Mental rehearsal is a technique used by athletes to visualise a successful scenario in their individual performances, and although it is less common in team sports, David Moyes is asking his Sunderland players to recreate in their minds the Great Escapes of recent years.
The Black Cats have nine games – or nine lives – to save their skins, stuck as they are the foot of the table and in danger of dropping out of the Premier League for the first time since 2006. In eight of the nine seasons since returning to the top flight, Sunderland have been in a relegation battle until the latter stages but managed to survive, most notably three years ago.
After a 5-1 battering at Tottenham and home defeat by Everton, manager Gus Poyet admitted they needed a miracle to stay up, and his players duly delivered. A draw at Manchester City was followed by unlikely victories at Chelsea and Manchester United, and two home wins ensured safety. Gaining 13 points from their final six games looked unlikely but it was enough to survive.
Now Moyes is asking his players to put themselves in the same place and achieve a similar run of results, although on the evidence of Saturday's limp defeat at Watford, the signs are not encouraging. Sunderland travel to in-form Leicester on Tuesday and then face Manchester United before difficult trips to Arsenal and Chelsea.
They have won only once since December 17, and have not scored for 495 minutes. They barely threatened Watford's goal until the closing stages on Saturday, long after the home side had effectively ensured their own survival for another season through Miguel Britos' match-winning header in the 59th minute.
Battling relegation is new to Moyes, but is familiar territory for most of his players and they are being reminded what is needed. “We have shown them stuff,” he said.
“We showed them the other day how it has been done in the last two or three years. It has been done when they have been in far worse positions at this time in the season. The players see that, they know it is possible so we will keep going.”
One bright spot for Sunderland this season has been the goalscoring form of Jermain Defoe, whose goals helped keep them up last year. But the England striker injured his knee after a heavy challenge in the second half at Vicarage Road and Moyes is hoping it is not serious. “He took a couple of knocks but we don't know how bad they are yet,” admitted Moyes.
Moyes will certainly need Defoe at his best if they are to have any chance of pulling off another Great Escape. “We know miracles can happen,” he said.