Sport AFL Peter Schwab: How to deal with big-game nerves and thrive on great occasions

Peter Schwab: How to deal with big-game nerves and thrive on great occasions

Collingwood Essendon
Collingwood's Anzac Day clash with Essendon is a highlight of the football calendar. Photo: Getty
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Footy fans are in for a treat.

On Anzac Day eve, Richmond will play Melbourne in front of a huge crowd at the MCG.

And less than 24 hours later, the famous old stadium will again be close to capacity as Collingwood tackles Essendon in the traditional Anzac Day match.

These high-profile sporting contests are great to attend as a spectator but nothing surpasses being personally involved.

It is almost 35 years ago but I can still recall running out onto the MCG for the 1983 grand final as a Hawthorn player.

We were playing the old enemy, Essendon, and the wall of noise that greeted me was physical. It reverberated within my body. It was beyond anything I had ever experienced.

This feeling, combined with a mass of activity on the ground and then glancing into the stands, with its sea of colour and people, gave me a sense of disorientation.

When I finally moved away from the solemnity of the national anthem and took up my spot on the wing, ready for the first bounce, there was the briefest moment for reflection before the siren blasted and it was time to get going.

The nerves that these occasions create never change. They also dissipate pretty quickly once the game starts.

In that 1983 grand final, I could not believe how fast the game was in the first 10 minutes. I thought that if it kept going at the same pace, I would not last the distance.

It was a wonderful experience and it set in my mind as a player and coach, an approach for dealing with big games from then on.

And the key thing I learned was that the frantic pace does subside and, despite the importance of any match, it is, in cliched terms, just another game.

If you understand this reality, you should be able to ready yourself for the initial onslaught of speed and fierce tackling.

While many things may appear to make sportspeople nervous, the real cause for not performing at your best due to nerves is a result of your thinking.

It is what you tell yourself internally about the situation and the skill, size and attitude of your opponents that impacts the most on your mindset.

Peter Schwab Hawthorn
Peter Schwab coached Hawthorn in many big matches. Photo: Getty

I also remember some great advice by Rudi Webster, a sports psychologist who worked with Richmond and Carlton in the 1980s.

In a session I attended with him, I recall his succinct advice about dealing with pressure. It was: ‘Be clear on your role and the expectations set by your coach. And can you do what is being asked of you?’

The other valuable advice he offered was to view sport with a moment-by-moment approach.

Each moment presents a chance to display your skill. And once it has passed, it can never be acted upon or changed.

All the great players I played with were at their best in front of big crowds and won more moments than they lost.

It makes sense that great players perform on great occasions. It is how they gain such status.

Just look at Dustin Martin. The Richmond star confirmed his status as the best player in the AFL by winning the Norm Smith Medal in last year’s grand final.

And there’s no doubt a poor performance in a big game leaves a question mark over players and in some cases, they carry that burden until they get another chance.

Anzac Day is certainly a big moment.

It is a time to reflect about what our ancestors sacrificed for all of us.

But let’s never try and align the deeds on our sporting fields with the deeds of our Anzacs in the fields of war. It simply is not comparable.

Peter Schwab played 171 VFL/AFL matches for Hawthorn from 1980 to 1991, winning three premierships. He later served as Hawthorn coach, AFL National Umpiring director, AFL Match Review Panel chairman and Brisbane Lions list manager.

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