The FA Cup final featuring Manchester City and Watford is just around the corner, Saturday the 18th of May to be specific. To most people in the world, it is just a date but for the Watford players, it’s a date with destiny.
Manchester City have been to 6 major finals since the year 2000 and have won 4 Premier League titles. However, their thirst for trophies has been relentless since the Arab takeover and every dropped trophy has brought heartbreaks and anguish.
Their cup finalist counterpart Watford F.C. have had humble experiences for a long time now. To put that into perspective , Watford last reached a cup final in 1984 and have never won a major honour.
Keeping that in mind, one can speculate what the mental state of players of both outfits would be before matches of this voltage. Watford’s veteran goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes made it to a Champions League semi-final with PSV, but that was more than a decade ago. Roberto Pereyra came off the bench for the last 10 minutes of Juventus’ defeat to Barcelona in the 2015 final only to lose 3-1.
Often labelled as “nerves”, the mental state of players on such big occasions are not just nerves but a culmination of various factors starting from pre-game routine, past experiences, expectations and so on.
Sports psychologist Dan Abrahams explains exactly how the stress and anxiety associated with big games affects the athletes.
“The implications of the different atmosphere can bring performance anxiety, which can be crippling,” says Abrahams, who works on a consultancy basis for AFC Bournemouth and
Swedish top-flight side Ostersunds, having previously worked with the FA, PFA, LMA and a host of Premier League and Championship clubs across his 19-year career.
What is anxiety for the players , translates to overhit crosses, misplaced passes and fluffed point blank shots to the spectators. The players aren’t able to play like themselves under the overwhelming circumstances.
This takes us back to 2013 FA Cup final where Wigan Athletic did the unthinkable by beating Manchester City at Wembley.
“Things were very calm pre-match. No fear, no pressure,” then-captain Emmerson Boyce told the Daily Mail ahead of Wigan’s fifth-round meeting with Pep Guardiola’s side in 2018, which they also won.
The frame of mind Boyce speaks of,is what one should aspire to achieve in these circumstances.
“As the name performance anxiety suggests, players can experience psychological anxiety and physiological stress response,” says Abrahams.
“Players develop tunnel vision, where they no longer see a 360-degree view of the pitch. It will make them feel lethargic and flat, so they’re slow to anticipate and are slow to make decisions.
“Their first touch goes and their motor behaviour, which is essentially their technique, atrophies. Subsequently, what you see is a player playing worse.”
Abraham goes on to explain the techniques that he has helped players incorporate to tackle the stress.
“Sticking to your normal routine is really important,” he says.
“You’re trying to help players perceive the game in the same way they perceive every game.”
“Self-talk, breathing techniques and directing your focus an attention can help,” he says.
“A player can manage their stress levels by speaking to themselves: “OK, stop. This is a big game, but all I’ve got to do is stick to what I usually do. I can’t force a great performance or guarantee a great result. I’ve just got to focus on what I can control.”
“It’s the controlling the controllables philosophy.”
Changing the focus is essential. A player needs to forget the bigger picture in such intense occasions than he rarely does in the easier games. Once the individual puts away the objective thought of winning and losing, he starts to be himself.
“Players need to, in pressure situations, focus on themselves,” he says.
“It’s easy to say these things, which seem small things and throwaway remarks but, ultimately, these can make or break a player’s performance.”
When someone engages in these behaviours, we see a biological reaction that can have a noticeable effect on their performance.
“There’s an increase in bloodflow to the front part of the brain and a greater amount of oxygen-rich blood flowing around your body,” says Abrahams.
“Players also release hormones such as testosterone and adrenaline – the building blocks of power, strength and speed – as well as dopamine – your interest chemical – and endorphins, which are your feel-good chemicals, in the appropriate amounts.
“That would result in a player being quicker to anticipate, make faster and maybe more accurate decisions. They will be quicker, stronger and more explosive.”
This kind of sports psychology will most definitely not bridge the skill gap between Watford and Manchester City players but it can eliminate the underestimating thoughts that Watford players might issue on themselves and end up making use of the rather rare chances they will get to score on Saturday night.