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Sport Psychology Senior Lecturer Dr. Christopher Mesagno: The necessity of mental fortitude in professional sport
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.
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.”
Before becoming Brand Director of Nike Pacific – an organisation he’s been part of since 2015 – Nick Atkinson knew very early on that he’d be working in football.
Growing up in Wales of the UK, he was brought up through the school, college and university system that paved the way for his passion to come to life.
From starting off with his first training session at Wick Dynamos in West Sussex, football has been a consistent part of his life.
In this interview with Soccerscene, Nick discusses his role of Brand Director in more detail, Nike’s involvement with the Matildas, working with Sam Kerr and giving back to the grassroots level.
As Brand Director, can you outline your role in helping promote football?
Nick Atkinson: I’ve been involved with Nike since 2015 and even before becoming part of the swoosh family, football has very much been something I am deeply passionate about.
I remember during the final round of my job interview for Nike, I was asked why I wanted to join the team. I didn’t give a great answer, but I had said that I wanted to work on a brand that propelled the game of football and had close ties to the World Cup. And I feel that my love for the game really shined in that moment.
Since taking up the role I’ve been fortunate to be part of so many firsts – seeing how football can uniquely unite and inspire people and nations.
With Nike’s level of global impact, I am aware of the responsibility and part I play in shaping how our athletes are seen, and leading this work on home soil has been a dream.
The Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand for example, was a major project that I led. It was Nike Pacific’s most significant investment in a sporting moment yet – from unmissable out-of-home, a world-first tiktokumentory, football accelerator legacy programs to the first female football-led retail door – the Dream Arena.
I’m immensely proud of what we, as a team, achieved to build a better game for all. It makes all the work we do behind-the-scenes so satisfying when we know it means that the next-gen athletes will have new-found heroes to look up to.
On a local level, after personally playing eight to nine seasons in Victoria’s state and metro leagues, I knew I wanted to get Nike involved as there was so much potential for impact at that level.
Seeing so much success in the sport both at the domestic and international level is a true highlight.
Nike proudly sponsor the Matildas; how do you reflect on FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023?
Nick Atkinson: I’ve worked with both our national teams (Matildas and Socceroos) for many years and have had so many amazing moments – I even remember a free-kick competition with Brett Emerton and Mark Bresciano in 2016 on ANZ Stadium!
If you look at the Socceroos performance in 2022, you can say it’s the ‘greatest assist’ before the 2023 Women’s World Cup because they had set that benchmark for performance and awareness across the country and reignited football.
This year’s tournament has undeniably been a generational moment for sport and culture, having the global tournament on home soil and the home team of the Matildas was the moment to accelerate sport into the future – we know sport creates change, and this was the largest accelerator of women’s sport and culture for the next five years.
The Matildas post tournament are now household names and have shown the world the power of women’s sport. From record-breaking crowds, jersey sales and viewership – the Matildas continue to inspire us all with their captivating performances and genuine love for each other, their fellow athletes and the game.
It felt like it’s been a while coming, but we saw the nation finally galvanise and get behind our national teams – and without a doubt, we’ll look back on the 2020’s as the greatest decade of women’s sport.
Living and breathing football in both my professional and personal life, I can say that we’ve got such a unique Australian football identity. We’re in arguably the most dynamic period that Australian football has ever seen and we’ve opened the sport up to the most diverse audience, which is so exciting and refreshing.
What did you make of user/social media engagement throughout the World Cup – was there anything significant you or your team saw in relation to aspects like shirt sales?
Nick Atkinson: We started working on our plans almost the day after the bid win got announced, so we were 100% ready going into the Women’s World Cup.
We have so much equity and history to elevate women’s sport at Nike, so this wasn’t new for us and has been a journey we’ve been on for a very long time.
When you look at a Matildas match, it is so different compared to the Socceroos. For example, lots of school trips and big groups of young fans, so that is really amazing.
One of the things that we anticipated was going to happen, was the emergence of new voices wrapped around this game. We knew this moment would be successful because it opened opportunities to grow and nurture these new voices in the game. That was one of the rewarding elements, to see different sections of the media and social platforms emerging to give us a new and youthful perspective on the sport.
Our partnership with TikTok saw the creation of 1000 Victories – one of the most successful pieces of media that we worked on through the Women’s World Cup.
This was co-created with a young generation of fans who emerged with a point of view on football and women’s sport. That enriched the game and really took it to new heights, making it bigger and more diverse and gives people a bunch of ways to be involved.
Sam Kerr is hugely popular in Australia and overseas – what was it like building her brand campaign?
Nick Atkinson: It’s been amazing, this is something I’ve personally worked on for a really long time, I’ve enjoyed and am so proud of.
It’s not only Sam but the whole group that we’ve had a relationship with for so long now and that has allowed us to get to know who they are as individuals as well as athletes.
To build a brand plan, you do need to have that full understanding of a person or team to work out how to best approach it.
I placed Sam in her first brand campaign for Nike in 2017 for the launch of the Mercurial Superfly 360 boots. That was at a time where she had just came off winning a Golden Boot in the NWSL and we knew at that point, we had a superstar on the rise.
We featured her in the launch campaign for the boots using billboards and the like, as well as an athlete experience at Rebel. We had an incredible turnout, not only from supporters but across the entire community.
At that time, it was clear that Sam had that star power to take her even further which proved to be the case. Fast Forward and she’s shared a few Mercs with Cristiano Ronaldo and Kylian Mbappe.
I’ve had the privilege to get to know Sam over the many years of collaboration and it has helped us build a strong, authentic platform and brand around her journey.
There’s nothing that we believe in more at Nike than listening to the voice of the athlete and doing work that resonates with them – such as their values and beliefs, and what they stand for. An example of this is something we’ve always told Sam, “We’ll get it right on the pitch first and then build from there.”.
The journey has been amazing and to be part of that is truly special. Our goal is to support Sam and build her brand while she’s delivering ground-breaking performances on the pitch and creating an unbreakable connection with fans.
More broadly, at Nike we believe that it’s not a one-person team with the Matildas by any stretch.
We have an incredible roster of athletes across the Matildas such as Elle Carpenter, Steph Catley, Kyah Simon, Alanna Kennedy, Mackenzie Arnold, Hayley Raso and more, and we’re focused on supporting and elevating the whole roster.
Our brand investment in the Women’s World Cup was the single biggest investment we’ve ever made in this country to elevate the team. We were prepared, we started early and I believe played a critical part in connecting the fans and the team.
You are also supporting Fitzroy Lions Soccer Club – what is it like switching back to the grassroots level and giving back?
Nick Atkinson: Football would not happen without volunteers at the grassroots level – it’s an area of the game that we really believe in and want to have a positive impact.
I shared my story coming through the UK, starting out in grassroots football, and being one of those kids that had to hustle for rides from other people’s parents, or ride my bike to games with my brother, and wear my boots until they fell apart, I know what a huge enabler it can be for kids. Getting involved in Fitzroy Lions has been a real personal love of mine.
We’ve been partnered with Fitzroy Lions Soccer Club since 2018 – they are an incredible organisation where many of the kids come from refugee families and football plays a critical role in uniting that community. It’s where you really feel the power of the world game.
Our relationship started simply, going down to training sessions to meet the team and see what they’re about – they are a rare team in Australia that offers a route into structured league football for kids whose parents can’t quite afford it normally, in a sport that can be quite expensive to play. Through the time spent with them, I really got to know the kids and their families.
It was so enriching and an awesome experience where the club simply provides the opportunity for everyone and eliminates those barriers that people face when looking to play.
So many of us at Nike live and work around those communities so it’s a great opportunity to directly support people related to what we do. We’re proud to be part of something like this and seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces when they’re playing on the field is a real highlight in my career.
Excitingly, like many other grassroots clubs, they have seen a 200% increase in girls participating this season which is so encouraging.
In addition, we’re in the fifth year of naming rights for the Nike FC Cup and recently announced the Nike FC Accelerator Program. This is a four-year commitment with Football Victoria to drive gender equity in the sport by increasing the number of female coaches and giving better access to football at The Home of Matildas.
Overall, we want to provide equal opportunities and this is the legacy that Nike wants to leave in the long run to drive the sport forward.
Football Australia and Nike have confirmed a 10-year contract extension that will carry their partnership forward into a third decade.
This deal is already the longest of Nike’s federation club partnerships in Australia, with the well-known brand a staple of Football Australia’s desire for male and female football support at all levels of the game.
Football Australia’s elite national teams, grassroots participation, inclusivity programs, and its Legacy ’23 strategy will also continue to be strengthened.
Nike’s investment will contribute towards Football Australia’s Legacy ’23 initiative – harnessing the growth of women’s football to deliver enduring benefits for Australia’s largest community sport beyond 2023, including becoming the first community sport to reach gender parity in participation.
“This is a pivotal moment for Australian football. This extended partnership with Nike not only solidifies their commitment to our national teams, but it also provides significant resources for the growth of grassroots football, our ambitious Legacy ’23 plan and the strategic building of our national iconic brands,”Football Australia CEO James Johnson stated via media release.
“Our partnership with Nike has been transformative, and this extension represents a strong endorsement for Football Australia and the growth of football at all levels across the nation.
“We are proud to be part of Nike’s Global Football strategy, and this partnership extension signifies the strength and continued elevation of Australian football on the international stage.”
Nike also remains as the official apparel partner for all Australian national teams, including the Subway Socceroos, CommBank Matildas, Junior, and Youth men’s and women’s squads, as well as the CommBank Pararoos, and CommBank ParaMatildas.
“In the past two decades we’ve seen football in Australia grow to incredible heights and this year achieve sold out stadiums and record-breaking jersey sales,” Nike Pacific Vice President and General Manager, Ashley Reade, added in a statement:
“Nike is incredibly proud of the partnership with Football Australia to drive these outcomes.
“This year’s major tournament was a generational tipping point and, on every level, Nike continues to find ways to innovate, inspire and enable the future of athletes through football.
“This announcement represents our local commitment to the world game, to foster even stronger opportunities for gender equity from grassroots to the elite game. We believe in the vision of Football Australia and look forward to playing our part in the sport’s continued growth.”
Steph Catley is hugely involved with both organisations, not only as Nike athlete but as vice-captain of the Matildas.
“Not only does Nike’s innovative high-performance gear allow us to perform our best on the field, but their unwavering commitment to build the game, invest in us as athletes and broaden access for the next generation of players and fans plays a pivotal role in driving the sport forward,” she added via media release.
“We are thrilled to continue working with them and look forward to the exciting journey ahead.”
Football Australia and Nike will unite everyone at grassroots, before the heights of a global stage.