Sydney, don’t think

It was an unexplainable performance.  Sydney was thrashed.  Everyone was stunned.  In the aftermath, people raised eyebrows and shrugged shoulders.  How it happened, no one could explain.  It just happened.


Was it physical or mental?  It seemed both.


Wayne Carey had it figured out days before the grand final, writing about the mental battle, that the grand final would be won between the ears.  Carey’s analysis was obvious.  It explained everything.  It explained nothing.


During the pre-match build up on ABC, Nathan Buckley discussed the 2003 grand final.  Collingwood were favoured to defeat Brisbane and got hammered.


‘There was a mix, I described it in 2003,’ Buckley said of the debacle.  ‘Half of the group were over-confident and the other half were over-awed.  Not a good mix.’


The mental battle.  Between the ears.  Over confident and over-awed.  A bad mix.  Buckley’s analysis explained everything.  It explained nothing.


When I watched the 2014 grand final again, Sydney’s ineptitude was harder to explain.  I’ve pondered the calamity ever since, how so many good players could collectively play poorly.


Discussions with mates didn’t provide answers beyond the brief so I did what any man should when he has a problem.  I reached out to Rachael Jones, a sport psychologist from Mental Notes Consulting.


‘It’s hard to go into something as big as a grand final and not get nervous,’ she said.  ‘It’s how to manage those nerves on the day.’


Managing nerves can be done, but as Carey wrote, it is a battle.  And in the uncertainty of sport, even the mentally strong can fail.


‘When we get nervous our brains can get overloaded with so much information, including the added pressure of being favourites,’ she said.  ‘Sometimes elite athletes focus on the expected outcome rather than actions required to get there.’


Expectations create their own expectations.  Favouritism must’ve played on Sydney’s minds.  Jones said thoughts that focus on anything but winning the ball clog up space needed for relevant information.


‘Which is the specific actions they need to do,’ Jones said.  ‘Play by play by play.’


Stick to the game plan.  Midway through the first quarter, Sydney was in front but they were being hammered physically.  Good players were ineffective.  Mistakes seemed contagious.  Suddenly, everyone was playing poorly.


Jones said when players make mistakes, teammates become hesitant and they don’t want the ball, which is why Sydney were repeatedly second to the ball or out of position.


‘When you see mistakes creep in, there’s that dread, don’t pass it to me,’ Jones said.  ‘You don’t want the ball because you don’t want to let down your teammates.’


Sydney was losing the mental battle.  By focussing on not making mistakes, they lost their instincts and took the second option.


‘Your body follows your mind and will go wherever your mind is focused,’ she said.


That is a neat explanation of the calamity of mental pressure.


Amid the calamity, Hawthorn kept kicking goals.  It didn’t seem real.  Not Sydney, not on grand final day.  They took risks late in the second term and early in the third but nothing worked.


Hawthorn capitalised on mistakes.  Sydney, for all their grunt and domination, couldn’t make a dent.


It was remarkable how they couldn’t create a consistent period of domination.  Under that pressure there was no way back.  And it wasn’t just fear of mistakes.  It was scoreboard pressure and physical pressure, which adds to the mental pressure.


‘They couldn’t achieve what we call the state of flow,’ Jones said of the pressure.  ‘When everything is automatic you don’t have to think and you feel calm, relaxed and in control.’


Hawthorn had the state of flow.  Sydney was slow and reactive.  Hawthorn had brutalised Sydney’s best.  The Swans needed to kick ten consecutive goals to win.


The game turned into chaos.  Jones said by half time, their thoughts were cluttered with negativity.  They’d already succumbed to the mental pressure.


It’s easy to do when you’re seven goals down.  It is worse, Jones said, when the best players can’t get into the game.


‘When experienced players struggle under pressure it puts pressure on inexperienced players who don’t handle pressure as well.’


No Sydney player handled the pressure, playing like they didn’t want the ball.  Jones said under that pressure, footballers either take more risks or play safe.  Sydney did both, and neither worked.


When risks were all that was left it was too late.  The mental battle, by virtue of the scoreboard, was lost at half time.  At the start of the third quarter, Sydney played one-on-one football.


‘They went away from their natural game,’ Jones said.  When it didn’t work, they lost complete confidence.


It helps explain how Sydney didn’t create one period of extended domination.

The mental state is complex, but as Jones said, it is all about mental management.  That there are no guarantees of achieving the state of flow provides the complexity.  Suddenly, what worked all year doesn’t work on grand final day.


Sydney didn’t adapt. They couldn’t regroup and get back into the game, physically, mentally or on the scoreboard.


They lost their dignity.


Jones said the pre-season focus should be on rediscovering what worked and not dwelling on failure.  Her message is simple: keep it simple…


She said it isn’t necessary for the team to watch a replay of the game.


‘The players could probably tell you play by play exactly what happened,’ she said.  ‘I would leave it up to each player to decide if they wanted to watch it again.’


A debrief, she said, with the players leading the conversation is more important.  John Longmire and his coaches can listen to what the players need to talk about, rather than what the coaches want to talk about.


‘It will give everyone a sense of closure,’ Jones said.  ‘Then you’re able to move forward.’


Footy is said to be 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical, a game played with the body but mostly played between the ears.


Jones said successful teams achieve that state of flow, where the players don’t have to think.


And that mirrors what John Kennedy famously said: DON’T THINK, DO!!!


About Matt Watson

My name is Matt Watson, avid AFL, cricket and boxing fan. Since 2005 I’ve been employed as a journalist, but I’ve been writing about sport for more than a decade. In that time I’ve interviewed legends of sport and the unsung heroes who so often don’t command the headlines. The Ramble, as you will find among the pages of this website, is an exhaustive, unbiased, non-commercial analysis of sport and life. I believe there is always more to the story. If you love sport like I do, you will love the Ramble…


  1. Hi Matt,

    It’s very interesting to read. The Swans had got much pressure before the Grand Final and it affected exaggerated, I can think from your point of views. They were at the top of ladder for the home and away season, but sadly had unbelievable matches against GWS, North Melbourne and Richmond. The Swans could have had mixed psychological status in the home ans away season. Also getting Lance Franklin must have added. Hawthorn must have had emotion to the Swans because they lost the superstar to Sydney.

    Now I seem to be able to understand why the Grand Final was one-sided game. Last year’s one between Hawthorn and Fremantle was more interesting and excited.

    You analysed very well, Matt. Great article.


  2. Good analysis. One of the great parts of Aussie rules is that you get three breaks a game to confer and change what’s happening as a group rather than through individual messages. It’s why you often get a change in dominance through a game. It didn’t happen on this day.

    Perhaps because Sydney were in the game at quarter time, and scored first in the second quarter, the mindset to adjust came too late. That being said the physical approach of Hawthorn was overwhelming and the moments of micro-skills under pressure, the times when they were able to get the ball out to the open player when Sydney were putting them under intense pressure, were the key factors in determining the outcome. The Sydney players were accepted it wasn’t going to happen based on the consistent wins Hawthorn achieved in the small battles that won the war.

  3. Interesting observations Matt. State of Flow seem almost elusive. There’s a lot of ducks have to line up to get the flow going and then to keep it going … For the Hawks, the ducks lined up. No passengers. Two things that assisted the Hawks: 1) Hannebery copped four out of 22 tackles the Hawks laid on the Swans in the first quarter. Three were bone jarring. The final tackle, by Roughie, would have hurt him most. Effectively the Swans midfield was corrupted early and never quite worked from there. 2) In the second quarter in 90 seconds the Hawks kicked three goals. The lead went out past 40 points. The Swans were done when Hodge stole a Swans kick in and goaled. The Hawks state of flow was near perfect during that period.


  4. Steve Hodder says

    I love the way people use the Kennedy “Don’t think. Do!” phrase. Being a “chalkie”, I’m prone to ply it against Year 9s on a Thursday or Friday afternoon. I just omit the bit about Hawthorn still getting pounded after the speech.


  5. Good read thanks Matt. I do wonder about statements such as “Footy is said to be 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical” and how true that really is, and can it be measured?

    I guess it depends what scale could be used to measure it. In terms of calories burnt I think the physical might slaughter the mental. But maybe physiologists may have a better way to rate this?

    Going back to the point made by Gus about the three breaks. Perhaps the greatest mental contribution comes mostly from the men in the box that do most of the thinking while the players do most of the doing? I would still be skeptical if their added mental capacities pushed the contribution overall to the team’s mental contribution to footy up to 90%.

    I will also add that obviously there is no physical contribution without the mental driving it. And just like footballers of different eras, perhaps you just can’t compare ’em.

  6. Peter Fuller says

    Very interesting contribution, Matt.
    I recall Dermot Brereton insisting that finals were different. I have been inclined to the opposite view, that players who concentrate on each moment, each play, and execute that to the best of their ability – individual and team aspects – are likely to emerge as winners. In my own very modest sporting endeavours, I know just how difficult it is to apply this principle. Can a (hack) golfer ignore all that has gone before, and focus on what is required to make the next shot as good as his skill level allows? Can a club cricketer banish from his mind the near miss on the previous ball and concentrate on the one he is about to face? Can a football umpire ignore the immediate previous decision (which on reflection he thinks was possibly/probably wrong) and attend only to the next act of play?
    I’m convinced that evenly-matched football matches are invariably won by the team that applies itself to each minute of the match with absolute concentration on that series of contests.
    Sydney suffered mental disintegration on GF day, because of the intensity which Hawthorn brought to every contest, especially early in the game. When they couldn’t respond effectively, the game shifted into a pattern which led to its inevitable progress and conclusion.

  7. Swans insider tells me the club is gutted.

    Gonna be tough to get back up….

  8. daniel flesch says

    Can accomplished sports psychologist Rachael Jones tell an old Hawthorn supporter how many times gleeful watching of the replay constitutes a mental health condition ?

  9. matt watson says

    I didn’t ask, but I don’t think there’s a limit.
    I think she’d say watching it would improve mental health.
    If you’re a Hawthorn supporter, of course…

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