Ian O'Riordan: The sports psychology behind controlling the uncontrollables

Psychologist Gerry Hussey on Ireland's chances in World Cup and how boxers can deal with Tokyo uncertainty

Sports psychologist Gerry Hussey. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

These are uncontrollable times for a lot of people. What happens next? How about next year? Who exactly is running the show?

Fear not the obvious. Brexit may already be gone beyond the uncontrollable, only for some loyal supporters of Irish sport it feels like these questions are still perfectly valid. And if your country or county or indeed club does still need you, do the questions we ask of them have any bearing on the actual outcome?

For supporters of the Republic of Ireland, is the sideshow around John Delaney somehow inhibiting the team’s performance? Or is the result from the Aviva Stadium on Tuesday night evidence of the opposite?

How about Johnny Sexton, out of the Heineken Cup quarter-finals this weekend, and indeed Conor Murray? How will their Six Nations endgame impact on the Ireland rugby team heading to Japan in September?


Took charge

What will Dublin football supporters do on Sunday, when for the first time since manager Jim Gavin took charge in 2013, their team aren’t part of the Allianz Football League final in Croke Park? And in the one year their team is chasing that unprecedented five-in-a-row?

Supporters of Irish boxing may also be feeling uncertain, given there’s no guarantee their sport will be part of next year’s Tokyo Olympics. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is still refusing to engage on any organisational matters with the AIBA, until they complete their report into governance and financial matters, and that’s not due until May 22nd. How must Irish boxers be dealing with that?

Is there a sports psychologist in the room?

No, but Gerry Hussey is on the phone, a man with considerable experience in the psychology that sometimes feels unique to Irish sport: our apparent inability to control our uncertainty. Or is that the same with all sporting nations?

“All sport is conditioned chaos, because for every athlete or team there will always be the uncontrollables,” says Hussey, who first took his own boxing background and turned it into something a little more certain: as part of the elite performance programme under Billy Walsh and Gary Keegan, Hussey helped transform that certain feeling they would win no medals, to feeling certain they would (including three Olympic medals at Beijing 2008 and four at London 2012).

Performance psychologist Gerry Hussey with boxing coach Billy Walsh, team manager Des Donnelly, Irish boxer Adam Nolan, coach Zaur Anita and team physio Conor McCarthy, at the 2012 London Olympic Games. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

Any uncertainty around boxing in Tokyo, he thinks, is certain not to impact on Irish boxers. Not yet anyway. “The process of Olympic qualification has always been difficult, and the culture we always worked off was taking it one week at a time, one round at a time. Most elite athletes work only the week they’re in, can’t look far beyond that.

“Part of the psychology behind that is developing a mindset whereby you focus on the things you can control, staying fit and healthy, performing consistently and to the best of your ability. For sure, Tokyo presents another unwanted controllable, but it shouldn’t impact on the process, or on athletes who are ruthless around their own performance. It might all come to nothing anyway, a sort of unknown uncontrollable.”

Motivational talk

Hussey’s experience in psychology has broadened beyond boxing. He’s worked with several Munster rugby players, Olympic athletes and sailors, and inter-county players, and now practises in the wider public (he’s part of the line-up at the KBC/WellFest in Dublin May). The lesson is the same, only not just in the telling of it.

“Some people still think sports psychology is bringing someone into the room to give a motivational talk. Sports psychology is about training the brain to think more clearly under pressure, to help build new neurological pathways, allowing the athlete to develop new automatic motor skills. So it’s as much about the physiological half of the brain as it is the psychological. The one talk will not fit all, and it’s not about building emotion, because emotion is temporary.”

What is certain, Hussey believes, is that our external questions rarely trickle down to within the team itself: “How many people were shocked by the news about John Delaney? I think the players less so, and I don’t think it has any impact on their performance. The same with the Dublin football team. Look at Jim Gavin, he’s never looked beyond the next game.

“This year Dublin are trying to win an All-Ireland, same as last year. And if I didn’t believe in teams or athletes doing things that have never been done before I wouldn’t be in this business. And are Dublin in a great position to win five-in-a -row? Absolutely.”

That doesn’t mean Hussey is without some uncertainty when it comes to the Ireland rugby team. “I would be a little worried about their record in games where they had to win, or were expected to win. There seems to be a history of falling short on those days. That’s the test going into the World Cup, and it’s a difficult burden to carry.

“For teams to become consistent winners, they have to be able to deal with any expectation or pressure. That may be one thing the Ireland team has yet to show, in the games they need to win.”

And who can be certain if that’s a controllable or an uncontrollable?