Just watching football is pressure enough. Taking to the pitch in a stadium reverberating with emotion takes it to another level.
Try being responsible for keeping goal as the world watches on. Or having every facial expression scrutinised on the sideline as every coach does.
Then there’s always the critics, many of them. Too many of them. Most of them, according to most coaches, have absolutely no idea.
As Graham Arnold wrestles with his final selections to take to the pitch against France in the early hours of Wednesday morning Australian time in the nation’s FIFA World Cup opener, the mind games have been obvious in every Socceroos player press conference, perhaps without any of them even realising.
Socceroo after Socceroo has spoken about “the belief” they have in each other, despite there being not many people “out there” who believe in the team. Nobody is quite sure where ‘out there’ is and who is in it – is it just the media contingent? Or the wider Australian public?
It is a motivational tool Arnold is well known for. But he’s got added strength these days, with a man once dubbed by Sports Illustrated as ‘Master Mind’, supporting the strategy.
Paddy Steinfort was appointed Performance Director of Football Australia in mid-2021 to design and strengthen the high-performance culture inside its national teams.
When asked for a single word to describe the Socceroos right now, looking pretty relaxed and comfortable in Doha, you can probably guess what Steinfort said.
“Belief. There’s probably not many people outside of the camp that believe in this team,” Steinfort told The Ticket.
That description seems to be spreading like a virus at Australia’s impressive home base, Aspire Academy — a good virus mind you, if there is such a thing.
“It is an Arnie hallmark, no doubt,” Steinfort admits.
“If you look at what Arnie did with the Olyroos in Tokyo, where that team was not considered a strong favourite to do anything … and in the first game they went out and he nailed it.
“In his words, shocked the world. We were able to go and beat Argentina when no-one expected it and that team believed when no-one else did.
“And, yes, so that’s an Arnie hallmark but I think it goes without saying, any performer who steps into a competitive arena has some level of belief that they’re a chance, otherwise why would they do it?”
Why, indeed. That’s why they are there, and we are watching on.
Steinfort has built a three-pronged understanding of what makes the ultimate athlete. Taking his own experience as an Aussie rules player, he became a qualified physiotherapist giving him a thorough understanding of the body’s ability to handle pressure, and has since added knowledge of how the mind is the ultimate performance determinant.
“I think that’s an evolving space everywhere. I know in my time in America that was obviously the thing that I probably became best renowned for and it led to some great times with some great franchises.”
He has worked with athletes and teams in arguably the most pressurised domestic competitions in the world – the NBA, the MBA and the NFL in the United States.
With success came notoriety, earning him a coveted story in the English speaking world’s most recognised sports magazine.
“Sports Illustrated slapped the term Master Mind on me … that was a little bit surreal for the 14-year-old kid who used to buy the magazine all the time,” Steinfort says.
“I was just talking with one of our team managers yesterday about this as an area that we can lead the world in because it’s not a well-established, I won’t say discipline – psychology is obviously a very well-respected part of the health care industry and a very important part, but in terms of its integration into performance environments it’s still well behind physical medicine.
“The way it’s treated is as something weird and intangible whereas a lot of the stuff that we started to do in America, and we want to integrate here, [comes down to] three things.
“One is having conversations and making it normal to talk about psychological things, not be scared of it, and not having it be a label.
“Two is then to provide the right resources for people.
“And three is the overarching framework for those resources to work in so that it becomes a normal part of a young football players development.”
Steinfort believes athletes need to give as much time to their mental training as their physical training.
“It’s a fantastic time to be involved in Australian football because it’s probably been a more challenging time for this sport than others back in Australia, particularly around COVID with dropping participation numbers, the commercialism is not the same as other sports historically.
“But in terms of the future of the game it’s incredibly bright, it’s got a huge scope for improvement because of the changing face of the Australian population.
“At the tournament we are ranked, I think, fourth last…according to the FIFA rankings.
“But over time that should change and that’s part of my role here, it’s to help evolve our systems so they’re as world class as any and we’re looked at it in some areas as leaders.”
With the hours counting down to a David and Goliath encounter against France at Al Janoub Stadium, how do the players get their heads right?
“It’s a very important period … not more important than in the game, but it’s just as important.
“This is the time we want to make sure everyone is getting into the right space, we don’t want to be on the pitch and trying to solve new problems because if you’re doing all that thinking in the moment you can’t let your talent, and your instincts, do what they’ve been trained and honed [to do].
“We want to do our thinking before the event, not so much during the event, and it means that there’s a bit more work happening right now but it’s very much horses for courses.”
In the spirit of patient-mind coach confidentiality, Steinfort wasn’t revealing who does what and when. But he did offer this on the mental makeup of the Socceroos:
“There are some players who are incredibly intellectual, who like to think and plan, and have strategies, etc, and there are others who like to play freely, and we can’t dictate what works.
“As we’ve seen in the history of football, in the history of sports, and even take it outside of sport – music, theatre, surgeons, NASA astronauts, all of these sorts of people – it’s a wide variety of human experience that some people are better at when they’re fully planned because of their base personality.
“Others feel constricted if they’re forced into that, so we need to cater to the individual and so … as we’re getting ready for the first match it’s less about being prescriptive and its more about being observant.
“The ultimate aim being with each individual performer, giving them everything they need and nothing they don’t.”
With one exception.
They all need to believe in themselves and support each other, because according to the mind games, that might be all they have when they take on the reigning FIFA World Cup champions.