In the All-Ireland hurling semi-final, Limerick tore into their opponents Wexford with a bristling intensity from the off. All energy and focus, they emerged worthy winners and there was great anticipation as to how champions Kilkenny would handle the expected Limerick intensity onslaught.
Well they handled it alright. After ten minutes they had scored two goals and from there on in, Limerick were playing catch up. Limerick were caught cold. Slow out of the blocks, the game had slipped out of their hands before they had got into it.
So why is it that teams freeze on the big occasion? Why does a team play like lions in the semi-final and lambs in the final? Why do the commentators say, that ‘the occasion got to them?
The problem with big finals is their formality and the change in routine it brings for the players. Friends and family besieging you throughout the week wanting tickets; being fitted for a new suit; meeting the dignitaries; the fact that the match is being beamed around the world; being aware that people have travelled across the world to be there. All this and more creates the sense of occasion. Marvellous.
But it can also suppress a team or players natural instinct. In Limericks example, their natural intensity and passion was dulled by the quiet suppression of the big day and it’s formality. It’s like being in the presence of Her Majesty The Queen. You just can’t have a normal conversation.
The only solution, is for a team to be fully aware of this possibility and deliberately create small acts of defiance to keep their natural values and spirit intact. For example, relaxing everyone with a drink on the night before the game; a sing-song in the dressing room before kick-off; having a wife or supporter delivering the motivational speech; having a ritual in the tunnel. e.g. like Wimbledon before their Cup Final win over Liverpool collectively shouting ‘In The Hole’; when being introduced, calling the dignitaries by their first name; aim to make a mark in the first three to five minutes of the game, e.g. fully letting your opponents know you are there.
All this and more can help relax a team and enable them to play their normal game. Take their game to the big occasion. The game that got them there in the first place. Otherwise, like happens so often, the team will freeze and not know why.