection to get through it.

And in a way, it was nearly the best preparation I could have had because it meant there was absolutely no chance of me going into the game feeling comfortable with the build-up. How could I? I barely had a puck of the ball all week. But the one thing I knew was that I had done everything possible to get on the pitch. I was nervous about how the foot would hold up but I knew I had left no stone unturned.

Mental preparation is mad like that. I’ve often wondered since was there a placebo effect in there somewhere. If I had sat at home all week full of negative thoughts about missing the replay, maybe I wouldn’t have made it back at all. But I knew – or I convinced myself anyway – that by making the effort to go there every day and stand in the water, I was getting myself better. By the weekend, my mind was in the right place for the challenge.

Down the years, we must have had eight or nine different sports psychologists in the various Galway set-ups I was part of. It was never my thing. I wasn’t against them in any way and I wouldn’t ever disrespect what they do. I rowed in with all the group stuff we did and my attitude was that if two or three lads in the group got something out of it, then it was well worth doing. Some guys got engrossed in it and it got them ready and fair play to them.

But on a personal, one-to-one level, I never really clicked with it. I took a lot of it with a pinch of salt, being honest about it. Managers kind of knew that with me. I was probably doing a lot of what they were preaching anyway – I was doing visualisation without really knowing it was a thing. But some of it I just found a bit too gimmicky for me.

Some of it I found funny. There was one year we wore rubber bands on our wrists. The idea behind them was that if you missed a score or missed a ball, you were supposed to flick the rubber band and that would reset you. When I heard this I was just thinking, ‘I don’t f**king have time to be flicking a rubber band in the middle of the pitch!’ Wouldn’t I be better getting set-up for the puck-out?

Ah, it just wasn’t for me. I remember one year with Portumna, we won an All-Ireland and everybody in the team had a wrapping around their wrist with something written on it. I can’t even remember exactly what it was – ‘100%’ maybe, or ‘Work, Work, Work.’ It doesn’t really matter what it was.

What I do remember though was the following year when we went back to play club league games in Galway, a few of the opposition teams we came up against had the same thing written on their wrists. Work, Work, Work. Next Ball. 100%. I remember seeing it and going, ‘Did they see us on TV with this on our hands and think this is the difference between winning and losing’?

But again, whatever works for you works for you. Maybe that’s as much of a placebo effect at play as me standing in a rock-pool in Kinvara in 2018. The important thing is you get yourself into the place you want to be in your head.

We got through that semi-final replay against Clare but we ended up losing the final to Limerick. I have definitely wondered since then if the fact that we had no beef with Limerick fed into our performance that day. In 2017 we were facing Waterford in the final knowing that, in the history of the championship, Galway had never beaten them.

We couldn’t let that go on. We had to turn it around. It wasn’t something that dominated our build-up but it was there. It was annoying. It was something that added to the general air of crankiness. Who are they to have a perfect record over us? That kind of thing.

But the following year Limerick were a team that Galway had no real history with. None of us had ever played them in championship and I think the teams had only met once since 1981. We were favourites and we were defending champions. They hadn’t won an All-Ireland in 45 years. We had no grievance with them but we definitely had something they craved.

You can be sure they didn’t go into that final feeling comfortable in themselves. They went in with an edge that we didn’t have on the day. I don’t know if it was the difference but when you lose – especially when you lose by a point – you wrack your brain for everything.