Sport Psychology Senior Lecturer Dr. Christopher Mesagno: The necessity of mental fortitude in professional sport

Mary Fowler - Women's World Cup 2023

Psychology and sport are mixing more than they ever have before. With the advent of the internet and the increased pressure that has caused for athletes, sporting clubs and teams are now having to utilise sports psychology to get the best out of their players.

Dr Christopher Mesagno is a Senior Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Psychology at Victoria University. He has over 20 years of expertise in the field and has dedicated much of his research to exploring the effects of stress and anxiety in sport. His predominant focus has been in the phenomenon of ‘choking under pressure’.

Following the Matildas’ record-breaking FIFA Women’s World Cup run, Dr Mesagno provided Soccerscene with some key insights into what mentally might have been happening for our girls as they progressed through the tournament.

What might the Matildas have been thinking and feeling during the tournament?

Christopher Mesagno: Generally, they would be feeling excited and nervous all at the same time. It is very individual for different players as some players become very excited, while some people become very nervous and don’t like the anxiety of the experience.

If they do go to a sports psychologist or if their coaching staff knows a bit about sports psychology, they would have tried to train for that amount of pressure as much as possible, which is very difficult to emulate in a practice situation. They would at least have run though that situation and the possible experience they might have. They’ve also probably played enough to be able to deal with that situation.

As the highest viewed sport in Australian TV history, how might this pressure have affected the players?

Christopher Mesagno: With some of their finals being the most watched sporting events ever, some of them would have been dealing with it and loving it while others might have been freaking out and feeling a bit anxious. But people are individual and its very much about the individual player.

When confronted with big losses, how should athletes best prepare for their next match?

Christopher Mesagno: I would suggest as a sports psychologist that they step away from social media. In sports there’s going to be mistakes and it’s not like they want to do them, but it happens.

Stay away from the social media hype and negativity. You don’t want to carry negative thoughts and feelings into the next match. Importantly, come back to your teammates and coaches as they support and trust you. Stick with the core group that already trusts you and block out the “keyboard warriors”.

What general tips can be recommended for players facing a stressful match?

Christopher Mesagno: Athletes sometimes tend to be worried prior. Music is a way to improve mood and calm down players. Stick with regular routines, whether it be something unique in the warm up or eating the same type of food. Then during a match, get accustomed to the environment and the game setting by getting warm and loose.

After the fact during post-game – be it a win or a loss – try and learn from your mistakes and get back to normal as soon as possible and relax. Especially with the hype of winning huge games you need to go off and reset. You’ve really got to come off even the highs and try and get back to normal and relax a bit.

What is a penalty shootout like from a psychologist’s perspective?

Christopher Mesagno: Research suggests that penalty shootouts are a bit like a lottery as they are so stressful that you may not even know what you’re doing. Those who can mentally regulate themselves and bring back calmness are best placed to succeed in that environment.

When you look at the shootout, there are distinct things that players do that show if they are going to score or not. Most players only miss by a small margin but with choking you see very large misses.

The lead up to the shot-making process is the point where some researchers suggest it is more likely for choking to occur, as players in that moment may be more pre-occupied with getting out of the situation than actually lining up and executing the shot.

One thing you to detect if the players are anxious is that they speed up their penalty kick prior to taking it. The idea of relaxing and taking a deep breath can really go a long way.

Final thoughts

These insights are a great tool for players at all levels as stress can affect anyone. For a player, knowing how to control their emotions is a crucial step in high performance and it was great to have an expert lay out some clear and tangible steps for any players to use.

Once again, we applaud the Matildas for their efforts both on and off the field during this memorable and historic tournament.

Speaking directly about the Matildas, Dr Mesagno offered his personal insight:

“It was amazing to see how the girls lifted and with Australia as well, the further they got into the tournament,” he said.

“I thought the national expectations lifted them a little bit which was nice to see.”

Sevilla FC: Transforming player scouting with IBM’s generative AI

In 2021, Sevilla FC, a premier team from Andalusia, Spain, faced an overwhelming amount of paperwork.

With a top-tier scouting team of 20 to 25 scouts, each player could generate up to 40 scout reports, necessitating 200 to 300 hours of review. Altogether, Sevilla FC had to manage over 200,000 reports on potential players, a task that demanded an enormous amount of time.

Earlier in the year, Sevilla’s fortunes started to change for the better in terms of time management.

They had introduced a collaboration with the International Business Machines Corporation (IBM) having confirmed Scout Advisor, a cutting-edge AI tool that will equip the club’s scouting team with extensive data for identifying and evaluating potential player signings.

Developed using IBM’s watsonx, which is an AI and data platform for businesses, the club introduced the Scout Advisor concept to integrate it into its existing suite of in-house data-generative tools.

IBM is a top provider of global hybrid cloud, AI solutions, and consulting services. They assist clients in over 175 countries in leveraging data insights, optimising business processes, reducing costs, and gaining a competitive advantage in their industries.

Over 4,000 government and corporate entities in vital sectors like financial services, telecommunications, and healthcare depend on IBM’s hybrid cloud platform and Red Hat OpenShift for rapid, efficient, and secure digital transformations.

IBM’s ground-breaking advancements in AI, quantum computing, industry-specific cloud solutions, and consulting provides their clients with open and flexible options.

Sevilla FC’s data department collaborated with the IBM Client Engineering Team to develop Scout Advisor, utilising watsonx’s natural language processing (NLP) and foundation models to search and analyse extensive information in the club’s databases for evaluating potential recruits. This encompasses quantitative data such as height, weight, speed, goals scored, and minutes played, as well as qualitative data such as a player’s attitude and alignment with the team philosophy from over 200,000 scouting reports.

During the period in 2021, Sevilla FC could quickly access and utilise quantitative player data within seconds, but retrieving qualitative information from the database was significantly slower in contrast.

The solution’s natural language processing capabilities allow the club to utilise multiple large language models (LLMs) to enhance the accuracy and efficiency of player identification. By interpreting scouts’ descriptions of key player characteristics, Scout Advisor creates a curated lists of candidates matching the desired traits and summarises comprehensive reports for each player. Additionally, Scout Advisor connects each player to the existing database to provide detailed quantitative performance data.

Player recruitment has traditionally relied on a mix of subjective human observation and data analysis. However, these methods are limited by the time they require and the few factors they consider. IBM’s Scout Advisor now gives the club a competitive edge by merging these existing indicators with generative AI, bridging the gap between data-driven scouting and hard to measure human behaviours.

This advancement will enhance Sevilla’s talent identification and support the decision-making processes.

The club’s scouting team is well-known for its data-driven approach to recruiting emerging talent. Furthermore, the club is at the forefront of developing innovative methods to use detailed information, allowing for a more holistic evaluation of every player they scout.

Watsonx processes this data and presents it in understandable terms, identifying potential signings using key qualitative indicators and expert scouting insights.

The club intends to use Scout Advisor during the summer in the recruiting season and expects to see results by September, with feedback having been positive so far.

With the time saved, scouts can now focus on human-centric tasks such as engaging with recruits, observing games, and making data-supported decisions.

One thing is certain is that the ability to make better-informed decisions about who to play, when to play them, and why has fundamentally transformed the recruitment process at Sevilla FC. This refined approach has not only enhanced the club’s ability to identify and secure top talent but has also provided a strategic edge in their overall team management and performance planning.

Recently, Melbourne Knights FC had agreed a new collaboration with leading football management software company, ProTrainUp. It would benefit local clubs, in terms of time management, to follow suit and by doing this they can focus their attention elsewhere.

Investing in AI is not a walk in the park as it does require large amount of funds, however A-League sides in both the men’s and women’s should also be taking an approach into implementing technology whether it’s for player scouting or the way footballers train, for a task that demands a vast amount of time that could easily be executed by AI eases the workload on team management and club operations.

Recent data shows huge growth in the A-Leagues

Recent data has come out of Australia’s top leagues for both men’s and women’s to show a huge increase in support and viewership.

The Isuzu UTE A-League has built on a three-year continuous growth with 1.44 million fans attending the 2023-24 season. The highest number since the 2018-19 season.

This has resulted in a 33% increase in club memberships and a 36% increase in consideration for purchasing membership.

This has also followed a trend of increasing interest in the younger age group with 18-25 marking a 38% increase in fan interest.

This is evident that there is growth in support of the sport and investors and stakeholders should consider this positive data.

The final series is a prime example with the highest numbers of fans since 2009-10 with 138,000 attending. Also, on Channel 10 alone, 1.2 million people watched the finals.

The digital and broadcast viewership has also indicated a year-by-year growth with a 53% increase in Paramount+ viewership and a 16% increase in free-to-air viewership.

This comes in unison with social media which has developed staggeringly the most. On the social and digital channels, there were 530 million video views up 210%, 1.9 million followers which reached a 44% increase and 1.2 billion impressions which is up a significant 70% from last season.

These results indicate that a strong digital and social media presence is key for the A-League’s popularity.

Not just with the fans and supporters the league itself crossed some milestones with record transfer fees and 3.92 goals a game (most in any league worldwide).

Also, it continues to be a league that supports the Australian footballing system and future stars with 15 A-League players called up to the Socceroos squad and a 46% increase in minutes for under 23 players.

This proves the league is not only still supporting the growth and opportunity for young Australian players, but also continues to be expanding and competitive, which are key goals to achieve for any footballing league, especially one that is continuing to try and develop every season.

The Liberty Women’s A-League on the back of the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup has shown promising growth in similar sectors as well, indicating that there is a flow-on effect between international support and an embracing of the local national game.

19 players who played in the 2023 Women’s FIFA World Cup played in the Liberty A-League, showing worldwide talent presides and is attracted to this league.

The 2023-24 season ended with the highest attendance ever with 312,176 patrons a 123% increase. This goes in hand with the huge 611% increase in club-specific memberships.

There was also the highest attendance of any women’s club sports match this season at 11,475.

Broadcasting viewership has also had massive growth. There was a 53% increase in average 10Bold FTA audiences and a 68% increase in 10play minutes viewed. The Grand Final itself got 279,000 views up by 64%.

The social media of the Liberty A-League has followed the trend with a community size increase of 32%, impressions up 64%, engagement increased by 80% and a huge 192% increase in videos viewed.

These numbers are a telling sign that these leagues are growing in popularity and have all the support needed for more future success if they are further invested in and supported with long-term strategies and goals. The fans want to maintain support the game and they need the necessary investment to deliver it.

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