Mayo, Mayo, Sam Maguire’s coming home to Dublin – or so the song goes!

With the game in the melting pot, the tackles are going in hard. Mayo win a scoreable free straight in front of the posts after a heavy John Small (Dublin centre back) tackle that looks like a yellow card. Donie Vaughan (Mayo) is enraged by the nature of the hit and without too much thought, steps in for retribution knocking John Small to the ground. Small takes a second yellow card and is sent off before the referee, Joe McQuillan rightly sends Donie Vaughan off on a straight red card! Mayo lose their free kick, the ball is thrown up and Dublin win the ball. The game turns on small margins!

Jason Doherty gets through on goal moments earlier with the goal at his mercy. He shoots but hits it at a nice height for Stephen Cluxton to save. Chance missed.

Cillian O’Connor (Mayo) gets a scoreable free near the end with the teams level. He chooses to take the kick from his hands and hits the post. He had also scuffed a scoreable free in the opening moments. Dublin get a free four minutes later in injury time from a similar distance. Dean Rock slows the game, winds down the clock and takes one minute and 20 seconds to kick the free. A GPS unit is tossed at him as he holds his nerve and strokes the ball over the bar to win the game!

After a late substitution in 2017 final, Conor Loftus (Mayo) demonstrated poor decision making, turning down a simple passing opportunity to his immediate right to offer a 4 v 3 goal scoring opportunity. Instead, he turned left to go on a solo run into Dublin traffic where he was turned over when in a favorable attacking position.

The decision making of management could also have been clouded as they substituted their star forward and player of the year, albeit a tired Andy Moran with an inexperienced Conor Loftus late in the game when you might need experience on the pitch?

They lost the game by a point!

Did the dreaded “curse” get the better of them or did they lack the ability to stay composed, make good decisions and execute their skills clearly under pressure?

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, facilitate over aggression and frustration, while often causing difficulty in sleeping on nights previous to the game.

Somatic anxiety may cause the following: hyperventilation, increased heart rate, increased sweating, trembling hands and toes, nausea, increased need to use toilet, dry throat 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 (Mayo 2004 & 2006) and the game is over before it even gets going. In other ways, the anxiety manifests itself in poor skill execution, frustration and decision making among skilled athletes as they lose the ability to control their nerves.

There are numerous examples in a sporting context. The list is endless – Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth at Augusta, Limerick hurlers 1995, Waterford hurlers 2008, English soccer team in recent finals, Sonia O Sullivan at the Olympics and many more.

This phenomenon has been extensively researched by Lew Hardy at Bangor University – labelled the Cusp Catastrophe Model.

While 2017 was a disappointment for Mayo, there has been history of similar situations arising in previous Mayo teams.

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 2016 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 had a chance in 2017 and still missed the kick.

Stephen Rochford made an erratic decision to leave out All Star goalkeeper David Clarke in 2016 final for Rob Hennelly! Rob Hennelly himself struggled to cope on the day of his selection in the 2016 replay.  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.”

Mayo have lost eleven finals since they won last in 1951! 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 70 meter 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 deficit 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).

Hardy’s 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 – some could surely be put down to bad luck but in this game, you make your own luck. In fact when Dublin players and management were interviewed after the 2017 final, some relayed that they worked on their “process piece” and “composure piece” under pressure in training – and that this helped them in the final moments! There is no doubt that Jim Gavin’s psychological training had ensured that he had that base covered by performance coach Bernard Dunne!

Mayo 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.

So was it the curse?

Possibly so, but one more likely to be related to inability to control their emotions and anxiety under pressure when the stakes are at their highest.

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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