The story goes that the victorious Mayo team of 1951, while passing through Foxford during the All-Ireland celebrations, failed to pay due respects to a passing funeral. Enraged, a local priest cursed the county team, that while any member of the 1951 team lived, Mayo would never win another All-Ireland. It remains unbroken — despite the team reaching the Final on nine occasions since then. They have either completely collapsed on the day or been undone by a series of other unfortunate events. 66 years on, only two of that 1951 team remain.
In many of these finals, significant leads were thrown away as the game neared the end. In 1996, when having led by 6 points, a freak point by Meath’s Colm Coyle bounced over the bar from a 70m kick at the end of the game reinforcing the concept of the dreaded curse coming to pass. See highlights here.
The replay was just as bad as Meath came from a 6 point deficet to win the game in the last few minutes. Kerry prolonged the torture with big wins in the finals of 2004 (eight points) and 2006 (thirteen points).
Mayo were back again in the finals of 2012 and 2013 against Donegal and Dublin respectively. After losing to Donegal in 2012, a priest, Fr Padraic Costello was called in to lift the curse and end the misfortune for the Dublin game. While Fr Costello was sceptical about the curse, to be on the safe side, he gave the squad an official blessing at the exact place on the bridge over the River Moy in Foxford, Co Mayo where it was allegedly imposed.
They lost again by a point to Dublin.
Again in 2016, they failed to win when dominating the drawn final, while fundamental errors and failure to take chances when presented could easily be put forward as reasons why they were yet again unsuccessful.
So is there really a curse and what is going on?
Mayo might be cursed alright but most likely it is one of a different kind than the popular stories suggest. The likelihood is that too many have been cursed with performance anxiety at varying stages of the finals that they have participated in.
Performance anxiety regularly gets the better of highly skilled athletes as they make unusual and uncharacteristic errors at key moments in front of big audiences in highly charged environments.
Anxiety takes two forms – psychological stress and somatic stress.
Psychological stress takes the form of head worry – worry over how one is playing and other peoples perceptions – family, management, other players, worry about winning or losing. It can also cloud optimal decision making and cause difficulty in sleeping on nights previous to the game resulting in lethargy and tiredness.
Somatic anxiety may cause the following: hyperventilation, increased heart rate, increased sweating, trembling hands and toes, nausea, increased need to use toilet, dry throat, freezing sensation (stage-fright) and inability to process visual information.
The combination of an increase in both psychological anxiety (head worry) and somatic anxiety (muscle worry) at the same time forces the body and mind to overheat and athletes then struggle to execute what are perceived to be relatively easy tasks.
In such scenarios, players sometimes don’t turn up to play at their maximum (2004 & 2006) and the game is over before it even gets going. In other ways, the anxiety manifests itself in poor skill execution and decision making among skilled athletes as they lose the ability to control their nerves.
Could this explain Rob Hennelly’s errors in 2016? How often would Rob Hennelly drop a ball like he did in the 2016 final? After that final, Hennelly said “I’ll never be able to fully describe what was going through my head at this moment. What I was expecting to be one of my best days turned out to be the opposite, and it breaks my heart that I didn’t come through for my team and county.”
In 2017, Jason Doherty missed a relatively easy goal chance late in the game while Donie Vaughan (Mayo full back) was red carded when he needlessly and erratically floored Dublin’s John Small at a critical moment. Ironically, Mayo lost the advantage as Small was sent off and a scoreable free straight in front of the posts was turned in to a throw in which Dublin won.
Cillian O Connor (forward) had a great year for Mayo in 2016 and they wouldn’t have been in a final replay but for his equaliser in the drawn final. However, given the nature of his miss from a very scoreable free kick at the end of the replay, one wonders if he let the nerves get the better of him? If he had that kick over again, could he regulate his emotions more effectively, allowing himself to better execute the kick like he might do in training?
He also had a free to put Mayo ahead in injury time in 2017 as the ball hit the upright, albeit from a difficult position. Meanwhile Dublin free taker held his nerve in the very last minute to score a free kick from a similar distance to win the match.
In fact, the decision making can affect more than players and stress could have played a part in manager Stephen Rochford’s decision to leave out All Star goalkeeper David Clarke in 2016 final for Rob Hennelly! Could it have played a part in his decision to substitute his star forward Andy Moran with Conor Loftus in the 2017 final?
After that late substitution in 2017, Conor Loftus could have take a better decision with the game in the melting pot late in the game when he turned down a passing opportunity to offer a 4 v 3 goal scoring opportunity t go on a solo run into Dublin traffic where he was turned over in a favorable attacking position.
This phenomenon has been extensively researched by Lew Hardy at Bangor University with his 1996 paper suggesting that boosting confidence can help buffer the level of anxiety at which these performance decrements occur. This may explain why teams that have won more regularly don’t suffer nearly as much. Kerry and Dublin in football and Kilkenny in hurling often have higher levels of confidence from being used to being in the winners enclosure.
They rarely suffer the burden of having a huge weight of expectation on their shoulders as there are often a number of their team-mates that have had previous success. There isn’t the same level of mass hysteria within a successful county as those counties that have experienced a huge length of time from the previous success. Additionally, former players from clubs and parishes in successful counties have All-Ireland medals and this knowledge will give them some confidence that success is inevitable and “in their blood”. Many players in traditionally successful counties often see success as a divine right and are less hampered emotionally as a result supporting the often stated mantra that success breeds success.
While Mayo have obviously suffered in the past from this, perhaps it is unfair to pin all of their most recent close attempts on this reason alone. They have acquitted themselves quite well in the last few years – possibly due to the support of a team psychologist. That said, some of the mistakes of the 2016 & 2017 finals could have been prevented if players were better able to regulate their emotions enabling optimal skill execution, composure and decision making when it mattered most.
Let’s hope they finally find the tools to banish the “curse” and win the title that everybody wants them to win!
Keith Begley is an Irish based sport psychologist accredited with the Irish Institute of Sport.
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Performance psychologist - accredited with Irish Institute of Sport