So the All-Ireland final 2015 will be dissected, adjudicated and commented on by countless journalists and former players alike. This article aims to look at it from a psychological perspective. We saw numerous handling errors from both sides. While the weather was obviously a huge factor there may have been other issues at play.

Early in the game, Stephen Cluxton really struggled with his Kickouts. His final percentage success of kickouts (65%) suggest that overall the risk reward was worth it but some of his decision making was very questionable at times – so much so that after the second ball he kicked over the line in the first 10 minutes, Ger Canning suggested that he appeared “a little unnerved”.

Nerves play a big part in an occasion like this where a highly charged atmosphere creates an environment where some players struggle to keep their composure. The inability to control your nerves on such days can result in skill breakdown and erratic decision making on the field of play. In the white cauldron of battle in the drawn semi-final, the Dublin goalkeeper appeared to have a minor meltdown in the closing 20 minutes as Mayo came from behind to draw. In the final v Kerry, another goal kick over the sideline in the early part of the second half as Kerry had closed the gap suggested that his nerves were succumbing to the tension again. This was further exemplified in the latter stages with another dropped ball and a kicked ball straight into the hands of Kieran Donaghy – an opportunity that went unpunished.

There were other uncharacteristic handling errors from some of the top players when the ball appeared to act like a hot potatoe. Bernard Brogan and Colm Cooper had simple handling errors in the first half you wouldn’t normally associate with them. Ciaran Kilkenny left a ball behind him when bearing in on goal off a Philly McMahon fist pass. For Kerry, an uncharacteristic error from Kerry’s Peter Crowley (attempted hand pass when attacking) was punished when it was turned over and resulted in a point from Paddy Andrews at the other end of the field late in the second half.

So what is happening in these instances?

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 people’s 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 and significantly, skill breakdown.

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 skills. 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)

Accordingly, the ability to stay relaxed and in control of your nerves is central to performing on the big day. In a radio interview today, Kerry legend Jack O Se revealed that when he played All-Irelands in the 80’s, he used to play 18 holes of pitch and putt on the morning of the All-Ireland final as he maintained that it helped him relax and take his mind off the game.  As the Dublin team relaxed on the morning of the game at the Gibson Hotel, they would have had options of passing the time with games of table tennis, play-station and other means to help the players relax. Sport psychologists might have other tricks to help them relax and regulate anxiety levels during the course of the game and on nights before the game as many struggle to sleep.

So back to the game…….

Kerry probably shaded the majority of the first half in general play and were level with eight minutes left to half time. However, they seemed to switch off a little with Dublin capitalising and scoring 4 points in the last 8 minutes including superb efforts from the right half back Jack McCaffrey and right corner back Philly McMahon. It showed that Dublin had a very positive philosophy and were challenging Kerry’s key scoring forwards this year (Colm Cooper and Steven O Brien) to track their man and defend when needs be. The focus was to put Kerry on the back foot! Fortunately for Dublin in this period, this positive philosophy paid off and gave them a lead of four points at half time.

Early In the second half, it appeared that Kerry were up for the battle, and the introduction of Darran O Sullivan brought some impetus and dynamism to a non functioning half forward line. Within a few minutes they had closed the gap to two points with scores from both O’Sullivan and James O’Donoghue.

Performance anxiety may have got the better of Kerry’s Killian Young when he received the ball in a goal scoring position with minutes remaining before dropping the ball with the goal scoring chance at his mercy. These games are decided on tight margins and Dublin picked up the lost opportunity and went down the other end of the pitch with experienced Dubliner Alan Brogan securing the win with a fantastic point off his left foot.

As alluded to earlier, performance anxiety is not just the sole preserve of players. Management decision making can also be affected. While not seeking to question the right of management to make decisions as they see fit, it was very surprising to see James O’Donoghue being taken off in the All-Ireland final after scoring 3 points from play. With 20 minutes remaining he was Kerry’s most threatening forward. The replacement of David Moran also seemed unusual given the volume of ball that he won. While he had made a simple handling error moments before he was taken off, it still appeared unusual. Maybe there were other reasons that we are not privy to.

When Marty Morrissey interviewed Dublin manager Jim Gavin after the game, he commented on how cool and calm he had appeared during the course of the game. When Marty questioned whether his job (aeronautical officer) had any impact on him being so cool in the heat of battle, he again deflected from his influence on the team and heaped the praise on his players. In the same interview, Philly McMahon claimed that their team ethos’ of humility was central to their success with them having the ability to stay grounded despite the media furore that would have surrounded them in the weeks leading into the games with Mayo (semi-final) and Kerry. This is a far cry from the brash, crest kissing, fist pumping Dublin team that played to the tabloid media dream and Hill 16 in the years of Pillar Caffrey when they failed to reach an All-Ireland final. Gavin appears to have their focus and attention on the right things and the awards are there to see with 11 trophies won from 12 in his 3 years in charge to date.

Both Jim Gavin and Eamon Fitzmaurice have overseen some of the best teams in GAA over the past while. Jim Gavin probably edged the tactical battle in 2015 but next year is another year. In an interview on the Sunday Game, winning captain Stephen Cluxton gave a little nugget of insight into how they approached the game. In a similar way to Joe Schmidt and the Irish Rugby team, he suggested that the plan was to “stick to the game plan and go through the right process irrespective of what the score is”. Their plan was to play their game their way and let Kerry adjust to them. They had the courage of their convictions to follow through on this and are All-Ireland champions as a result.

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