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Top Five Sporting ‘Mind Games’

Mind games have become a big part of professional sport. Here Maurice Brosnan looks at some of the best psychological battles that have occurred both on and off the field of play.

Jose Mourinho recently made a statement about rival club Manchester United’s new signing Luke Shaw. In typical Mourinho fashion, the quote was the cunning dig, aimed at stirring trouble. He remarked that Shaw’s wage demands were too expensive and would have;

“killed our (Chelsea’s) stability with financial fair play and killed the stability in our dressing room”.

He went on to point out that his own transfer of fellow left back Filipe Luís was better business and felt Shaw’s wage would cause other players to be jealous and upset.

These comments come after Mourinho’s dig at Arsenal the week before and could easily prove to be the start of typical mind-games that have become synonymous in the sport. This tactic could well prove to be fruitful, all he needs is one Manchester United player to become doubtful and he has succeeded. Similarly, if he has riled Wenger then his comments will be seen as a success.

In the spirit of Mourinho’s ‘mind games’ we decided to compile the top five examples of ingenious mind games.

5. Sir Alex Ferguson and Kevin Keegan

In the 1995/96 Premiership title race it looked to be boiling down to the wire between Manchester United and Newcastle United. Newcastle was 12 points clear at one stage. Man United went to Leeds and scrapped by and after the game Sir Alex said he felt sorry for the Leeds boss as they had played badly all season and just upped their performance for this one off game, before saying they may not try as hard against Newcastle.

Keegan responded angrily with his famous “I will love it if we beat them” rant, referring to the face that United had to get a result of some sort against Middlesbrough. From that point on Newcastle’s focus shifted to what United were doing and collapsed. United won the title and Keegan left Newcastle the following season.


4. Martin Johnson vs Mary McAleese

The whole point of mind games is to cause your opponent to lose focus, rattle and rile them. In the 2003 rugby Six Nations Ireland played England at Lansdowne Road in the Grand Slam decider. Talk from the England camp that they would not be bullied despite playing in Ireland’s backyard. The pre-game formalities became headline news when English captain Johnson lead his team to the wrong side of the red carpet, the away team traditionally line-up on the left so that they meet the president first.

He stood confident and defiant and according to his teammates told them,

“None of us are going to move, and if anyone does move, I’ll kill them”.

Irish captain Brian O’Driscoll said that they wanted to line up in front of the English (what a YouTube clip that would be), once his teammates noticed that the English were unhappy. Ireland went to the other side meaning President McAleese had to walk onto the grass and England’s pre-match marker was established. They went on to claim victory and the Grand Slam.


3. Dublin vs Mayo

The All-Ireland football semi-final 2006. Now referred to as the ‘mill at the hill’, this game would also go down in history as a classic encounter and also be remembered for the pre-match antics. It was more the reaction to the attempted ‘mind game’ rather than the actual mind game itself that made this event so remarkable.

Mayo were the first team out on the field and decided to warm up at the Hill 16 end, where Dublin traditionally and consistently warm up before games. Dublin were infuriated by this. They decided to march down there as a group and also perform their warm-up in front of Hill 16.

A Mayo dietician was hit by a ball while Dublin manager Paul Caffrey barged into Mayo trainer John Morrison, clearly showing his frustration at the incident. Mayo certainly got into the Dublin heads as they started very well and after an enthralling battle they went on to win 1-16 to 2-12.


2. Muhammad Ali and George Foreman

Muhammad Ali was one of the world’s greatest boxers and the master of hyperbole. On October 30, 1974 the famous ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ between George Foreman and Ali occurred. Ali, at 32, was slower and the underdog. Foreman was an up and coming hard-hitter.

Before the fight Ali delivered his famous speech on his preparation;

“I done wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale; handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail; only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick; I’m so mean I make medicine sick”.

After the first round of the fight, Ali began to back away from Foreman and lean into the ropes, inviting Foreman on to the infuriation of Ali’s corner. This was to become the popular boxing tactic of ‘rope-a-dope’.

Ali began to taunt Foreman stating;

“is that all you got, George?”, “come on show me something kid, you not doing nothing”.

Foreman got frustrated and unleashed at Ali, tiring himself out in the process and by the eighth round he was exhausted. Ali leaned in, whispered,

“tiredness is a terrible thing, George”.

Ali then flattened Foreman with a quick combination.

After the fight, Foreman admitted that,

“Muhammad outthought me and outfought me”.


1.  Jens Lehmann and Esteban Cambiasso

In the 2006 World Cup quarter final Germany met Argentina. After ninety minutes and extra-time the game ended 1-1. Germany in typical German famous had practised and prepared for penalty’s, no one more so than goalkeeper Jens Lehmann.

Lehmann had a sheet in his sock given to him by Germany’s chief scout Urs Siegenthaler which had the all the information on Argentina’s penalty takers. Lehmann guessed correctly for all penalties saving two.

For Argentina player Cambiasso’s penalty, Lehmann delayed and studied his notes for a long time before the penalty. He saved a poorly taken penalty, and it later emerged that Cambiasso’s name was not even on the list.

A great example of real physiological warfare.

Maurice Brosnan, Pundit Arena.

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Author: The PA Team

This article was written by a member of The PA Team.