It’s the ’06 All Ireland semi-final. Mayo are playing Dublin and Conor Mortimer is taking the most difficult type of free kick in Gaelic Football. He’s shooting into the Hill against the boys in blue.
There’s 56 minutes gone and Croke Park is a cacophony of sound. The game is level. He’s 35 yards out, 15 yards from the right sideline and facing into the Hill.
Mortimer was the top scorer in the 2006 All-Ireland Senior Football Championship. He’s played in 2 All-Ireland finals and has been selected on both the GAA Football All Stars and the GPA Gaelic Team of the Year.
One of the most high-profile free takers in Ireland, Mortimer shares his experience with 5 tips for those seeking to improve their free taking.
FREE TAKING TIP 1: CHILL
You’ve got to be calm when you approach the free kick. “Once the free is awarded in your range, walk towards the ball unless the referee is hurrying you,” says Mortimer. “If you’ve been fouled and are taking the free, stay down and get your breath back.”
Walking to the free gives you time to get your breathing right. Deep breathing will help you take control of your nerves. The more nervous you are, the more self-conscious you are when taking a free.
Nerves can also contribute to the tightening of your muscles when striking the ball. By breathing slower you are replicating the calmer way you take frees when practicing. You will feel more in control as a result.
FREE TAKING TIP 2: SCAN
Mortimer believes it’s important to be aware of your position on the field and to assess everything around you. “Consider the area of the field where the foul is committed, the score in the game and the time left in the match,” says Mortimer. “Then decide how long you want to take with the free.”
The time of the match has a big impact on how much you scan. “I always found that once you scored an early free you were laughing and the confidence could build from there,” says Mortimer. “Miss an early one and the opposite can be the case.”
Some free takers prefer to spend equal time for each free. Others who are feeling highly confident may speed up. This is up to the taker. If you are a confidence player you should make sure to do everything you can to score early frees by taking your time.
FREE TAKING TIP 3: ROUTINE
Everyone’s got their own way of doing things and you should create your own.
“I mostly took 6 steps back, 5 to the side and then 4-5 steps before striking the ball,” says Mortimer. “It depended on when I felt ready to strike.”
He only took free kicks when he felt ready. He wasn’t rushed by anyone else, he struck the ball when he was comfortable and this lead to a cleaner connection.
Mortimer’s confidence in his routine came through sheer repetition. “I used to practice by hitting around 500 frees a week,” he says. “I would start in the middle then make my way out distance and angle wise. This helped get my technique and confidence right. Once these two elements were sorted it was a case of keep doing it!”
Mortimer didn’t use motivational phrases which have become popular for set piece specialists. Top Irish Sports Psychologist, Keith Begley carried out a study advising that ‘motivational self-talk’ before striking can help improve your ratio: ‘I can and I will’. Such a phrase can help reinforce your self-confidence. (Read more of Keith’s study: http://believeperform.com/performance/self-talk-attentional-focus-and-skill-execution-best-practice/ )
FREE TAKING TIP 4: CONCENTRATE
Focus is important in all elements of sport, but particularly in free taking. “In the high pressure games like against Dublin all you’re concentrating on is the ball,” says Mortimer. “Then it boils down to confidence in your ability to do the rest.”
For even the easiest of frees, concentration is key. “We’ve all missed easy frees,” says Mortimer. “The problem with easier frees is not concentrating. Do your usual routine for these to ensure the score.”
The opposition, the referee and the fans are outside you’re control. Concentrate on what you can control: your thoughts, the ball and your routine.
FREE TAKING TIP 5: DEALING WITH SLEDGING
Dealing with comments from opposing players is as much a part of successful free taking as anything else. “I always enjoyed scoring and all the more to sicken the players trying to put me off,” says Mortimer. “They always quietened once you score and let them know about it.”
Of course, to quieten opposition, you have to score. If there’s sledging, take an extra second to re-focus and get back to your routine. Then strike. If it’s highly intrusive (the player is not back far enough), highlight this to the referee. Remember that the free is your responsibility.
So what did he do next?
In Croke Park on the All-Ireland semi-final day, Mortimer tossed the ball three times, took two deep breaths, did 2 quick steps and then took 9 steps towards the goal before striking it between the posts. By the time he struck the ball it was 20 yards from the side-line. Mayo went on to win the match and secure their place in the All-Ireland final.