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Jonny Sexton missed a crucial kick against the All Blacks in the Guinness Autumn series that would have sealed victory for Ireland. At the time, he stood over the kick for more than 20 seconds longer than he normally does. The debilitating effects of anxiety got the better of him due to his inability to deal with the nervous tension that filled the moment.

With all the financial resources available to the IRFU, one would think that Jonny Sexton would have been shown how to address the issue of how to deal with anxiety and maintain appropriate attentional focus when under pressure.

However, when faced with the exact same scenario in the recent crunch title deciding tie against France in Paris, Jonny failed from even easier kicking positions on two occasions. Again he stood over the kicks for longer than he normally would and allowed self doubt, anxiety and possibly inappropriate attentional focus take his control of the situation away from him. The normally routine kicks were missed and another tap over conversion was almost missed from straight in front of the posts.

Appropriate sport psychology interventions could easily have helped Jonny with dealing with these situations, enabling him to attend to the most relevant aspects of the skill, aiding attentional focus on appropriate stimuli. This would allow him to execute the kicks like he normally does without the pressure and could easily be conducted through use of appropriate scientifically referenced forms of psychological skills such as self talk cues, pre-performance routines and/or visualisation. Unfortunately, these simple strategies appear to have been neglected and could have cost the Irish team a championship had the French kicker not suffered the same fate with an easy kick in the second half.

Such misses can often be seen in golf – known as “the yips”, when golfers are under pressure and feeling anxious during performance. One only needs to look back at Rory McIllroy at Augusta in 2011 to see how anxiety can destroy ones performance. On the Saturday, he shot 70 to finish at 12-under-par, four strokes ahead of four other challengers. However, on the fourth and final day, he shot the worst round in history by any professional golfer leading after the third round of the Masters Tournament. McIlroy scored one-over-par 37 on the first nine, and still had the lead, but shot a round of 80, finishing T15 at 4-under for the tournament.

Afterwards he said “First thing I don’t think I was ready. I displayed a few weaknesses in my game that I need to work on. But I think you’ve got to take the positives – for 63 holes I led and it was just a very bad back nine that sort of took the tournament away from me, I suppose. But what can you do? I was just trying to stay ahead of the field, which in hindsight probably wasn’t a good thing. I just should have gone out, played my game and said ‘Right, if I play well I’m capable of shooting 65 around this golf course and winning by 10’. But that’s not the way it worked out and that’s experience. That’s just learning to be in that position more often. Hopefully I’ll be able to get myself in those positions more often in my career and sooner or later it’s going to happen where it finally clicks and I’m able to handle the whole thing a lot better and win.”

McIlroy went straight from The Masters to the Malaysian Open, where he needed a closing birdie to tie 17-year-old Italian Matteo Manassero, but instead ran up a bogey six and came third. He had his history with anxiety problems too as he had missed out on a chance to win the 2010 PGA Championship when he three-putted the 15th green.

He later employed the services of Sport Psychologist Dr Bob Torrence and learned to deal with the anxiety. In his next major a few months later, McIlroy won the U.S. Open held at Congressional, winning by eight strokes over Jason Day. McIlroy set several records in his victory, most notably, his 72-hole aggregate score of 268 (16-under) was a new U.S. Open record. The 268 aggregate beat the previous record of 272 held by Jack Nicklaus(Baltusrol, 1980), Lee Janzen (Baltusrol, 1993), Tiger Woods (Pebble Beach, 2000), and Jim Furyk (Olympia Fields, 2003) as he became the youngest winner since Bobby Jones in 1923.

Others also suffered from the debilitating effects of performance anxiety, none more so than Jean Van De Welde famously at the British Open and Greg Norman at Augusta as they both threw away huge leads on the final day after holding convincing leads overnight on the Saturday. However, it is not as common in golf in recent times as most golfers now work with highly qualified sport psychologists. 

We have seen it in other sports too in both individual and team contexts. Remember Jana Novotna unable to serve the ball at Wimbledon final with 3 match points against Steffi Graff; Dessie Dolan missing the free to win the Leinster Championship against Dublin in 1994. Andy Cole and Man Utd threw away a championship when they couldnt beat Weast Ham in the last game of the season many years ago, despite dominating the game and missing countless easy chances. Limerick capitulated against Offaly also in 1994 while AC Milan threw away a 3 – 0 lead against Liverpool in the Champions League final. The Mayo footballers (mid noughties v Kerry) and Waterford hurlers have bombed in Croke Park on All Ireland final day in recent times due to their inability to deal with their nerves on the big occasion.

Unfortunately, sport psychology is a science that is often infiltrated by unqualified self acclaimed “gurus” of the mind. Any sport psychologist worth their salt should have professional membership of established bodies such as the British Association of Sport and Exercise Science (BASES), Psychological Society of Ireland (PSI) or the Irish Institute of Sport (IIS).

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