Dan Abrahams one of football’s leading sports psychologists, explains how proper preparation, particularly mental, can give Watford the best chance of making history in the FA Cup final, the first time they’ve faced off in the showpiece event in 35 years.
On FA Cup final day, players arrive at Wembley in their official, sharp club suits before getting changed in enormous, unfamiliar dressing rooms. After a targeted warm-up, they emerge in front of 90,000 bellowing fans, stand to God Save the Queen, and exchange a few awkward words with Prince William as he makes his way down the red carpet shaking everybody’s hand.
The crowd – more than four times the capacity of Vicarage Road – creates an atmosphere unlike any other domestic fixture, a nervous buzz of excitement and anxiety. With family and friends in the crowd, the players know that they’ve got to be at their best, especially if you’re lining-up with the underdogs.
For some, the prospect of winning a major trophy is something they thought they would never see – and it may never happen again. For others, it’s another big day out in their club’s growing history. It means more to the former. It has to.
Manchester City have won eight major trophies in as many years, cementing their place as the premier force in English football at the moment, and the manner of their title win this season will have given them yet more confidence. They are used to such pressure. Watford, who’ve waited 35 years for an FA Cup final again – the last time was under the ownership of Elton John and stewardship of Graham Taylor – and have never won a major honour, are not.
While the Hornets have been to three Championship playoff finals – two at Wembley and one at the Millennium Stadium – this is different. In many ways, they’re incomparable events, even if the playoff final carries a great financial reward. It stands to reason that children still dream of scoring in FA Cup finals. This is the moment they’ve worked so hard for.
Heurelho Gomes made it to a Champions League semi-final with PSV, but that was over than a decade ago. Roberto Pereyra came off the bench for the last ten minutes of Juventus’ defeat to Barcelona in the 2015 final, but by then they were already 2-1 down and chasing the game. Even internationals of their renown will feel the pressure and nerves as they face the might of Pep Guardiola and his brigade of megastars.
Sports psychologist Dan Abrahams explains that the referee’s whistle signalling the start of the game – a career-defining one for some – is an overwhelming moment for any player to find themselves in: “The implications of the different atmosphere can bring performance anxiety, which can be crippling,” says Abrahams, who works on a consultancy basis for 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.
It’s a common occurrence in finals as players fail to deal with the occasion and their performance levels drop below the standards of which they are capable. It can result in misplaced passes, overhit crosses and missed chances that they would score in most other games. “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.”
For Watford, there is a way to combat the debilitating effects of such an occasion. Indeed, they need look no further than Wigan Athletic’s FA Cup heroes of 2013. The Latics, who were relegated to the Championship three days later, produced one of the biggest FA Cup shocks of the modern era thanks to a stoppage-time Ben Watson effort proving enough to secure their first major trophy.
The Hornets will take solace in the fact that their opponents that day were Manchester City. “Things were very calm pre-match. No fear, no pressure,” Emmerson Boyce, then skippering the side, told the Daily Mail ahead of Wigan’s fifth-round meeting with Pep Guardiola’s side in 2018, which they also won.
Achieving a calm, composed state of mind before taking to the pitch is where Abrahams, who also held the position of Lead Sports Psychologist with England Rugby from 2017/18 and England Golf from 2013 to 16, comes in. “Sticking to your normal routine is really important,” he states. “You’re trying to help players perceive the game in the same way they perceive every game.”
Abrahams utilises all his experience to tailor certain methods that help players overcome the anxiety of such a challenging moment. “Self-talk, breathing techniques and directing your focus and 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 controlling the controllables philosophy.”
Such techniques help players disassociate the magnitude of playing one of the biggest games of their career with a regular 90 minutes of football – something they do every week.
Approaching the game with a rational mindset is imperative, and Abrahams believes players should ignore the notion of victory and defeat in favour of concentrating on what they can control. Of course, that’s easier said than done when the world is watching you. “Players need to, in pressure situations, focus on themselves,” Abrahams says.
“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.”
Biologically, these can have a major impact on a players’ performance – and it’s all measurable nowadays. “There’s an increase in blood flow 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. Obviously those are the kind of things you want.”
It goes without saying that such preparation can’t bridge the talent gap between the two sides, however – very little can. But it can help reduce the distance between what the players feel is possible in moments of anxiety and what history has taught us most certainly is.
By Omar Saleem @omar_saleem
Dan Abrahams was speaking to Betway