Millwall have just defeated Sunderland in the FA Cup semi-final. On the pitch, the Lion’s emotional, eccentric chairman Theo Paphitis is being interviewed. Suddenly, sprinting towards him, is his feisty manager, Dennis Wise. Wise grabs him, hugs him, slaps kisses on him. It is genuine and even dignified. True bonding.
You couldn’t imagine Wenger and David Dein cavorting in this unfettered manner, but the incident is indicative of the powerful spirit that runs like a silver thread through the New Den.
A greater test awaits Wise at the Millennium Stadium. Will his young charges freeze on the day? The evidence of the semi-final suggests to us that he has been successful in transmitting his wealth of big-match experience, and quick, short passing style he learned at Chelsea, so that his team knows how to handle the big occasion and stay within the moment.
Preventing a team from freezing in the big examinations has tested the wit of many more experienced managers than Wise. It requires a sensitive balancing act between over and under preparation.
Over preparation leads a team to imagine that the occasion requires a level of perfection. This invites failure, and inhibits flow and fluency. Think Aston Villa or Southampton in recent finals, where fear and excessive caution hands the initiative to the opposition.
Also, underplaying the occasion is fraught with problems. Some may remember the 2001 Third Division play-off final between Blackpool and Orient. The O’s arrived at the Millenium Stadium in their tracksuits, having travelled from East London on the day. Tommy Taylor had wanted to treat this like any other match so his side could play their natural game.
However, Orient ran out of steam after 65 minutes and lost 4-2. Their preparation took them only so far. The manager hadn’t factored in how the effect of the media attention, the stadium, the anthems, the crowd, would impact on the players nerves and, therefore, energy levels. It’s not another game. It’s another game plus.
So, a shrewd professional like Wise will prepare his players for what to expect and how to think in such a way that the event does not become overwhelming, does not result in what is known in sports psychology parlance as ‘choking’. If a person’s mental conditioning leads them to feel that they need to be perfect, the day will grow too big for them, will consume them. Wise’s public, warts and all, cheeky chap persona will help alleviate the tension.
The thoughtful manager will create a mind-set that removes any sense of inferiority. Think Wimbledon’s FA Cup victory in 1988 and the ‘Crazy Gang’. Respect and appreciate the occasion because it is a manifestation of what you have worked for, but don’t be crushed by it. You belong here, the day belongs to you.
The Sports Psychology Summary…
The ability to handle the pressure also comes from what Arnold Schwarzenegger calls WANT POWER, in which the desire to succeed must be greater than the fear of failure. It is the essence of the winning team ethic, be it in war, business or sport.
When facing nominally stronger opposition, many opponents fail to demonstrate the passion and the pride that got them to final, but it’s a good bet that the key lessons which Wise has gathered from The University of Football will prevent any such meek surrender.