Sports psychologist Dan Abrahams explains the importance of pre-match routines in football
Professional athletes are victims of their routines and pre-game habits more often than not. Despite knowing what they need to do to try and achieve their goal, it is a well-known fact that many times athletes falter at the highest level, across sports. The pressure of the occasion and the expectations attached to the team might cause an athlete to crumble and underperform in front of thousands of people despite being someone who is one of the best in the sport. This stands true for football, where pressure and occasion just make a big difference.
As we look forward to the FA Cup final between Manchester City and Watford, we understand plainly that the stakes are very different for both teams. City have won eight major trophies in the last eight years, including four in the last season. They can make it five trophies under Pep Guardiola with a win in the 2019 FA Cup final. The Sky Blues go into the match as favourites and are expected to win this match without much resistance from the Hornets. For the serial winners from Manchester, this is just another game that they know they have to win and not a source of pressure.
However, for Watford's players, this is an opportunity of a lifetime. Many of their players might not be in a position to win a trophy again and the fact that they have made it all the way to the final puts the responsibility on them to ensure they do their job well and potentially try and win the trophy. A tough team to beat under coach Javi Garcia, the Hornets need to be ready to go from the first whistle and have to keep it going till the final whistle to ensure they upset the juggernaut that Manchester City are.
Irrespective of their progress leading up to the final, Watford have to start all over again and prepare accordingly for the FA Cup final. For one, they will be playing at Wembley, in front of 90,000 people, a far cry from the 21,957 people who watch matches at Vicarage Road. Along the same lines, they will have to get ready in an alien dressing room, where they are not familiar with where their favourite teammates are and have to adjust to the environment, on and off the field. The Hornets have never won a major club honour, and this pressure would be something new to them and it has to be seen whether they would be able to shake that off.
Despite a couple of their players like Heurelho Gomes and Roberto Pereyra having played previously in high stakes games like the Champions League semi-final, this team does not possess the experience necessary to dispatch of City with ease.
Sports psychologist Dan Abrahams to football betting company, Betway explains how pressure and performance anxiety can go hand-in-hand, saying, "The implications of a different atmosphere can bring performance anxiety, which can be crippling. As the name performance anxiety suggests, players can experience psychological anxiety and physiological stress response. 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."
He continued, "Their first touch goes and their motor behaviour, which is essentially their technique, atrophies. Subsequently, what you see is a player playing worse.”
Watford will be eager to ensure they pull off an upset and defeat Manchester City, just like how Wigan Athletic did in 2013. The Latics went up against City in what was an extremely daunting encounter for them. Despite the domination of the Citizens, Wigan held on gamely and were rewarded for their play with Ben Watson going on to score with a header.
Former Wigan Athletic defender, Emerson Boyce spoke to the Daily Mail, where he said, "Things were very calm pre-match. No fear, no pressure."
What we have understood so far is that professional sports have a lot of such moments, when the pressure is not really that much. However, there are also many such moments where you just could not buy a basket or score any points at all.
Abrahams, who worked with England Rugby and England Golf in the past, discussed the importance of sticking to one's routine, saying, "Sticking to your normal routine is really important. You’re trying to help players perceive the game in the same way they perceive every game.”
He then went on to talk about techniques that could help Watford players adjust mentally to playing in the FA Cup final and not feel nervous, saying, "Self-talk, breathing techniques and directing your focus and attention can help. 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.”
Abrahams also advocated the importance of treating it as just one game, thus reducing the FA Cup final to a regular game that they possess all the tools to control. He reiterated that players needed to fulfil their individual responsibilities.
He said, "Players need to, in pressure situations, focus on themselves. That’s their responsibilities within their role, their mental skills, having a consistent personality on the pitch, playing with positive intention and at the right intensity. 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.”
The sports psychologist also explained why taking these steps would help footballers move in the right direction, saying, "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. 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. Obviously those are the kind of things you want.”
Expecting anything other than a Manchester City win would be an insult to their pedigree and ability to perform in big games. They are an extremely technical team and have scored the most goals this season, so should be able to steamroll through Watford easily.
However, if Javi Garcia's Hornets show that they can overcome the occasion, own it and do the basics right without conveying any fear, they could have the chance secure the FA Cup title and write a new chapter in Watford's history books.