The nervousness started the night before the game. A former team-mate, with whom he shared a room in the early stages of his career, once called his attention to it. "He said he did everything he could to try to fall asleep before me. Before games, my right foot would twitch so hard that the entire duvet would rustle. It drove him crazy. I never noticed until he said it to me"
.Then there's the diarrhea he got on the mornings of matches - looking back, he says it happened on more than 500 days of his life. "I had to go to the bathroom right after getting up, right after breakfast, again after lunch and again at the stadium. Everything I ate just passed right on through."
For a while, all he could eat were noodles with a little olive oil. He couldn't eat any later than four hours before a game to ensure that his stomach was guaranteed to be totally empty when the nausea started. Everything surrounding the prospect of playing the games just made him want to puke.
The nausea came four to five seconds before kickoff. Once he took his position on the pitch, surrounded by roaring fans, he knew that it was coming. Every time, once again, he had to give it his all for 90 minutes. The sum total of the value of his being would be reduced to the level of his performance for the 90 minutes of the game. The stress and anxiety this brought was excruciating!
The tension, he says, became almost unbearable. "My stomach started churning and I felt like I was going to throw up. Then I had to choke so hard that I teared up." He always turned his head to the side with his chin facing his shoulder so that no one could see what was happening - no TV cameras, no coaches, no teammates; so that nobody would ever ask what was wrong.
Per Mertesacker, the quiet, confident defender - didn't want anybody to know what was wrong with him - a member of the 2014 World Cup-winning German national team and former captain of Arsenal.
(adapted from http://www.spiegel.de/international/business/interview-with-mertesacker-about-exit-from-arsenal-football-a-1198260-amp.html)
In 1996 in Atlanta, Sonia O' Sullivan was set to win Olympic gold for Ireland on the track as the red hot favourite. The nerves got the better of her. She left the track, distraught with anxiety with many laps remaining.
We have often heard the difficulties of players struggling to sleep on the night before an All-Ireland final as they struggle to contend with the possibility that they might become part of history the following day! These are the feelings than some high performing sports stars experience prior to or during sporting performances in highly charged stadiums.
Much of this is influenced by the debilitating fear of failure where athletes struggle to maintain normal levels of anxiety often resulting in the inability to perform readily doable skills under their perceived feelings of extreme pressure.
All Black psychologist Gilbert Enoka suggests that the brain delivers three types of response when challenged in a stressful environment – instinct, emotional and thought response. When anxiety increases, the part of the brain responsible for rational thought (pre-frontal cortex) is lessened as the part detecting threat (hippocampus) takes over. When this occurs, it fires an even smaller part of our brain (amygdala) to enlarge, increasing our emotional and instinctive response while reducing our rational thought and ability to think clearly under pressure.
Dr Steve Peters (a psychiatrist that has worked with elite athletes eg: Team SKY, Liverpool FC and England football) termed this the "Chimp Paradox". The body always does what the brain tells it to do but if the brain is controlled by instinct and emotion and not rational thought, then we have lost control.
Emotional and instinctive decisions can be somewhat erratic and often incorrect ones. For the 2011 Rugby World Cup, The All-Blacks sought to address this area as it had scuppered their World Cup attempts previously. They needed needed their players to steer towards decisions that are thought induced, made by clear and rational minds and that aren’t overwhelmed by the stress and pressure of the occasion. For that to happen they needed them to be calm under pressure.
They worked on control of attention to alleviate anxiety in pressure situations - a preventative intervention to reduce the chances of their minds becoming over-heated, tense and frustrated.
With the help of Gazing Performance Systems, they described the All-Blacks to be H.O.T when under pressure in tight games.
Other unhelpful characteristics of having a “Red Head” might be
They required the players to have a “Blue Head” – one of calmness that can maintain clarity of consciousness, situational awareness, accurate analysis and have the ability to make good decisions under pressure.
Typically, a “Blue Head” would have the following characteristics.
Such a state of consciousness allows you to see the bigger picture, remain on task, and attend to relevant stimuli. Put simply, it allows the players to process the information at hand and make correct decisions.
While some have tricks to try and alleviate it, some prefer to just hope for the best and travel on the morning of the game having slept in their own beds. Some bring their own pillows with them while others have been known to sleep in an empty bath tub to try and avoid the snores of a sleeping room-mate!
Distraction can also work well! Kerry football legend Jack O'Shea was famous for playing a few rounds of pitch and putt on the morning of every All-Ireland final. Others are known to arrange to meet friends with no interest in sport or switch off by watching a DVD or film. The Dublin footballers hang out in the Gibson hotel and have access to pool tables, table tennis and other amusements on the morning of an All-Ireland final and most big games - anything to take your mind off the game can be helpful.
While it wouldn't be recommended now, GAA folklore is full of stories of players taking a "shot" of brandy to settle the nerves before going out to play a county final. Some of the Kerry footballers of the 1980's and a few of the Offaly hurlers of the 1990's were known to have a few "quiet drinks" on the night before a big game to help them sleep better!
Some just don't play to their potential or struggle to deal with performing on the big day!
Any performance psychologist worth their salt should be adept in advice around anxiety management and mental preparation for big day scenarios whether that is attentional focus strategies, distraction, relaxation or breathing techniques.
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Keith Begley is a member of BASES and an accredited performance psychologist with the Irish Institute of Sport.
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Performance psychologist - accredited with Irish Institute of Sport