Leading sports psychologist on the power of pre-match routines
In our exclusive interview, Dan Abrahams explains how the correct mental preparation can give Watford the best chance of making history in the FA Cup final.
FA Cup final day.
Players arrive at the national stadium suited and booted, before getting changed in an enormous, unfamiliar dressing room.
They emerge to stand to attention for an opera singer belting out 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.
A crowd of close to 90,000 – more than four times the capacity of Vicarage Road – create an atmosphere unlike any other domestic fixture, a nervous buzz of excitement and anxiety.
For some, the prospect of winning a major trophy is something they thought they would never see, and 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 the last eight years. They are used to this pressure. Watford, who last reached a cup final in 1984 and have never won a major honour, are not.
Sure, the Hornets, who are to win the FA Cup in the latest football betting, have been to three Championship play-off finals – two at Wembley and one at the Millennium Stadium – but this is different.
The same goes for their players, too.
Heurelho Gomes made it to a Champions League semi-final with PSV, but that was more than a decade ago. Roberto Pereyra came off the bench for the last 10 minutes of Juventus’ defeat to Barcelona in the 2015 final, but by then they were already 2-1 down and chasing the game.
As sports psychologist Dan Abrahams explains, the referee’s whistle signalling the start of a career-defining game is a potentially overwhelming position 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 AFC 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.
You see it all the time in one-off games, as players fail to deal with the occasion and their performance levels drop well below the standards of which they are capable. They misplace passes, overhit crosses and miss chances they would score in any other game.
“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.”
Thankfully for the Hornets, there is a way to combat the incapacitating side-effects of such an occasion.
Just ask Wigan Athletic’s FA Cup heroes of 2013.
The Latics, who were to be relegated to the Championship three days later, produced one of the biggest cup shocks of all time to win the final, with a stoppage-time Ben Watson header proving enough to secure their first and only major trophy.
The opposition that day? Manchester City.
“Things were very calm pre-match. No fear, no pressure,” then-captain Emmerson Boyce told the Daily Mail ahead of Wigan’s fifth-round meeting with Pep Guardiola’s side in 2018, which they also won.
Achieving that composed state of mind before taking to the field is where Abrahams, who also held the position of Lead Sports Psychologist with England Rugby from 2017-18 and England Golf from 2013-16, comes in.
“Sticking to your normal routine is really important,” he says.
“You’re trying to help players perceive the game in the same way they perceive every game.”
Abrahams uses specific psychological techniques to help players overcome any nerves and engage with this idea.
“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 the controlling the controllables philosophy.”
From there, they can disassociate the gravity of one of the biggest games of their career with playing 90 minutes of football – something they do every week.
Approaching the game with a rational mindset is vital according to Abrahams, who believes players should ignore the notion of winning and losing in favour of concentrating on what they can control – which is easier said than done given what is at stake.
“Players need to, in pressure situations, focus on themselves,” he 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.”
When someone engages in these behaviours, we see a biological reaction that can have a noticeable effect on their performance.
“There’s an increase in bloodflow 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 would be naïve to suggest that this could elevate the technical ability of Watford’s players above that of Manchester City. It won’t.
But it will give them the best possible chance of taking the sort of opportunity that comes around once every 35 years.