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Friday 30 September 2016

Westmeath must put fear aside

John Heslin celebrates after Westmeath’s victory over Kildare. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
John Heslin celebrates after Westmeath’s victory over Kildare. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

Don't let the fear of losing be greater than the excitement of winning. - Robert Kiyosaki

The psychology of sport is an amazing thing. With a little under three minutes of normal time remaining in the Connacht football final, Galway's Adrian Varley kicked the Tribesmen into a two-point lead and put them on the brink of a first provincial title in eight years.

Whether it was the two-point advantage, the thoughts of the Nestor Cup resting in the city or the fact that Roscommon had failed to score for over 15 minutes, something spooked Galway.

Roscommon, having only managed two points in the previous 34 minutes and realising that their provincial ambitions were close to being shot, seized on Galway's jitters.

Late scores from Cathal Cregg and a high-pressure free from Donie Smith had the Rossies in the ascendancy as the clock ticked down.

The stage was set for a hero to emerge in the primrose and blue and kick an injury-time winner. But rather than grasping the opportunity, the same trepidation that gripped Galway now shackled Roscommon's ambitions.

With time almost up the fear of making a mistake superseded the desire to win the game. Rather than taking a pot shot in what would surely have been the last act of the game, the mentality shifted to holding on to what you have, a worrying indictment of the fear of losing .

Turned around

Twelve months ago Westmeath turned around a ten-point deficit in their Leinster semi-final victory over Meath, to tee up a first Leinster final appearance since 2004. With the game as good as over, Tom Cribbin's team threw caution to the wind and let heart and instinct seal a historic win over the Royals.

However, when they landed in Croke Park for their provincial final meeting with Dublin, that abandon was forsaken for a cautious approach that put them on the back foot from the get go.

We can only speculate as to the exact game-plan, but it was probably along the lines of trying to keep things tight in order to give themselves a chance of sneaking the game in the concluding stages.

The reality was somewhat different where despite a valiant defensive effort, the absence of a real belief that they could topple Jim Gavin's troops was reflected in the fact that they managed only four scores from play over the course of the 70-plus minutes.

What goes on between players' ears is critical to the their performance and contribution to the team. Positive thoughts are fundamental building blocks for successful outcomes.

If you can see it, mentally rehearse it and work hard enough to attain it, anything is possible. Consequently if you focus on not losing it makes it virtually impossible for guys to believe they can win because they become weighed down with negative thoughts and feelings.

As Longford's heroics proved last Saturday there is always opportunity to upset the odds. But players have to believe and engage in the process required to win the game.

Only a couple of weeks ago Westmeath demonstrated that very formula, turning around a six-point deficit against Kildare to secure consecutive Leinster final appearances for the first time in their footballing history.

Setting your stall out to restrict Dublin without focusing on your own offensive capabilities is like throwing in the towel before the fight has even begun.

Gamble

Certainly Westmeath can't afford to go man-on-man, but they have to gamble on some element of an attacking performance that provides hope to their forward unit of troubling the Dublin goal.

Without question the result is the most critical aspect of any final.

There is limited consolation to be drawn from being involved in a great game if the celebrations are taking place in the opposing dressing room. But at least by delivering a performance, players can look back with limited regrets, knowing they left everything on the field for those 70-odd minutes.

Sure the odds are stacked against Westmeath. They are playing the reigning All-Ireland champions who are unbeaten in the province since 2010, have landed in an 11th Leinster final in 12 years without breaking sweat and are virtually unbackable for Sunday's game.

But there are areas for Westmeath to target, like Dublin's full-back line, where unquestionably Westmeath's greatest potency lies, and if John Heaslin and Kieran Gavin can be provided with a half decent supply line then a couple of early scores could certainly build confidence.

Any pressure is on Jim Gavin's team as the game is Dublin's to lose.

But with the right ambition and players believing the perceived impossible could become a reality, at the very least Westmeath will turn out an improved performance from 12 months ago and will demonstrate to Galway and Roscommon that a winning mentality is a risk worth taking.

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