Let’s not cloud the facts. Real Madrid were reigning champions and were the bookies favourites to win. Real Madrid have the players, the money and the power to regularly contend for the champions league final. Liverpool on the other hand were coming from a lower base, albeit one where they were lighting up the premier league with some electric football. Despite being underdogs, they were fancied by many in the football world, as over 160 million viewers waited in anticipation of a cliff-hanger.
With their storied history and tradition in the competition, the city of Liverpool shut down as all stood in anticipation of long awaited glory. They could never have foreseen what would happen.
We have seen in the past where sports people were unable to hold it together in those “clutch” moments when the championship is on the line in a highly charged environment. Invariably, in such instances, players struggle to hold their nerve and execute basic skills to the best of their ability and they or their team pay the price with failure to perform to their potential when the need is at its greatest.
So what was going on in Karius' head?
The natural charge and emotion of such a high stakes competition can significantly impede the brain’s processing skills. When one is anxious, a part of the brain (hypothalamus) detects threat. The threat could be anything from fear of making a mistake, fear of making a mistake or not being good enough and or manifestation of anxieties within.
When the threat is detected by the hypothalamus, it triggers another part of the brain (amygdala - controls our animal instinct) to enlarge, resulting in one of 3 responses (a)fight, (b)flight or (c)freeze. This results in elevated activation and undesired over-firing of the autonomic nervous system creating psycho-somatic stress. Our understanding is that psycho-somatic stress is when the body experiences elevated levels of both psychological stress and somatic stress where they lead to following experiences within the player:
Psychological stress symptoms
Increased need to use toilet
Increased heart rate
Somatic stress symptoms
Worrisome thoughts about
Inability to sleep
Poor decision making
When both psychological and somatic stress are elevated, the functioning of the autonomic nervous system goes into overdrive until information processing and decision making (1st goal) and basic skill execution (3rd goal) are significantly inhibited.
Psycho-somatic stress is something that is quite common in sport, especially in high stakes scenarios and takes the form of a mild unseen panic attack. Remember Jean De Velde at the British Open, Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth at Augusta, England football team and penalty shoot-outs at various major championships and Steven Gerrard’s infamous slip – the list is endless as players struggle with the weight of expectation.
As long as Liverpool FC struggle to win titles, the weight of expectation will grow and become a larger psychological hurdle and burden for others that follow. Their storied history, success starved fans and media frenzy that follows them when ever they get close to any title of significance does not help and plays a part in elevating the anxiety of the players - some of whom struggle to handle as we have seen on numerous occasions.
The bookies are rarely wrong and Real Madrid might have won the game irrespective of Karius' costly mistakes! However, enabling players to better manage the game, their emotional arousal and its various scenarios is as important as managing tactics and fitness because if it isn’t right in your head, it cannot be right on the pitch.
All that said, recently the question of concussion has been considered a possible reason due to a previous knock early in the game. The answers as of yet are unknown and only Karius and the medical people behind Liverpool know the actual true picture!
Unleash Your Potential
Keith Begley is an accredited sport psychologist with the Irish Institute of Sport.
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