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Fit for footy means never forgetting the power of the mind

Date

Harry Taylor

John Kennedy's statue rests at Hawthorn's Waverly Park home.

John Kennedy's statue rests at Hawthorn's Waverly Park home. Photo: Paul Rovere

Footy: a team game involving kicking and handballing of an oval-shaped ball. Combine the two and you have what I like to call footyology - the study of the game so many of us love and play.

This study could encompass myriad meanings from tactics to game styles or the skills of the game, but I am referring to it in terms of the mental side of the game. Yes, that part we often forget to acknowledge or appreciate as a major spoke in the wheel of victory.

Football is a physical battle, but in a sport where the feet are crucial to performance, it's the other end of the body where hitting targets takes on a whole different meaning.

In a heavily scrutinised industry, where winning and losing are indicators of success, mental health becomes an important topic to consider. "Don't think too much about things you cannot control, just go out and play, son" is advice I am sure all players have heard at some stage.

The famous quote, "Don't think, just do" expressed by legendary three-time premiership coach John Kennedy snr captures the notion of playing on instinct. Back yourself and just play. If your instincts are well trained, then thoughts can be left in the subconscious.

This is certainly true, but we should never be scared to think, scared to look inside our minds and acknowledge what's there. Look for bruises, the tightness and signs of fatigue that we find and treat on the outside, yet often neglect between our ears.

If you could physically see your mind, would you look after it differently?

The mind is a maze of neurons and synapses that constantly work to bring colour to the sights and sounds of our world. Your mind thinks differently to mine, to your partner's, to the person sitting at the table across from you.

In our sport, physical health is vital to success, but likewise, isn't the health of the mind? 

Determination, courage, leadership - all qualities we associate with the greatest names of our game - are words that take on meaning through action because of the power of the mind. The physical actions required to perform these words are only possible because of our ability to manipulate our own thoughts.

Forget fear and run back with the flight of the ball. Win a one-on-three contest on the wing or kick a clutch goal with the game on the line. Sure, these acts require great physical exertion, but they are only possible if your mind is willing.

So what can we do to keep our minds free to allow our arms and legs to move without the fear of consequence? What is the best form of massage for the mind? 

All players do different things. Maybe it's a round of golf, a weekly yoga class or family time. It could be coffee with a mentor, a few drinks at the pub or a home-cooked meal at mum's house. Maybe someone needs more.

Whatever the choice, the goal should be to move concentration away from one focus to another to allow your thoughts to sleep and recover and get ready for the next time you walk into work.

The need for suppleness and freedom of one’s mental state is only amplified when the stakes are higher - the bigger the game the more the mind can be influenced by outside distractions. Making sure mind and matter were limber was crucial in the lead-up to our Easter Monday meeting with Hawthorn, but will be no less a priority ahead of Sunday's clash with Port Adelaide.

Within a game, acts of courage and sacrifice are clear to all. But a mental contest plays out behind 44 steely gazes, the thoughts and feelings that preface actions and hang precariously in the subconscious running hard around a footballer's head, picking up bruises and knocks and feeling the strains that our bodies show more obviously the morning after.

Perspective is a great medicine for the mind; a form of ice bath or anti-inflammatory if you like, that snaps our cognisance back to reality from the cocoon of the AFL world. Cold water immersion is more than a physical form of recovery for me. It's a time I use to think about my day and answer three questions: How is my family going? How is my life going? How is my football going? 

It is one way I use perspective to keep focused on the important things in my life. The phrase "mind over matter", popularised in the 1960s, has substance. I agree the mind is important, but in my job so is matter. The art lies in keeping both fit and free.

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