Footballers have to deal with issues of form, confidence and belief – and still qualify for a World Cup. and then play in it. Tom Smithies reports
Bailey Wright is doing shuttle runs across the pitch at Sunderland’s Stadium of Light but in his mind he might as well be in Qatar.
Mat Ryan is in Qatar, but sitting on the bench at Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium and trying to deal with stepping out of the limelight at what could have been one of the biggest moments of his career.
Jackson Irvine has just landed in Qatar, and is trying to switch his mind from a footballing calamity at club level to an impending date with destiny for his country, and stop one infecting the other with doubt and disappointment.
Footballers are human beings, subject to emotions and mental battles as much as any other. In the public eye, though, they have little room for any dip in performance. The fans see almost nothing of the inner issues, and demand a flawless performance every time.
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Many of the Socceroos faced questions of adversity in and around the World Cup play-offs in June, and even since. How they dealt with them illustrates how athletes focus as much on mental training as physical work, especially to deal with negative situations.
Ryan, for instance, could have been the collateral damage to one of the great sporting narratives of recent times. Andrew Redmayne’s last-minute substitution into the play-off with Peru, and match-winning save in the penalty shootout, has become a story for the ages, but it also left the team captain a bystander when he could have been the national hero instead.
Ryan has long used particular mental techniques to improve performance, especially with the Socceroos’ mental agility coach Mike Conway, such as visualising a mistake as a scrunched up piece of paper cast into a bin and never thought of again.
With total honesty, Ryan admits to very humanly conflicted feelings over the moment he was substituted and replaced by his friend – but also to being keenly aware of what the cost of those feelings could have been.
“On a personal level you dream for that to be yourself,” Ryan acknowledges now. “Like, every kid out there now is I’m sure replaying that penalty shootout, being Redders and dancing around like a Wiggle.
“There’s no doubt as an individual as well, you wish that it’s going to be you to deliver that moment for your country, or to be able to produce in those moments. And self-confidence-wise, I feel I could have done the job as well.
“But Arnie made the decision he did on what he thought was best for the team, I understand the reasoning behind why he did it. I sought clarity from him on whether there was something more I needed to do in order to have the same faith in myself as he had in Redders at that moment.
“But it’s also part of the culture that we want to instil as well, that the team comes first and that’s what I’m always trying to preach. If I had reacted in another way and been filthy, and made it clear to be seen that I’m upset, whinging about coming off or something like that, then I think I just would have been classified as a hypocrite because of the messages that we were trying to portray in the group.
“Most importantly, if it wasn’t me out there making the saves to help us get to the World Cup, then I’m glad it was someone else on our side doing so.”
“You don’t get that many opportunities to put yourself in one of the top five leagues,” says Jackson Irvine with a note in his voice that’s part rueful, part agonised. The Socceroos midfielder has been to the precipice of glory and felt his team suffer the worst kind of sporting vertigo.
From the outside, tales of a team choking are gorily compelling. On the inside, Jackson calls it “incredibly difficult”.
Last season, with seven games to go, his team St Pauli were top of the Bundesliga 2 and apparently sailing towards promotion.
On only three occasions from Rounds 8-23 had they not been in the top two, and 10 points from a possible 12 showed the form they were in. Until, suddenly, their season collapsed. The next six games produced no wins and just three points. By the time St Pauli won its last game of the season it was too late – they had fallen to fifth, and missed out on the playoffs,let alone automatic promotion to the Bundesliga.
On the back of that, Irvine had to get on a plane and fly to Qatar, ready to try to help his country navigate two playoffs to get to the World Cup.
“When you’re within touching distance of a promotion, and you know you’ve also got a World Cup playoff on the horizon, all your energy is going into trying to put both of those achievements into place,” Irvine tells KEEPUP.
“But when the back end of your season comes apart like it did, so late on… that still hurts. Still one of the most disappointing things I’ve been a part of in a team.
“Just incredibly difficult, to see it kind of slip away at the very end. And then from that, you’ve really, really had to switch out of that mode straightaway (for the World Cup games).”
Irvine sought counsel in Socceroos camp from senior teammates among others, to be able to channel the disappointment. “In a strange way, it allowed me to put even more energy and emphasis on the importance of what we were going to do in June you know, just knowing the levels of performance and where you need to be mentally to get over that line.
“It wasn’t just me – I think the boys went into a totally different space during that couple of weeks to allow us to achieve that. But it was a challenge for myself personally coming off the back end of that disappointment.
“I had a lot of open conversations with other players like Maty Ryan and a lot of the other senior players as well. It was about using your own situation as a motivation to bring into the group environment and help create that intensity to what we were trying to do there. Those guys, in particular the senior players, were a big help for me going into that situation.”
Strolling around the pitch at the Socceroos’ HQ in Doha is Mike Conway, the team’s emotional agility coach. It’s hard to put a distinct label on what Conway does; as he says himself, sometimes it’s as simple as starting a conversation with a particular player. But a number of them talk happily about techniques he gives them to deal with certain situations, usually stressful. With Ryan, for instance, the routine he uses after making an error is designed to reduce the cortisol in his brain, and improve subsequent decision-making.
“We work on five main areas,” Conway says. “Self-assessment of potentially negative emotions; communication, especially on the field; what I call techoference, particularly around mobile phone use; rest and sleep; and visualisation.
“So far there aren’t many major challenges, it’s mostly little things that are home related. Once teams get chosen, or players get injured, that’s when we will see more issues arise. But mostly it’s about how to get calm really quickly, such as showing them how to do fastrack mindfulness.”
Conway has worked with Bailey Wright, though not on visualisation; the Sunderland defender has his own strategies for something he believes is an essential part of his armoury as a professional footballer.
Wright has struggled for game time this season despite an outstanding performance in the playoff final in May that took Sunderland up to the Championship. In response, Wright has used visualisation of various facets of being at a World Cup – from training and playing to doing media – to drive himself even when he wasn’t in the team and was just doing those shuttle runs after a game.
“It’s quite simple, that visualisation of being here in Qatar at a World Cup and representing your country,” he says.
“I’ve been to a World Cup in 2014 and you get a little taste of it, like in the feelings and emotions. It’s almost like you bottle them and always carry them with you, then remember what that feeling was like and you want to have it again.
“So when you’re running after the games, ultimately, you’re running for the country, you’re running to have this opportunity and make sure you’re ready.
“Visualisation is an incredible tool to use because you can make things real – like you can fake a smile and it can actually make you feel better. There’s so many things you can do, like visualising myself standing here with you guys.”