Psychologist Christopher Shen: How the Matildas will achieve greatness

Matildas

The FIFA Women’s World Cup has got off to a great start, where it is fantastic to see the Australian and New Zealand communities get behind their teams.

It’s exciting to follow the journey of the Matildas, who with Tony Gustavsson at the helm are sure to do the nation proud.

A tournament such as the World Cup does of course throw up some challenges, where the mental and physical wellbeing of players and coaches is of upmost importance.

In this article, I will explore the key talking points from the tournament so far and how to create a positive mindset.

Sam Kerr’s injury situation and teammate impact

It is very easy for an individual to be really impacted negatively by an injury, particularly on the eve of a competition or event. You can also be disheartened and very frustrated – affecting an individual’s mental health and causing the individual to ruminate about negative matters and issues – many of which are often outside of our control.

It will be very important for an individual such as Sam to to apply mental skills to overcome the setback of her injury and to maintain her dedication to her rehabilitation, whilst continuing to be a leader amongst the team and not become inwardly focused.

As a squad, Sam’s teammates  can also incorporate helpful mental skills and strategies to overcome worry and avoid disruption. Helpful mental skills include being able to purposefully maintain the positive culture and mood within the team by applying techniques such as mindfulness sessions, and positive psychology activities, including gratitude and savouring.

Teammates may also use cognitive reframing to overcome negative thoughts, feelings, and emotions – to foster positivity and to regain their focus upon the important things they need to do to be successful.

It’s key for them to draw upon the inner support network of coaches, staff, family, partners, their teammates, and others within the Matildas  to really foster positivity and to overcome negative rumination.

Other helpful techniques players could use are using affirming sounds, music, images and comforting statements. I’m also quite confident in surmising that the Australian team most likely has some group messages and themes to draw upon that they have devised in their camps leading up to this event. Having these ways to foster positivity will go a long way to overcoming the setback of injuries.

Pressure to perform as the tournament progresses

There’s pressure not only on the players, yet also the head coach, other coaches and staff, particularly because it’s a home event co-hosted with New Zealand and it can be overwhelming at times, especially as we saw in the lead up to the opening group stage game against Ireland with the focus on the expectations of the home fans that Australia that will do well.

The fact that Sam wasn’t playing at the last moment would have caused enormous pressure on everybody. However, helpful techniques that individuals in the group can use are relaxation techniques, which might include meditation, and mindfulness – which is what I particularly recommend for a group – which helps players focus their attention on what’s important and to let go and diminish distractions and non-essential matters. Other helpful techniques to create calm and relaxation might also include breath control, and imagery.

Mindfulness has been demonstrated by research to be especially good at diminishing and interrupting distractions and help individuals focus. For example, in my previous work with the Western Bulldogs AFLW team as their performance psychologist, we would always undertake mindfulness pre-game as a group.

Goalkeepers bouncing back when they make a crucial error

As technical specialists who have their own coaches, goalkeepers train away from the main group, so it is very helpful for goalkeepers to have a unique set of mental techniques to apply when things inevitably go wrong.

I’ve done a lot of work in AFL and AFLW football with the forwards when taking set shots, and it’s the same concept with goalkeepers to be able to regain and switch their focus rapidly back to those skills that help them be very successful and not to become mired or to be lost in negative thoughts, feelings and emotions when things go wrong in a match.

Thought stoppage techniques are particularly helpful, and an example of that is where at training and before a game, players practise a technique where they’re able to stop unhelpful thoughts and focus on important one, which is called anchoring.

This is a mental exercise which helps individuals cope with stressful events such as a goal being scored against them. At training and pre-game, what a player does is recalls the times where they’ve played successfully when they felt hopeful, optimistic, and positive. At the peak of that experience, they undertake a particular gesture such as clenching their preferred hand into a fist, or it might be touching their right boots.

Whatever that gesture or action is, they develop an operant conditioning association between that action, and the feeling of being positive, optimistic, confident, and hopeful. We build an association / connection between a particular experience, and a triggering stimuli.

There was a very famous Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov, who conducted experiments with his dogs. Every time he fed his dogs, he’d ring a little bell, and then feed the dogs. Very rapidly, his dogs learned that if you rang the bell, that food was forthcoming and they’d start to salivate. We can deliberately create the same phenomenon by this technique of anchoring, which like a ship’s anchor, connects a triggering stimuli, that can help us recall a helpful psychological and physical state.

For example, if a player in the World Cup uses the gesture of clenching her/their preferred hand into a fist whenever they practise their helpful mental state – in the game when something goes wrong, and they recognise that they’re starting to get upset, what they can do is they clench her/their preferred hand into that fist. And that triggers the previously established helpful psychological state, which helps her/them refocus and diminish negative thoughts.

Being composed and thinking clearly during a match

Another tool that I find works successfully with the Men’s professional football players I assist is time managing worries. That’s where we tell ourselves that when a game starts, we’re going to defer any concerns or worries to before or after the game. During the game, if inevitably a worry comes into his head, what we do is we tell ourselves, “I’m going to worry about this before or after the game.”

This is a thought stopping technique, which allows us to stop negative thoughts, and defer them to a helpful and convenient time.

This is where focus and resilience skills become very important. One of the helpful skills that I use with players and sportspeople is being able to master their self-talk. At times, they may start becoming worried or panic, or even becoming disheartened, and outraged. Whatever the unhelpful emotion is, and unhelpful thoughts are, it’s helpful to master their self-talk and focus. That’s where cognitive reframing questions can be particularly helpful, where players ask themselves helpful questions to diminish negativity and refocus.

Here are some example questions below:

  • How can I face this current difficulty in a way that’s helpful for myself and my teammates?
  • How can I interpret this setback as merely being temporary?
  • How can I become a better player into the future by facing this current worrying concern?
  • What’s within my control and influence?
  • How can I draw upon the expertise of my teammates, my coaches and others?

What this reframing technique does is it helps stop and interrupt unhelpful thoughts, emotions, and behaviours, – replacing them with helpful thoughts, emotions, and behaviours through focusing on:

  • Our control and influence,
  • How we can help ourselves, our teammates and others through our actions,
  • Recognising that we can become better and more knowledgeable by facing this worry, and
  • Most importantly, the difficult worries that we’re facing will often pass and then we’ll get through them.

My general tips for anyone competing in sport

Here are my five main tips to overcome setbacks and boost your resilience.

  1. Mentally prepare for training and competition rather than merely just waking up on the day of the game.
  2. Set goals for yourself. Research consistently demonstrates when we set motivating and challenging goals to help, motivate and inspire us, it really helps us focus and perform.
  3. Build your resilience and mental toughness to face whatever challenge comes your way, for example using positive and affirming self-talk and having belief in yourself.
  4. Practise an activity to create calmness, relaxation, and focus – such as meditation, mindfulness, deep breathing or yoga – whatever your preference is to diminish stress.
  5. Create positivity and savour it. Surround yourself with positive and beloved people, undertake enjoyable hobbies, listen to music, be around animals, enjoy nature – anything and everything that creates positivity, and then really immerse and savour that positive thought, feeling and emotion to bolster your morale and mental health.

 

 

 

 

 

Christopher Shen is a Psychologist based in Melbourne, Australia. He can be contacted at: www.christophershen.com.au

Football Australia near $200m TV deal with Network Ten

Football Australia is currently in the final stages of negotiations to secure a record-breaking $200 million TV deal with Network Ten that will extend the current broadcast deal for four more years.

Reported by The Australian, the deal will be worth double the current $100 million agreement.

The deal will include broadcast rights to the 2026 Asian Cup women’s tournament that Australia will host, the 2027 Women’s World Cup in Brazil as well as most Socceroos and Matildas games. Football Australia has also bought the rights to some junior World Cup tournaments in order to package them in the new TV contract.

There is no bigger indication of the lasting impact the Matildas have made since the recent FIFA Women’s World Cup concluded in August of last year.

Channel Seven reported that for the Semi Final against England last year, the broadcast reached staggering 11.15 million people nationally with an average audience of 7.13 million, making it the most watched TV program since the OzTAM measurement started in 2001.

Not to mention the fact that the Matildas have sold out stadiums 14 times in a row, including an incredible 76,798 attendance at Monday’s Olympic send-off friendly against China in the cold weather.

Football Australia Chief executive James Johnson didn’t publicly discuss the numbers in the deal but commented on the TV package itself and how the FA no longer relies on broadcast deals to survive.

“What it does ­strategically is it creates a one-stop shop for Matildas and Socceroos content over the next four-year cycle, and it is a creative way to come up with a new package broadcast deal,” he said via press release.

“If you go back four or five years, we were very dependent on broadcast.

“But today you’ve got strong sponsorship and other revenue streams, like merchandise, the broadcasting for national teams only, and also ticketing revenue.

“We have more broadcast revenue that will pick up in (financial year 2025) and there’s also new sponsorship deals like Milo, Coles and the new Nike deal that we signed at the back end of last year.”

This deal is extremely positive for football fans, normalising free-to-air TV in an era where Australian’s access to free sport is dwindling.

The impact of the Matildas and Socceroos producing good results in their respective World Cup’s has given the FA a platform to surge growth at grassroots level and this record-breaking TV deal is the biggest indicator that the future is heading in the right direction.

Came From Nowhere: the forgotten story of the Western Sydney Wanderers FC

Less than 24 hours after the Central Coast Mariners captured national attention with their historic treble of titles, SBS quietly released a documentary, this film told a similarly, yet arguably more remarkable, football story that has almost disappeared from the collective memory of Australian sports fans.

In 2014, only two years after their existence, the Western Sydney Wanderers won the most prestigious club competition available to Australian teams: AFC Champions League.

They achieved this victory in front of 11 of their own fans, due to the travel difficulties and restrictions, and 60,000 enraged Saudi Arabians, overcoming challenges such as bus crashes, hotel raids, public taunts, and laser pointers aimed at their eyes. Despite these obstacles, the Wanderers persevered, becoming the first Australian club to win the continent’s most prestigious trophy.

However, this narrative appears to have faded into the pages of history, scarcely acknowledged in broader discussions concerning pivotal moments or memories that have moulded Australian sports, the question is why?

This is what journalist Marc Fennell sought to explore this question in his latest documentary, “Came From Nowhere.” The film delves into the inception and initial triumphs of one of Australia’s most intriguing, yet currently contentious, football clubs.

“What became very apparent very quickly, and what interested me, were two things,” Fennell told ABC Sport.

“One was this truly incredible, Hollywood-esque, fairytale arc of a team that literally went from no name, no players, nowhere to play, nowhere to train, no coach to winning the highest championship you can as an Australian club.

“Then there was the other side, which was that the active support group had gotten lots of coverage. The RBB (Red and Black Bloc), there were reams and reams of news and footage of them. And I felt like those two things were linked somehow, and they were both stories worth telling, but we were trying to work out: how did they intersect?”

For years, the region had fostered a vibrant football community, nurturing numerous Socceroos who honed their skills at clubs such as Marconi, Blacktown, Parramatta, and Sydney United in the former National Soccer League.

In 2012, when Clive Palmer’s Gold Coast United ceased operations, the opportunity arose for the Wanderers. With the FFA requiring ten teams for upcoming television rights negotiations, but facing difficulty in finding a financial sponsor to establish the team in time for the 2012-13 season, they took matters into their own hands. The FFA secured a $4 million government grant to establish a professional football club in Sydney’s west, essentially from the ground up.

Following numerous community forums and fan surveys held across the region, various topics including club colours, playing style, home grounds, club values, and proposed names were thoroughly discussed and debated. On June 25, it was revealed that the club would officially be named the Western Sydney Wanderers, paying tribute to Australia’s first-ever registered football club, Wanderers FC, established in 1880. The club’s colours were designated as red and black.

During their inaugural pre-season match in St Marys, 4,500 attendees witnessed a small gathering on a grassy hill where a few songs, penned over the previous four months, were practised. This laid the foundation for the Red and Black Bloc, an active supporter’s group integral to the club’s narrative alongside the players.

Despite their first match in the A-League at the old Parramatta Stadium ending in a scoreless game, for the supporters standing behind a banner proclaiming “Football comes home,” the result on the scoreboard was inconsequential. What truly mattered was that they now had a club they could proudly call their own.

“This is a love story between a town and its team, between football and its fans. And every love story has ebbs and flows: it has moments of high euphoria, and then it has bickering and tempestuous fighting,” Fennell said to ABC Sport.

The film then tracks the team’s debut season in 2012-13, starting slow with no goals or wins in the initial month but swiftly gaining momentum. They achieved a league-record of 10 consecutive victories, challenging prominent clubs like their now-local rivals, Sydney FC, as they climbed the ladder.

With each victory, the fan base of the Wanderers expanded. In a remarkable show of support, 10,000 Wanderers faithful journeyed to Newcastle for their last regular season match. Mark Bridge’s two goals contributed to a 3-0 triumph, clinching their inaugural Premier’s Plate in an extraordinary debut season.

The film then delves into its second focal point: the club’s fanbase and the escalating tensions arising between its active supporters and the authorities.

Certain factions of the RBB posed challenges for the local police, exhibiting behaviours such as violence, property damage, intimidation, and the use of flares. This led to an increase in police presence at home games.

The RBB’s customary pre-match procession in Parramatta, along with the use of flares, megaphones, banners, and even profanity, was prohibited. While some viewed these measures as necessary for community safety, others saw it as “eroding the essence of what makes football unique.” Fans felt let down by league officials, perceiving a lack of support.

Tension may have arisen from the Wanderers’ blurring of boundaries between what writer Joe Gorman once termed the “de-ethnised” A-League, the ethnic and multicultural roots of Sydney’s west, was where the Wanderers emerged.

This might also explain why the manner in which its fanbase interacts with the sport through tifos, flares, chanting and marches has faced widespread criticism from the mainstream Australian media, which may not fully understand or feel at ease with the cultures and traditions of a working-class migrant sport that differs from their own.

In the last segment of the film, the focus shifts to the team’s extraordinary journey through the Asian Champions League. Once more, they embrace their underdog status and mindset to triumph over some of the most formidable and accomplished clubs in the region.

Members of the championship-winning team reminisce about the different tactics employed by rival fans to disrupt their visits, including infiltrating their hotels to disturb players, using lasers during games, and even orchestrating a bus accident on a congested freeway on the way to a stadium.

The match that ensued became legendary in football history, now recounted by bleary-eyed Wanderers fans who congregated in a public square in Parramatta at 3am witnessing their club, which had humble origins, rise to become one of the greatest football clubs ever produced in Australia.

The greeting for the team was at least 2000 passionate, chanting fans of the Western Sydney Wanderers flooded Sydney International Airport on a Monday night at 11:20pm, transforming the arrivals area into a vibrant and noisy celebration welcoming home the newly crowned Kings of Asia at the time.

This type of football fan culture is present all around the world which is just another normal day for them, but for WSW fans to take over the Sydney airport is remarkable when you really think about and is what gives hope that football is a sleeping giant in Australia, much to the dismay of mainstream media in the country.

The other Australian sporting codes to see scenes such as those can only dream to have it for their games at the stadiums, let alone greeting their teams at the airport.

“Any future of this sport has to really consider not just things like player development and long-term strategies and diversifying and being clubs for whole communities, but also how fans are folded into that process,” Fennell said to ABC Sport.

“Because fans are engaged with a club, it’s an experience unlike anything else. To be there in the midst of some of those games felt bigger than a Taylor Swift concert, but when they go, the whole thing just deflates.

“Whatever comes next, they have to consider how active support and everyday fans are part of the process of the club, the energy of the club, because that’s the value of it. There is absolutely a link between success and fans, and if you’re not doing well, it’s clear how that diminishes.”

Despite the club’s decline in the past decade following that remarkable achievement, “Came From Nowhere” underscores the fundamental essence of success in football. It urges current decision-makers to refocus on these core principles as they endeavour to rejuvenate a competition that many feel has passed its prime.

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