Noel (left) pictured with Slaughtneil hurling manager Michael McShane and selector Alex Campbell after last season's Ulster Club hurling final
Sport has gone from the pursuit of excellence to a need to train individually, absent of any knowledge of when normality will return. Sport Psychologist Dr Noel Brick is currently involved with Slaughtneil hurlers and has worked with Derry senior footballers. Michael McMullan asked him how athletes should approach lock-down.
It's been 57 days since Leo Varadkar stood on the steps of Washington's Blair House and insisted that all 'outdoor mass gatherings' of 'more than 500 people' be cancelled.
Our world, has we knew it, has changed. Within hours of the announcement, sporting bodies put their wheels in motion to cancel games and clubs closed their gates to collective training.
While Brick, a Kerry man living in Ballycastle, accepts most athletes are driven by the desire to compete and beat others, they often have a difference psyche.
He is a lecturer in Sport and Exercise Psychology at the Coleraine campus of Ulster University, has studied to PhD level at University of Limerick and holds a Masters from Staffordshire University. Brick has a background in long-distance running and has managed his own fitness testing business.
He is well-placed to assess the needs of the sporting world, albeit in very surreal circumstances.
“A lot of athletes are self-driven in the goals that they set for themselves,” he said. “A lot of those goals are not just about competition, they are about improving themselves by getting fitter, getting stronger or improving their skills.”
The important thing now, Brick feels, is to reset any goals. Special consideration should be made to aspects an athlete can measure.
“Even though competition is very important, through the normal training cycle, there is that competition with themselves and it is about getting better. It is those type of goals that become really important now. These are things that are under your own control and you can reference yourself.”
So much of sport planning is about tapering down and peaking at the business end of competition. Coaches often have plans broken down into weeks and even days. That's all up in the air, but any work done will be worth it, as Brick explains.
“It (the Covid-19 pandemic) will pass and we will come to a time when we do get back to competition. Normal might be different for a while, but eventually we will get back. It is recognising that too. Whatever training athletes are doing right now, it will become beneficial.”
“Through a normal season you don't always have the time to improve on the things you might get better at. Now, you can reframe it as an opportunity to work on something to get better at and when we do get back (to competition) you are a better player.”
Individual work would be aerobic fitness, increasing strength and acceleration, as well as working on technical skills. It's about getting your weak side up to a level you can use under pressure and speeding up the execution of skills. It could be something as simple as rehabbing an injury.
What that target is, is irrelevant, but Brick's message is consistent.
“It is that competition with yourself and looking at your own improvement. It is something you can control and work on and measure.
“There are so many things about this situation at the minute, and this is life in general, that we don't have control over. We don't know when it will end.
“We have control over the small things, like washing our hands, but we have no control over when sport happens again and life gets back to normal.
“It is about the things you can control right now...working on things like your touch, on your acceleration – you have complete control over these things.”
“It is hugely important as we manage our emotions, as we go through this. If you are focussing on things you can't control...you are going to feel anxious, down and all those negative things.”
Aside from the competitive streak, the sporting environment is one of inclusion. Dressing room banter and the slagging around training breeds a team spirit. After a stressful day at work, exercise and collective training is a welcome release.
Without the regular bond, it presents a mental strain.
“For our own mental health, it is so important to stay connected to people we normally connect with,” Brick stresses.
It is important for team environments to still foster that togetherness, even if it is an artificial way, via video conferencing.
“You are apart from each other, you are doing a bit of training 'together' but separately. That connection is massively important.
“We all take part in sport because we love taking part, but we also enjoy the company of the people we take part with. Keeping that companionship and connectivity is so important.
“We are physically distancing and socially isolating, but through that, it is important that we don't completely socially disconnect from other people. It only has benefits and one is for our own mental health.”
To conclude, Brick highlighted an non-sport theme he has noticed with many of his students and clients.
“People are taking the time to slow down to a certain extent, to reconnect with what is important in life and spend time with family.
“That is a positive. We get wrapped up in our work bubble or our sport bubble, we forget about the important things.”
- Derry GAA doctor on the importance of exercise. Click here...
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