Mayo won’t lack the motivation to bounce back again

‘This team is hardened enough and steely enough, and the appetite will be there’

'The further you go, the closer you get.' – Advertising slogan on the back of a Dublin Bus, author unknown.

Motivation is not an endless resource. It is a renewable one. It needs time and space and the right environment to grow. It also needs clarity.

After that it comes to down to motivational stamina. The best teams, the best players, the best athletes, will always find that. Although probably not on Twitter or Facebook or indeed on the back of a Dublin bus.

Enda McNulty is telling me this as he’s driving somewhere around Dublin (spotting that bus in the process). He’s talking about motivation in general but with an obvious nod to the Mayo footballers, many of whom might well be thinking the further you go, the further away you get.

Last Saturday’s All-Ireland defeat to Dublin had that feel about it: these Mayo players have come close before, repeatedly, at both final and semi-final stage, yet to lose by a single point, especially given the cruel circumstances within both the draw and replay, could dangerously drain even the deepest wells of motivation – if it hasn’t already.

“Considering all that, you’d have to say Mayo’s motivation is excellent,” says McNulty. “You’d have to commend it. Because they keep getting back on their feet, keep fighting.

“Now it comes down to motivational stamina. How many of them still have the motivation to do ‘the extras’, as they say in professional rugby, after every single training session, with that high intensity of motivation? How many of them still have the motivation to go out and train on Christmas Day?

Best teams

“The best teams, the best individuals, typically have the best motivational stamina. For Mayo, it’s about reactivating that motivation. And every team, every player, needs to have a personal approach to renewing it, reinvigorating it, refreshing it.”

McNulty is eminently qualified to discuss this matter, on two counts: he spent several years knocking on motivation’s door before winning Armagh’s first and only All-Ireland in 2002 (McNulty was also All Star corner back that year). Then, after losing the 2003 final to Tyrone, he found his own level of motivation plummet below zero, had to find his own means of reactivating it (before finally retiring in 2010).

He’s also got over a decade of experience in sports psychology, recently rebranding his company as McNulty Performance, branching out into the corporate and business sector. What he sees next for this Mayo team is largely positive, provided they share and nurture that mentality.

“If you look at say the Ireland rugby team, or say Leicester in the Premier League last season, if everyone in that environment is of that same mindset, it’s much easier to stay motivated, on a long-term basis. The psychology behind that is a growth psychology. Whether it’s an individual, a team, or coach, the vast majority of successful people have the growth psychology, going back to the research of Carol Dweck.”

(As in Professor Dweck, of Stanford University, famous for her "mindset" theories on motivation, suggesting those who believe success is based on hard work, rather than innate ability, typically perform better.)

“There is a big ‘however’”, he adds.

“A lot of people I’ve met recently talk about ‘poor Mayo’. But what about poor Carlow? Or poor Monaghan? Or poor Armagh now? Mayo getting to an All-Ireland final, playing in front of 80,000 people, it shouldn’t be too hard to get motivated about that – with a huge level of support, and backroom staff, in the county. If you were a Leitrim footballer that would be more difficult.”

These Mayo players, in other words, can’t afford to let some negative psychology within the county creep into their own mindset, and McNulty reckons they won’t. “Most players are selfish, self-centric, that’s why they’re at that level. That’s why these Mayo players won’t stop to think about poor Leitrim. They want to win.

“All elite athletes, elite teams, go through different phases. That will happen for Mayo, same as for Dublin, phases where that motivation is low. Some of the Dublin players will feel aggrieved at not starting.

“In reality both sets of players will go through a cocktail of emotions between now and Christmas. We can’t dictate which players go through that at each time. The great coaches can identify that, and help them through it, if need be. Or keep them there, if need be.”

Good enough

The closest Mayo have come to being here before was in 1996, in terms of both the cruelly close nature of the replayed final (that year losing to Meath), and the deep disappointment and draining of motivation that followed. For John Maughan, manager of that Mayo team 20 years ago, the parallels certainly ring true, and yet just like his team reactivated their motivation to make the 1997 All-Ireland final (albeit also losing that one to Kerry), he has little doubt these Mayo players will rise again.

“I’ve been to that house of pain in that we certainly felt we were good enough to win that All-Ireland final, in 1996, and it was one that slipped away,” says Maughan

“There have been a few since, where maybe Mayo felt the better team won. But certainly this year, and taking nothing away from Dublin, it was such a fine line, so little between Mayo and Dublin, that it’s considered here, yes, as another opportunity missed. On both days.

“Particularly the first day. I think Dublin were a little more vulnerable in that drawn game. I’m not suggesting they were overconfident or anything, but there was a certain vulnerability there, that perhaps in hindsight we could have exploited better, but unfortunately it just wasn’t to be. So there are some similarities with 1996.”

What Maughan suggests – like McNulty – is that these Mayo players can’t afford to let any negative vibes dwell in their psyche, nor indeed will they.

"The modern set-up down in Mayo is as good as I've seen. They want for nothing. Everything is there at their disposal, the backroom team is very professional and experienced, with all sorts of resources. And they will still feel there is unfinished business. And bar one or two, that team is still young enough. With another winter under the belt, and with a few more of the under-21s, Liam Irwin, Conor Loftus, there are opportunities for players to make a difference.

"This group of players have certainly taken quite a few knocks. I hate that line 'they deserve it'. No one deserves anything in life. But I would say they are certainly good enough to win. Lee Keegan, Colm Boyle and these guys, Keith Higgins, you'd hope they'll be lucky enough to get over the line. And I think 2017 will present them with another opportunity.

“The likes of Tyrone and particularly Kerry aren’t going to let their guard down, waiting for Mayo, say ‘go on and win one’. They’re all coming with a conveyor belt of talent, and they’ll be knocking on the door. Dublin obviously have the underage talent as well. But I feel there is another opportunity for Mayo. This team is hardened enough and steely enough, and the appetite will be there.

“The modern footballers are like that. They don’t go away and hang their heads and feel sorry for themselves. It’s their choice to play intercounty football. I hear lots of talk like, ‘oh, you’d feel so sorry for the players’, but I don’t feel that. It’s the choice they make, with no guarantees, and they’re lucky in many ways. So many teams never get to play in an All-Ireland final, and Mayo are at that top table the last number of years. And of course more than anybody I’d love to see some of those guys win an All-Ireland title.”

Still, he says, Mayo can't afford to be harbouring any regrets: the Rob Hennelly-David Clarke goalkeeping disorder certainly didn't help, no less than Mayo losing Liam McHale to a red card in the 1996 replay.

“That’s the big discussion point,” says Maughan. “We all felt David Clarke was the All Star goalkeeper in waiting. . . I think a lot of people will recognise David Clarke as having an outstanding year. And maybe deserved his place. And there is the danger of overanalysis on this, judging the flight and projection of kick-outs, all that, to pick Rob instead of David. When sometimes gut instinct can count for a lot more. Maybe that was abandoned, I don’t know.

“And on All-Ireland final day Mayo need everything going for them. But there’s no one blaming Robbie down here. There is real affection for this team in the county.

“Despite the narrow defeat on Saturday, you’d have to be extremely proud of these players. They left everything on the field. In the past, sometimes Mayo might have been accused of being chokers, at the final hurdle. But there were certainly no chokers on that team. I thought they were magnificently brave, despite all the setbacks. And they’ll just get on with in.

“I still think Mayo are in a good position. Next year, they don’t have to go full throttle to win Connacht. The likes of Kerry will always hit the sweet spot in September, and Mayo got that right this year, for one reason or another. So there was huge improvement over the season, and if they can do the same next year, I feel there are certainly good enough.”

Deep down

Motivation can sometimes be found in strange or uncomfortable places, as McNulty discovered when he went looking for it, in the aftermath of Armagh’s 2003 All-Ireland final defeat to Tyrone.

“After Tyrone beat us in that final I came as close to being depressed as I ever have. I had no motivation to do anything. No motivation to work. No motivation to train. At that stage I was coaching development with Ballyboden St Enda’s, and had no motivation to add value,” he recalls.

"I had to find something deep down to resurrect it, to find a reason to get back into the gym, not eat junk food, not to go out at night. After a few days, knowing I had to start thinking about the future, I walked into the Ernest Shackleton exhibition, in the Collins Barracks, in Dublin, for whatever reason, and started reading about some of the adversity, about Tom Crean, and it just gave me a good shake, activated that motivation.

“I’d studied psychology, spent my whole life practising positive psychology. But still I needed a good shake like that.

“A few days later, a young lad from home committed suicide. And I was at the wake, with some Armagh supporters, and they were consoling me, after the defeat, saying we should have won. And that activated it too. I actually felt embarrassed, for the way I was feeling about myself.

“And it has come from within like that. Every individual player has to find that for themselves . . .”

Can these Mayo players find it?

“If it comes from within. As a player, I also remember thinking about my father, the 20 years he spent watching me, before winning an All-Ireland. I mean that’s motivational steroids, compared to some quote you find on Twitter. It has to be a much deeper source of motivation.

“And a lot of people I work with now, in business, haven’t even thought about their motivation. And if you called up every single Mayo player right now, told them they had 30 seconds to name their key motivational drivers, a lot of them wouldn’t have absolute clarity on that. If that clarity is there, then chances are they’ll be a lot more motivated, on a more regular basis.”

Perhaps by now Mayo’s motivation couldn’t be any clearer. The further you go, the closer you do get.

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics