After having beaten Brighton and Hove Albion 4-1 on the final day of the season to conclude an extremely close title race and win the Premier League, Manchester City are now on their way to seize their third title of the season.
Pep Guardiola’s men shall soon begin preparations to face Watford in the FA Cup final come Saturday. And if they do secure a victory at Wembley, the Sky Blues will successfully complete the domestic treble, having already bagged the EFL Cup back in February.
Watford face the ginormous task of beating an in-form team that has been breaking records, amassing points, and collecting serial trophies in England for two successive years.
This gives rise to a natural question: Do the Hornets have any realistic hope of taming the beast that is Manchester City?
It might not be as hard as many suggest after all. They could indeed stand a genuine chance, if they focus on things that are completely in their control, suggests leading sports psychologist Dan Abrahams.
According to Abrahams, who has worked with the FA, PFA, LMA, and multiple Premier League and Championship clubs across his 19-year career, Javi Garcia’s men have a genuine chance of pulling off a huge upset in the final, as long as they keep their performance anxiety in check.
But what exactly is performance anxiety?
Here’s Abrahams with a detailed explanation: “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. Their first touch goes and their motor behaviour, which is essentially their technique, atrophies. Subsequently, what you see is a player playing worse.”
These descriptions sound quite familiar, as anyone who has watched his team play a crucial football match, or even played an important game himself, has experienced these symptoms first-hand.
However, there exists an effective way to counter these symptoms and get rid of the anxiety altogether. Take Wigan Athletic’s case, for instance.
Back in 2013, the Latics did the unthinkable when they blew Manchester City away in the FA Cup final to pull off one of the biggest shocks of all time. A stoppage-time header from Ben Watson helped secure the first and only major trophy for Wigan, who then went on to get relegated to the Championship three days later.
How in the world did Wigan deliver when it mattered the most? What did they do right? How did the players overcome their performance anxiety in what was arguably the most crucial match in the history of their club?
By simply following their normal routine and controlling the factors that could be controlled.
“Sticking to your normal routine is really important,” Abrahams further explains. “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 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. 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.”
Engaging in these behaviours leads to a biological reaction which not only has a calming effect on the players, but also boosts their physical aspects and further improves their performance on the field.
“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,” adds 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.”
Can Watford do what it takes to get rid of their performance anxiety, and emulate Wigan’s success in the FA Cup final at the expense of Manchester City once again? Only time will tell.