Jonny Cooper: As the pressure rises, footballers need to feel as free as La Rochelle

A visit to the European rugby champions produced valuable insights about how to excel when the stakes are high

If you are involved in team performance, it is important to challenge your assumptions. You want to be relentless in the battle against a contagious complacency. And always be on the hunt for new knowledge. With that in mind, recently I took a short flight to France and visited La Rochelle rugby for a few day’s culture exchange.

It’s an elite performance environment, top of the field in Europe and attempting to gain similar status in France. Led of course by Cork’s own Ronan O’Gara. I was in their space as they prepared for the Champions Cup final. An away game, against Leinster, in Dublin. Probably a 50/50 contest, although Leinster were most people’s favourites given their form and the hurt of losing the final last year.

For me, watching an 80-minute performance through a TV is convenient. But you lose so much. So many areas you can’t see – a lot of them not actually present in the stadium at that point anyway. Types of conversation. Who talks to who the most. A culture. The soft or sharp tone of relationships. Challenges laid down. The style of feedback. You only get a very limited snapshot of that on television.

So an opportunity to feel, hear and even touch these elements is gold dust. During these times, you get a true sense of what exactly feeds into the contests you watch on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. I got to watch and talk to people who are as experienced as they are inquisitive. And I was able to spend time in the company of O’Gara, his players and staff. Exchanging insights, challenging my assumptions.


We have reached the point in the football championship where seasons are on the line. Every weekend now, teams will depart the competitions. In the Sam Maguire competition, next weekend, some teams will be knocked out. Some teams will earn an easier path to the quarterfinals. Some will fall in between.

Don’t underestimate the prize of an extra week off. The four teams who earn it will buy themselves priceless room for mental and physical regeneration. The All-Ireland final is in seven weeks. Everything is ratcheting higher – mental pressure, the absolute need for results, distractions, expectations. The freer you can make your mind, the better.

On one of the days in La Rochelle, I was observing training on the side of the pitch as the squad cycled through a practice session. Taking a breather at one point, their scrumhalf Tawera Kerr-Barlow came my way. We stayed talking for several minutes. Eye contact. Soft facial expressions. Really engaging. He was interested in what I was seeing and feeling.

I told him what I had experienced just 15 minutes earlier: I was standing about 40 metres away. Absorbing what I could from different perspectives. Eyes tracking different players, coaches and support staff as they felt their way through practice. It was thought-provoking to watch an experienced team with many internationals. Metres away at ground level you feel them dialling up and down hundreds of micro elements. I chose to close my eyes to just appreciate different senses for a few seconds.

Their pitch is parallel to a small side street called Boulevard Aristide Rondeau. Surrounding the flush grass pitch is a mesh fence about 12 feet tall. Upon closing my eyes, I actually heard kids playing from the road. So I turned to look out of a small gap in the fence. There were three children, about 12 years old. I noticed them being kids. Having fun while trying to gain a competitive advantage in the local street game they were playing.

That’s what I told Kerr-Barlow. I said that something feels free around the environment. Not loose, not unserious. I knew exactly that they were about to travel to Dublin to meet a massive opportunity head on and you could see that they were certainly laser-focused – there was accuracy and zip to what they did. But at the same time, they were free. Energised by the task before them.

Kerr-Barlow has 29 All Black caps and is a World Cup winner from 2015. He spoke in eloquent detail and mentioned two things in particular. Eyes before data. Connection before calls. As the sun dropped from the sky, both his points bounced around my head as I walked home that evening.

Obviously, there is a place for data. And obviously, tactical or directional calls need to be made. I think the point he was making was about what happens as you move more towards the apex of performance under pressure. Specifically, it is what you are seeing in a moment. A millisecond. An opportunity to execute presents itself. But then it’s gone. And the connection you have to your team-mates – that’s the underlying glue between everything.

This past week, these exact two points made sense to me with the GAA championship in my mind. Much of the conversation around the 2023 championship is about style of play, the format, attendances, which games are being televised and so on. All irrelevant to a player.

More interesting is a macro comparison from this year to previous years, showing some big differences at a team level. Teams such as Louth, Antrim, Limerick, Sligo and Westmeath are all getting invaluable extra games this year – and as a result you are seeing their performances flourish.

Why? More competitive games under pressure. But equally those players are probably enjoying the journey of going to McHale park or the Athletic grounds. Relying on what they are seeing and feeling in the moment. That’s what they are deferring to really.

Kerr-Barlow’s logic of eyes before data and connection before calls is still percolating in my head. Although rugby is a different game, does this apply in Gaelic football or even in any other areas? I think so. Outside of sport, I work with organisations daily on their development. Those performing better have similar beliefs. What people see and how they connect propels performance.

During my 11 years of competing at intercounty level, I found exactly that too. When the stakes get close to breaking point, you need to trust it all. That’s when you want to feel free in how you’re preparing, how you are cohesive as a group. Ironically, this can mean backing off to some extent. Not going all out.

Backing your eyes, backing your connection. That’s the magic.