With 37 games played, the last match of the English Premier League (EPL) season on Sunday 24th May will see heroes and villains forged. Three teams (Hull City, Newcastle Utd and Sunderland) are staring into the abyss of relegation to the English Championship. The pressure is mounting.
For some teams, the thought of survival in the EPL is the main aim of their season. For others in the relegation battle, this was a distant and unthinkable thought 9 months ago. All will be decided over the last 90 minutes of the season.
Pressure is described by Cohn (2006) as the perceived expectation of the need to perform when under challenging situations. Perceived is the key word. Pressure is something that does not have an image, a smell or a colour. Pressure is created by how an athlete reacts to a situation. This is not to say that the players of Hull, Newcastle and Sunderland will not feel pressure on Sunday. Where they feel this pressure from and how they react to it is however a key factor. Will they feel the pressure from internal factors or will the pressure come from external factors? And how will they react to them?
There will undoubtedly be added pressure for Hull and Newcastle who are both playing in front of their home crowds (external factors). The expectation of the fans will be huge and anything less than a convincing start to the game will increase the pressure. The fans however have no direct impact on the result of the match or the performance of the players. They can sing, chant and scream but they cannot score a goal or make a save for their team. Not investing their attention towards these pressures can have a beneficial impact on a player’s performance (Masters, Polman and Hammond; 1993).
They must instead invest their attentions to ‘controlling the controllables’ (internal factors).This means focusing on their own performance and what they can do to have a positive impact on the match for their team. With all matches kicking off simultaneously, players must focus on their own match and not what could be happening elsewhere. They cannot control it so they should not attend to it. Skills to prepare players can range from mental imagery and visualisation to control your thoughts, feelings and actions to thought stopping to block out potential distractions.
The players are not the only ones who are directly involved in the matches on Sunday. The managers can have a positive or negative impact on the players. They will be with them in the week leading up to the game and directly before the game, possibly speaking to them in the minutes before kickoff. Do they empower the players to ‘play to win’ or are they negative and ‘play not to lose’? Mangers will also be subject to external pressure from the media and how they react to this may have an impact on their players.
As discussed, pressure is an individual reaction to a challenging situation. As well as possibly being debilitative in nature, it can also have a positive effect on a player’s performance. It can enhance motivation, concentration and enjoyment. When players feel that they have something to fight for or something to lose, it can help them focus, play at their best and react well to difficult situations.
Whoever deals with the pressure best on the last day of the season on Sunday 24th May will likely survive relegation. However, football has a way of throwing in a twist and turn when you least expect it, so miss it at your peril.