Performing like a Warrior: The Pat Spillane Story

“I would have been the most driven individual that ever went on a football field”.

This drive helped lead Pat to 8 All Ireland medals, 2 Footballer of the Year awards and a record number of 9 All Stars. He reveals all to us on a warrior mindset and provides other performance tips.

Whatever challenge arose throughout his footballing career he took it head on. A man who loved to prove people wrong. A great example of how to deal with negative suggestion and come out stronger.

“What you see is what you get. It was the same on the football pitch. What you saw was what you got. What you got was honesty of effort, you got full commitment and you gave your all”.

So, just how do you act out a warrior’s mindset?

Warrior Mentality

Bill Beswick, sports psychologist at Derby FC, said Roy Keane was the only soccer player he’d seen to epitomize a warrior mentality:

Pat sees himself as of the same mould.

“I often think when I see Roy Keane over the years that I would have been very Roy Keane. I wouldn’t have suffered fools gladly. I would have been very driven, very focused, very selfless – everything was geared to the team!

“I would have been very single minded. I would have been very critical of others. I would have demanded ferocious high standards for myself. I wouldn’t have been accommodating to people who are under performing. I was ferociously driven!

“The only place where myself and Roy Keane would differ is that Roy left his country. I would never have walked away from the county.”

How can one continually keep up such high standards?


Pat showed a great ability to leave football on the pitch and not give it too much headspace outside of training and matches.

“We never discussed football at the dinner table. Football was about being on the playing field. Once we got home, bam, it was done.”

This approach also helped him to cultivate unlikely friendships.

“Cahalane was the worst in the world on the pitch. You could be the fastest man in the world and you couldn’t get away from Cahalane. We are now great friends. This is the great thing about sport, once the game is over it’s over!”

Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

But what about when an opposition player really crossed the line? Pat describes his response to being spat at:

“I kept running, try to get a score. Once you score you didn’t have to say anything. Actions speak louder than words.”

This response shows great strength in keeping your mind on the end goal (winning the match) by staying in the present (attempting to win the next ball). Pat was never red carded in his GAA career.

He gives an important learning point to any tricky forward.

“A moving target is hard to catch.”

What other in-game performance tips can Pat provide?

Performing In The Heat of Battle

It began on the journey to the ground.

“For half an hour on the bus on the way to the game I used to close my eyes and visualize every single thing that I was going to do in the game. I can still picture it! First to the ball, high ball, catch it, pretend to go left, go right, kick high, kick a point! And now I know the word for that – ‘Visualisation!'”

Pat Spillane Kerry 2

Top Irish sports psychologist Keith Begley has a tip for all players to execute the aforementioned skills.

He advises using mental cues to concentrate on the tasks: Secure; Scan; Shoot/Pass.

This helps break down tasks on the pitch. When the ball is approaching, the one word which should be in mind is ‘secure‘. Once that task is complete, think ‘scan‘ (i.e. what are my options?). Then think ‘shoot/pass‘ to concentrate on effective delivery. If ‘pass‘ is the decision, we propose adding the cue ‘move’ to give your teammate a return option.

Pat used the following ploy before throw in.

“Try to psych out your marker. Obviously shake hands is the first thing. Some of them won’t shake hands with you. Then ask them to please try to shake hands, then you ask for a talk about the game, the weather or whatever. If they talk back, you’d won.”

Pat used two key tactics to disrupt defenders.

“Get him to play on your terms, not his terms. I met some great backs, particularly who would have been faster than me. So, you had to make sure and get the ball as often as possible to make him focus on marking you. More importantly you had to bring him places where he wasn’t going to be a threat. And then you had to take a gamble at times and say right I’m going to leave him off up the field once. I’m going to gamble that something will break down and I’ll get the ball and there will be a score. Once you’ve done that you have him cracked because it means for the rest of the game he has to be marking you.”

It involved a lot of background work to be able to disrupt such great defenders.


It is clear Pat was very sure of his abilities and where his strengths lay. This helped him avoid the ‘jack-of-all-trades’ approach to football. He built his game around specific attributes.

“If Kerry were training I went for an hour before to kick football. When the training was over I’d stay on for another hour.”

Why all the effort?

You compensate for deficiencies in your game by over-compensating in certain areas. For me, long range point kicking was one. I practiced so much that I certainly improved my conversion rate. The second thing was I trained and I trained and I trained so I was fitter than everyone else. I remember on the Monday before the ’84 All Ireland Final I went to the doctor and my resting pulse rate was 34. The winner of the Olympic marathon the same year had the same pulse rate.”

Gerry Hargan 7993_13a
Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

The fact that Pat was well looked after by his mother meant that two other elements of performance were being met – diet and sleep.

“My mother would leave us all sleep for 13 hours so her 3 boys were rested and relaxed for the match”. Here are two articles to help get this side of your game right.

If you really want something specific in life you must beware the time wasting that goes into smaller, less relevant tasks. What’s your strength area to concentrate on? What do you need to get right to attain your goals?

This strategy does not just apply to individuals.

“The cream of the crop is going to Gaelic Football in Kerry. The cream of the crop in Kilkenny goes to hurling. The cream of the crop in New Zealand goes to Rugby.”

The above examples show how competence can be gained en masse to give competitive advantage. Dedicated individuals can thrive in such environments.

Glass Half Full Mindset

To thrive we must also have a positive mindset.

How we choose to frame certain scenarios is up to us. Criticism if taken in the wrong way can ruin your confidence. Ger Brennan told,

“If your happiness is solely derived from external factors you don’t control, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.”

Pat knew how to take such external factors and turn them to his advantage.

“To me the glass was always half full”.

Prove it!

“If there was an article in the paper saying I’m no use, I would say ‘I’m going to prove them wrong’. If there was an article in the paper saying, I’m the greatest of all time I’d say ‘yes and I’d go and prove them right'”.

Australian Rules
Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Make It About More

To work as hard as Pat did you need commitment. One of the reasons Pat worked so hard was his ‘buy in’ to the Kerry mentality and what makes them unique as a Gaelic Football county. An appreciation for the past and your people can help fuel your motivation.

“If you go back to the Civil War in Ireland, some of the worst atrocities were in Kerry. There were ferocious battles between Pro- and Anti-Treaty forces. The head of the Pro-Treaty forces was Con Brosnan, he was a Kerry Senior Footballer. The leader of the Anti-Treaty forces was John Joe Sheehy, a Kerry Senior footballer. They fought, they tried to kill each other during the week and what happened on Sunday? They came together and played for Kerry. Then they went back to trying to kill each other the following week.”

The treatment of the football field as sacrosanct and separate to other elements of life in Kerry is part of the reason behind their success.

The Kerry Way

Taking your gifts for granted is one sure way of not developing your full potential. Humility is key and surrounding yourself with people who reinforce this message can be important.

“The one great thing about Templenoe and being in a small club is that you’re never allowed to go above your station. You’re never allowed to feel like you are better than the next fella.”

At local and county level, you were held to high expectations.

“When you wear the Kerry jersey you are expected to win an All Ireland.”

In Kerry, you are judged based on success in the current year and not what you have done to date. This helps to keep players grounded and focused.

“It’s the Monday morning after an All Ireland Final defeat is the bad one but come Tuesday the line was drawn in the sand and it was about winning an All Ireland the next year. You didn’t dwell on it. There was no winter of crying over spilled milk. By Tuesday you were thinking of next year, the bar was raised higher!”

This expectation persists even when you have won the Championship the previous year.

“You deliver an All Ireland in Kerry, the next Tuesday that’s it! You fail to deliver next year, you’re a failure! You deliver five years in a row and you fail the sixth year, you’re a failure!”

External and internal pressure for continuous improvement can help lead to sustained excellence.

So can a great manager.

Facilitating Greatness By Performing as a Strategist:

“What we had were great leaders. This was 15 lads who started playing together and went ten years together. 15 fellows that, if 5 played bad today, you knew the other 5 would raise their game. 15 fellows who knew if you made a run into space the ball was going to come to you. You knew if you made a run off Bomber Liston as the ball approached him it was going to be flicked down to you. Look, this was an exceptional bunch that were better than the rest. The best team of all time. That was it!”

Kerry team 1984.jpg
Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Another key contributing factor to Pat and Kerry’s success was the great Mick O’Dwyer. He laid the foundation on which such great players could show their abilities.

He turned vision into action into desired results. He was ahead of his time and realised the importance of the carrot to give an added incentive.

“Mick O’Dwyer could have been a sports psychologist. He had a very talented group. He realised that pros get paid and that back-to-back All Irelands were difficult. So, to avoid the ‘just another medal’ mentality he introduced team holidays if we won Sam. In ’81 we had 1,400 pounds a man for a trip to Hawaii, Oz and the US and the key was that everyone on the panel got it.

“We made most of the money for the trip from two visits up North where we played 3 matches on each weekend. One where we played Friday in Castleblayney, Saturday in Glenravel and Sunday in Ballyboffey. The other weekend we played in Burren, Carrickmore and Dundalk. We got 5 pounds a head with a couple of thousand spectators at the games”.

To be successful we must focus on ourselves and our teams as the masters of our own fate and not others. Another strategic master-stroke by ‘Micko’,

“He never spoke about the opposition and he never spoke about the opposition’s players and how we could counteract them. It was all about believing in yourself and believing in your team mates.”

Know When to Fold Them. Avoid Hubris.

Micko put a lot of faith in that group of Kerry players and this turned our conversation to ‘when is the right moment to walk away?’

“Micko thought there was one last hurrah in us. There wasn’t! The legs were gone. That deprived a lot of players in Kerry the chance to play for the county.”

This shows the need to continually introduce fresh blood to a panel, but not just as a token gesture. A manager may also need to introduce new members to the backroom team or welcome a devil’s advocate to challenge their previously accepted ways of thinking.

Spillane had the following caveat about staying on too long,

“They say the time to walk away is when people are telling you there is one more year left in you.”

Defeating Doubters

Pat was told to walk away from football after he ruptured the cruciate ligament in his knee in 1981. His attitude to the news exemplifies his warrior mentality.

“When I was told I would never play again the biggest regret was I’d never really enjoyed the success. You take it for granted. At that stage I had 5 All Ireland medals. There was nothing to prove. I became driven, I really became driven. I was ferociously driven to prove that I could come back playing again.”

Injury is a great period to take time out and assess your priorities in life. If it is allowed to, it can destroy your ability to attract success or it can be used to help you reach new heights.

Pat made three simple promises to himself to help drive his recovery along. This shows the importance of goal setting.

1. “Prove people wrong.” Being told he would never play again fuelled his commitment to return.

2. “Get back to Croke Park.”

3. “Appreciate the next All Ireland more.”

Commitment is Long Term – Motivation is Temporary. Overcoming the Cruciatus Curse

Pat Spillane Kerry 1

A committed individual will stick to their goals over time. A motivated individual might train the first day but we must remember that motivation is only fleeting.

In 1981 Pat ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament. It wasn’t a well understood injury at the time and he was told he would never play again. Here he describes his recovery:

“For 2 years I put my body through hell. I trained twice a day Monday to Saturday. I did 30 laps of the field with 10 pound weights around my ankle. There was a hill near the bar and I ran up the hill 20 sprints of 60 yards in the mud. There was days you would be saying why are you doing it?

“Suddenly in Gaelic because you’re an amateur, when you’re injured you are gone. You are out of sight. I was bitter about that and was hurt. So, I was driven by the thought, ‘I’m not coming back for Kerry, not for my club, I’m coming back for myself.’

“The key in the cruciate ligament was to build up my leg muscles. To build up the quad, but in particular to build up the hamstring. I bought a weight machine and I put the weight machine out into the garage at home and I did weights every second day without fail for about 10 years. If the day was Christmas day, I trained.

“There were days that there’d be rats because there was drink in the garage and the rat would run across then disappear and you’d say ‘Jesus he could be crawling up my leg’. Did I give up? No.

“I tell you this, in ’84, ’85 and ’86 there wasn’t a person in Ireland with stronger quads and especially stronger hamstring muscles than me.”

Laugh/Cry In The Face of Adversity

Pat managed to do both when he was dropped from the Kerry panel late in his career. His biggest blow in footballing terms since the cruciate injury.

“The day I was dropped I was in the school staff room when I got the call. After, I went to the PE room and cried for a few minutes. Then I said fuck it and went out training!”

Most fans would have allowed Pat to hang up the boots at that stage and still be remembered as a legend of the game, but not him.

He adapted the ‘better than before’ mindset made famous by Jonny Wilkinson’s performance coach Dave Alred. One from which we could all benefit.

“I said, ‘look I’m getting old but I’m going to make sure I’m even fitter again’. I got better and eventually they brought me back on. I got Man of the Match in the 1991 Munster Final and played well against Down in the All Ireland Semi-Final. At that point I said ‘now is the time to go.'”

How to summarise a man who gives such energy and whole-heartedness to all elements of life is difficult. Maybe in his own words is best:

“If someone said to me what would your epitaph be? I’d say, ‘he gave his all!'”

Photo by Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
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