Tony's Mental Strength

SPORTS Scientist Tony Strudwick believes that mental strength will be a decisive factor in the Championship Play-off Final and is confident that Hammers will respond to the challenge in front of them.

As Alan Pardew's men prepare to take on Preston North End in a clash that many describe as the richest prize in English football, the psychological mind games have already begun and the media frenzy is underway.

However, there certainly haven't been any worrying signs of nervousness at the Chadwell Heath training ground this week and Tony, who will ensure that the players are in peak physical condition come 3.00pm on Monday, insists that the low-key approach has paid off ahead of the final.

"We've kept the intensity of the training this week but, by the same token, we've tried to make things a little more relaxed," he says. "The play-offs mean an extension on the season of two or three weeks and I think the key is that you've got to maintain a fresh approach.

"At this stage, you're not trying to get the players fit - it's all about maintenance and injury-avoidance. The duration of training sessions isn't as long as it was earlier in the season and it's been more short and sharp stuff this week.

"We had a fairly tough session on Monday, although it was still predominantly a football session. On Tuesday we went to the Reebok Centre at Canary Wharf, which gave the players a fresh environment and a break from the norm. They had a little basketball competition, five-against-five, which was quite competitive and intense - as you would expect with footballers.

"They then had Wednesday off, a tactical session followed by the media day on Thursday, and a day off again on Friday. We are in Saturday and Sunday before travelling to Cardiff in the afternoon, and it has all helped to break the week up and achieve the right balance between the work, rest and recovery."

Of course, Tony, who joined the club in December 2003 after previously working with the England Under-21 team, had the experience of last year's involvement in the play-offs to call upon when planning the schedule this time around, and he admits that changes to the build-up have been made in the hope of banishing the memory of our defeat against Crystal Palace 12 months ago.

"You often learn from past experiences and hopefully that will be the case  this year," he says. "I wouldn't say that any part of our preparation last year was wrong but the performance wasn't what we wanted and so we have changed a couple of things.

"Whenever you look back on something that wasn't a positive experience - and it certainly wasn't last year - you try to do things differently. As I said, it's not to say that any of the build-up last year was wrong, it's just natural to try a different approach.

"Everybody knows just how massive this game is, and to get it right on the day is of paramount importance. Everything that we've worked towards this season, everything we've aimed for, now hinges on this one match and that's why the preparation this week is so vital."

And while he is primarily responsible for the physical condition of the first team players, Tony admits that much of the preparation has been focused on ensuring that they are in the perfect frame of mind to produce the level of performance needed at the Millennium Stadium.

"In some ways, the mental preparation is more important than the physical work I have done with the players this week," he says. "They are all fully fit and in the right condition to perform, the key now is that their minds are right.

"It's a collective thing among the staff - everyone is involved in keeping the boys relaxed but determined, without trying to induce any anxiety. There is not a lot between the two sides and the key on the day will be who handles the big occasion.

"I think our victory at Ipswich showed that the squad have the mental strength they need and, if we get that component right on the day, I'm sure we will be successful."