The mind games of Nicho Hynes

By Dan Walsh

Nicho Hynes has had a challenging season after taking all before him in 2022.Credit: Steven Siewert

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Nicho Hynes wheels around his backyard, Steeden in hand. Long locks flowing. Ray Warren in his ears. A chip and chase here. 100-metre intercept there. If he’s had a big breakfast, maybe even a shoulder charge for older, simpler times’ sake.

It’s a lovely scene, with not as much salt and pepper as you might think.

Because several hours before the Roosters descend on Shark Park with seasons and semi-finals on the line, Hynes will be right there in his backyard.

Paul Gallen had a key to the Shark Park gates for much of his career, club trainers sick of getting called in to open up the gym or ice baths at all hours for the workaholic Cronulla captain.

Hynes needs a set too. As has been his game-day custom for the past year, the Dally M medal winner takes to the turf long before fans, teammates, security and hospitality staff turn up for work. Long before he’s needed, too.

Usually with headphones on, ball in hand, Hynes will have the stadium pretty much to himself as he treads the footballing boards in a game-day dress rehearsal.

The childhood fantasies of match-winners and miracle moments though? They stay in another time.

“I didn’t think anyone was going to notice that,” Hynes laughs.

“It’s a bit of visualisation and it’s something that just prepares me before a game. I put myself in the moment early in the day so that when it gets to kick-off, I feel like I’ve been there before.

“I feel like I can nail everything I need to do. I’m looking for my first action when I do it. My first kick in the game.

Nicho Hynes at Cronulla Beach.Credit: NRL Photos

“My first defensive movements. My first kick at goal, hopefully I’ll take that back this week (Hynes gave up the kicking tee last week to manage a quad injury).

“I’m just looking at different parts of the field where I’ll find myself with different kicks, different defensive situations. I’ll try to picture different attacking sets and positions.

“I’m walking around visualising it all. It’s not like I’m chasing an extra thing I need to do. I’ve put the work in during the week. It’s just my thing and my way of getting into the game.”

Hynes’ resilience and refreshing candour around mental health has rightly been celebrated since his NRL arrival with Melbourne.

This year he has weathered off-field drama he described as “the most challenging time of my life” when his mother, Julie, spent time in custody and was found guilty of drug charges.

In a purely footballing sense, 2023 has also delivered the first hurdles – and stumbles – of Hynes’ career.

With last year’s Dally M medal (secured with the highest points tally in history), came expectation by the bucketload. A $6 million, six-year Sharks extension added plenty.

The fervour and fever of Origin selection fizzled into Hynes feeling like “I let the state down” before he was axed.

A glaring spotlight, niggling injuries and uncharacteristic on-field frustrations played out in a tripping charge and back-chatting to the referee against Manly.

“It hasn’t been easy for him,” coach Craig Fitzgibbon tells this masthead.

“It’s been uncomfortable at times for him. I think he felt the spotlight and the pressure. But his response was ‘I’m going to dominate’. That’s awesome.

‘Nicho went after the solution. He said, ‘I’m doing something about this, I’m working harder’.’

“One thing he’s never, ever shied away from, which you’ve got to respect, he never sat back or withdrew.

“He went the other way. He doubled down and did more work. Sometimes, the harder you try, you take yourself further away from what you’re aiming for.

“I respect his workrate and ethic. Nicho went after the solution. He said, ‘I’m doing something about this, I’m working harder’.”

When Fitzgibbon – one-time owner of the record for most tackles in an Origin game – admires your work ethic, you’re going to be alright.

Cronulla’s late-season resurgence, with Hynes playing what Fitzgibbon sees as “more controlled, measured performances” has bookmakers unable to split the home side and the fast-finishing Roosters on Saturday night.

Mind’s eye: Nicho Hynes at Sharks training.Credit: Sharks Media

“He’s still in his second year as an NRL halfback so he’s picking all of it up pretty quickly,” Fitzgibbon says.

“It’s easy to say, ‘get out there and control a game’.

“Actually getting it done… you don’t want to let moments go past. But that judgment of which moments to take, which moments do you leave alone and not take a risk, it’s not as easy as it sounds.

“There’s a reason most of the experienced halves are the ones playing the best footy at this time of year.”

For his part, Hynes is cramming as though halfbacks sit the HSC. He spoke during the week of learning from each lesson presented this year – Origin axings, form drop-offs and Cronulla losses among them.

The 27-year-old has long figured that his brain is a muscle to be trained and looked after like any other as an athlete. His Dally M acceptance speech last year included a poignant nod to his friend and mindset coach Jarred Brown, who Hynes employed when he moved from Melbourne to Sydney in anticipation of the added exposure and pressure.

His latest pre-game visualisation techniques are another trick of the trade, taught by another professional Hynes prefers to keep under wraps.

“I don’t really want to expose him right now,” Hynes says.

“He’s a big hitter in that space and a lot of people want to be mentored by him. I won’t give that one away because he’s a guy that I really like working with and I want to keep him to myself.

“But even that three-game stretch of losses (which threatened to drop the Sharks out of the finals race in July) I’ve never really been in that position before, that was the first time in my career that I’ve lost three in row.

“There’s plenty of lessons learned from that, I’ve simplified my game plan and the way I play a little bit. I’m just trying to stick to the little things. When they work well for our team, we play well.”

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