We have come to know the current Dublin football team as one of the greatest GAA teams of all time. They have overtaken Mick O'Dwyer's Kerry team of the 70's and 80's having just annexed the first 5 in a row of All-Ireland inter-county senior football titles.
They are obviously a very talented group, but there was always a talented group available in Dublin. They just sometimes they never realised their potential. Marshalled by Jim Gavin, this article takes a deeper look at the psychology behind their success.
A central tenet of their success is the importance of the team. Nothing compromises the team and it is the manager’s role to see that this happens. In this light, it is easy to understand why Jim Gavin steers away from the limelight, is slow to engage with the media and is reluctant to take the plaudits and celebrity status that is often bestowed on an All Ireland winning manager. Gavin instead, suggests that it is all about the players and their success and they must always come first.
Jim Gavin had learned a lot about leadership before he ever took the Dublin senior managerial role! His father was a hard working man from Cooraclare in West Clare who went to work in Dublin as a young man. His mother, a teacher also from West Clare taught him many qualities that would stand him well in life. At a recent All-Ireland celebration at his home club, Round Towers in Clondalkin, Jim Gavin acknowledged the appreciation of hard work and personal qualities that his parents had imbued in him from a young age.
As a young man, Jim Gavin went to serve in the Irish defence forces. In an interview with Michael Moynihan in the Irish Examiner in 2016, Gavin relayed a story of one of his first meetings after enlisting. It was with the late great Dermot Earley of Roscommon football fame who was then an officer of Oglaigh na hEireann. “I was 18 and I hardly knew who he was, but I remember his first words to me – "the biggest reward you will have in this world is from doing something well and to the best of your ability." That’s what we said to the Dublin players”.
In a managerial context that is how he sees himself too – that he is there to serve; to be the best that he can be and in this light, he seeks out the best advice, and expects the same from his backroom team. In the same interview, he stated that they had a very open leadership style where player’s opinions were both encouraged, valued and treated equally irrespective of their playing status - star player or unused sub.
Gavin is hugely interested in motivation. However, he is more interested in the “Why” than the “What” – the why of their reasons for playing; Why do they put in such effort? If the “Why” is right, the “What” will look after itself. He leads a values led approach to his managerial reign with values such as respect, self awareness, honour and humility picked up during his time with the defence forces. He walks the walk on these values too, showing the humility to regularly coach a group of under 10 kids at his home club Round Towers in Clondalkin on days after big Dublin games in Croke Park.
As such, the Dublin management team look to imbue these values in the players, allied with an appreciation of opportunity to represent their families, parish, club and Dublin at elite level sport. With no financial reward, these values are strong drivers of the players, empowering them to show pride and enjoy the challenge, resulting in reduced pressure and expectation.
Some of these values, humility in particular are clearly displayed during the Youtube celebratory interview posted at the bottom of the article.
A very well read individual, Gavin has a hoard of books that he regularly dips into for guidance on performance psychology but also surrounds himself with experts in their fields in nutrition, strength and conditioning, sport psychology, match analysis and coaching. He has even sought the expertise of some of the top basketball coaches in the country in developing some specific basketball principles into the Dublin game – footwork, lines of support running and screening runs for creating space. This is him being the best that he can be!
Gavin has previously referenced the likes of John Wooden's leadership principles (a highly successful UCLA basketball coach) and Douglas McGregor's (Theory X and Theory Y) theory of motivation. American Psychologist Frederick Herzberg’s motivation hygiene theory has also got some air time from Gavin. His theory suggests that by taking away de-motivating concerns in a business or office scenario – dirty office, no toilet roll, empty photo copier etc, you are reducing the chances of negativity setting in; ie: look after the little details, keep players happy and the rest will look after itself!
In a more recent address given at a Sport Ireland High Performance Coaching Conference at Abbotstown in October 2017, Gavin espoused the virtues of “transformational leadership” over an autocratic style of leadership. Transformational leadership is a model of leadership used in best practice across a variety of fields; business, education, management and sport. It facilitates transference of responsibility and power from the manager to the players so that the players feel a sense of ownership of their own progress.
Central to the transfer of power is an expectation of absolute honesty – creating an environment where players learn and want to grow and improve. This promotes a notion of cyclical self improvement with the idea that what is good enough this year will not be good enough next year, while it closely correlates with principles of self determination theory (Deci & Ryan, 1986) – a hugely popular theory among psychologists world wide.
While the Dublin squad is considered ultra talented presently with a well oiled underage system, they have worked very hard to be so good. They were ably supported by a raft of former players led by Stephen O’Shaughnessy who works for Dublin County Board; and assisted by likes of Dessie Farrell, David Henry, Paddy Christie, Mickey Whelan, Jason Sherlock, Ciaran Whelan, Paul Griffin, Cyril Kevlihan and Paul Casey among many others. With so many positive role models to follow, it is hard not to see why the youth set up is so strong. In fact Gavin in many respects has helped create the dynasty, managing the Dublin U21 team to three All Ireland titles in 2003, 2010 & 2012. He sees it as the job of management to serve so that they do not allow the players to sell themselves short; that they are empowered by management to be the best that they can be.
He has previously reported to be a big fan of “self actualisation” and has often stated that human psychologist Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs has played a huge role in framing his thoughts on performance management. Gavin once stated that “self actualisation is king”, and has suggested that the world is full of people who have constantly sold themselves short. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs describes the steps to how a coach, teacher or individual can employ the steps to be the best they can be; with the apex of the continuum resulting in an individual to self-actualise – or be the best they can be.
Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
Central to this is the importance of creating a sense of belonging to the group among all players where each feel equally valued irrespective of what number jersey they wear. The bond is very strong and reinforced by a wives and girlfriends club that is facilitated at convenient times during the year to make them feel valued in their contribution and sacrifice for the sake of the team.
To get to their level of success, Gavin stressed the importance of being “honestly critical” of players following that “accountability is key. To get players to the top level you have to be honestly critical. I come from that culture in aviation, where debriefing is done as a matter of course” If a player does not know where he needs to improve, then he will not know what he needs to work on.
Regarding his philosophy of positive football, there isn’t an autocratic approach to it either. In line with the concept of transformational leadership, players have scope and are trusted to be expressive and creative when the time is right within a general tactical framework. Such an empowering strategy facilitates players to own their own game, enhancing enjoyment and commitment to the team and panel.
A little known practice outside of Dublin GAA circles is Jim Gavin’s wider view on improving the quality of his squad. An extremely clever approach, he has developed a community of sharing where club chairmen and managers are invited to a meeting with all other club chairmen and managers on an annual basis. The meeting is mostly facilitated by members of the Dublin backroom team, many of whom are experts in their fields. Here expertise is shared among everyone – facilitating clubs to draw on each other’s expertise as well as the county backroom team, strengthening the base of the club game. Such foresight is a rarity, resulting in a much higher club standard – a progressive strategy with the end result being a rising tide, lifting all boats to the benefit of the Dublin senior football team.
Keith Begley is an Irish based sport psychologist - accredited with the Irish Institute of Sport.
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