Steven Gerrard made an error as Liverpool were on the verge of winning the league in 2014. Such a costly error at such a key time was one you wouldn’t normally associate with him.

Jonny Sexton missed a crucial rugby place kick against the All Blacks in the Guinness Autumn series a few years ago that would have sealed victory for Ireland – a first for his country over the All-blacks. At the time, he stood over the kick for more than 15 seconds longer than he normally does. Check it out here:

So what is it that regularly gets the better of highly skilled athletes when they make unusual errors at key moments in front of big audiences in highly charged environments?

The debilitating effects of anxiety can get the better of highly skilled athletes when they lose the ability to control their nerves. This is even more likely to happen in a highly charged environment that is competitive sport. However, when faced with a similar scenario in a later Six Nations Rugby 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. It would have allowed him to execute the kicks like he normally does without the pressure and could easily be conducted through use of appropriate scientifically supported psychological skills training. 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. Unfortunately, Jonny Sexton (though relatively inexperienced at the time compared to now) appeared to have lacked composure and the relevant skills to deal with this anxiety. In fact, the missed kicks against France 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 poor skill execution 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.

So what happened?

Basically anxiety is having a significant negative impact on performance. Anxiety takes two forms and may impact the brain (psychological anxiety) or the muscular system (somatic anxiety) or both. Psychological anxiety can affect decision making, ability to sleep on nights previous to performance and bring on worrisome thoughts about other peoples perceptions of your own performance (management / family etc) which bring on other pressures. Somatic anxiety manifests itself in various ways – trembling hands, hyperventilation, nausea, increased need to use toilet, dry throat, increased heart rate, sweaty palms, general sweating

The combination of an increase in both cognitive 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 normally relatively easy tasks. It takes the form of a mild panic attack or what we know as psycho-somatic stress resulting in skill breakdown. Skill execution that is normally considered easy becomes a lot more difficult for suffering athletes through a breakdown of natural movement processes or what we know as de-chunking of natural flow of movement. This 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.

Lew Hardy’s Cusp Catastrophe Model (1996)

Hardy anxiety performance

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 from Westmeath GAA missing the free to win the Leinster Championship match against Meath in 2003. Andy Cole with countless scoring chances for Man Utd threw away a championship when they couldnt beat West Ham in the last game of the season many years ago, despite dominating the game and missing countless easy chances. Limerick hurlers capitulated against Offaly also in 1994 while AC Milan threw away a 3 – 0 lead against Liverpool in the Champions League final some years ago. 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.

Des Dolan

Jimmy White could never win the World snooker championship despite being the best player in the world for many years while the same could be said for Colin Montgomerie, Greg Norman and more recently Sergio Garcia (lost numerous play-offs)  when it came to the majors in golf. We have also seen such anxieties occur in the TV show “The Cube”, where anxieties increase due to money involved and competitors natural movement processes and decision making are impeded as they struggle to execute tasks that they perceive to be readily doable.

Very often the athlete’s or teams that struggle are ones that have a history of not getting over the finishing line or teams / athletes that are ahead and struggle to come to terms with a competitor coming from behind when the finish line is in sight. Very often the anxiety brought on by the fear of failure is greater than what a player is able to manage and results in significant skill breakdown. See YouTube clip here on fear of failure.

Most recently we saw Kilkenny win the All-Ireland Hurling Final beating Galway in the final in September 2015. The Galway forwards scored a sum total of two points in the second half with another two points scored by substitute and half back David Collins. A consolation goal scored by Joe Canning at the very end of the game when it was as good as over brought their total in the second half to 1-4. They scored 14 points in the first half. One critical turning point was when the ever reliable Joe Canning missed a routine free straight in front of the posts with the game in the melting pot with 20 minutes remaining.

The football semi-final ended with a draw after normally reliable Dublin team threw away a 7 point lead with only seven minutes remaining. Dublin goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton who is one of the most reliable and experienced goalkeepers of all time appeared to have a huge performance meltdown with a poor performance in the second half with a number of uncharacteristic errors as Mayo came from behind to draw in the last few minutes.

In the replay, it appeared that Mayo were fully in control with 16 minutes to play and leading by four when they went into reverse. Wing back Lee Keegan missed a relatively easy point scoring opportunity for Mayo from 20m straight in front of the posts. After other unforced errors from Mayo, Dublin clicked into gear with 2 goals in 3 minutes and followed with another goal and four points a few minutes later to win by 7 points – more significantly a 10 point swing in the space of sixteen minutes.

Both England’s and Ireland’s rugby teams at the world cup in 2015 might be other examples as they fell flat on their face when their fans most expected them to perform at their highest level.

There are many teams / athletes that use motivational gurus to help get them psyched up for performance. Often however, athletes need to be psyched down as the natural charge of the occasion that is the competitive sporting environment compels the body and mind to overheat to such a degree that they cannot execute their skills in the manner that they normally can and result in gross under-performance.

Any sport psychologist worth their salt would have the skill-set to help athletes deal with such scenarios. However, sport psychology is a science that is unfortunately, often infiltrated by unqualified self acclaimed “motivational gurus” of the mind or what we know as the “motivational brigade”. Here, little or no knowledge or skills are imparted to help athletes to better deal with such anxiety inducing scenarios. Instead, stories are often regaled of their own fantastic achievements and their own personal mental fortitude are used as a means of “inspiring” your athletes to new heights.

Generally, a qualified sport psychologist would have an undergrad degree in sport science or psychology and an appropriate MSc in sport psychology. In addition, they would have at least 2 years experience and professional membership of established bodies such as the British Association of Sport and Exercise Science (BASES), Psychological Society of Ireland (PSI) Irish Institute of Sport (IIS) or British Psychological Society (BPS) and would have the tools to diagnose and offer solutions to the aforementioned issues.

Keith Begley is a member of BASES and an accredited sport psychologist with the Irish Institute of Sport.

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