For several minutes after the full-time whistle had blown in Australia’s 4-1 loss to France in the World Cup group stage on Wednesday, full-back Nathaniel Atkinson was seen standing by himself on the sideline, staring into the middle-distance.
We can’t know for sure what he was thinking. But after a game in which Paris Saint-Germain winger Kylian Mbappe had almost entirely eclipsed him, and where his heavy touch resulted in France’s second goal, it’s easy enough to assume where Atkinson’s mind went.
As the players and staff milled around, shaking hands and collecting their things before heading to the dressing room, Socceroos captain Mat Ryan walked towards Atkinson and put two reassuring hands on his shoulders. The goalkeeper spoke gently and at length to his young teammate, who nodded along, even while looking completely and utterly defeated.
What do you say to a player – particularly someone aged just 23 and at the very start of their international career – after a match like that? How do you, to borrow a common Socceroos phrase, “bounce back” from a moment that could be the most disappointing, humiliating, or anxiety-inducing of your career, with another huge spotlight of a World Cup game just a few days away?
For some, like midfielder Jackson Irvine, emotional resilience is a skill just like any other in a footballer’s repertoire; something that needs to be tested and developed over time.
“That idea of ‘bouncing back’ is something that has come to me with time and experience,” he said.
“I was a bad one when I was younger for dwelling on games, dwelling on moments, stirring on things constantly and letting it affect me away from football as well as in the footballing environment.
“As your career goes on, especially […] when you do have a quick turn-around in games, that’s a big part of it as well: you’re almost forced to find that way to get yourself ready to just go again.
“For myself, personally, I’ve found different ways of dealing with it throughout my career. Some nights, I’ll sit up and watch a full 90 minutes back as soon as I get in the door and just look at individual moments. [You] maybe see things differently when you watch it back with the screen on mute and you look at it purely tactically and take the emotion out of it. That’s something I’ve done that’s helped me get better.
“For me now, as my role has changed as a player with my club and with the national team, that focus becomes less on the individual and becomes more on the group; how you can affect the players around you, [especially] younger players and maybe players who don’t quite have that mentality of just being able to get on with it.”
It’s that dynamic – between the individual and the group – that can often be the most complex to navigate, especially in moments of failure. According to Mike Conway, the Socceroos’ ’emotional agility advisor’ who has been part of Graham Arnold’s staff for the past four years, there is never a one-size-fits-all approach to the mental side of football.
“That’s the tricky bit because they’re all so different and they deal with different things in different ways,” Conway said.
“Take Maty [Ryan] and Aaron Mooy. They’re two very different people, even though they grew up together and come from similar sorts of places.
“With Mat, he wants to talk. So it’s about giving him space and time to talk and be fully in the present of what he needs to talk about, and then coming up with different solutions with how he deals with it.
“I built a program with him on ‘fast-track mindfulness’. If he’s going down a tunnel with 50,000 people in a stadium, how does he get in the zone? That’s great for penalty shootouts, as well.
“But with Aaron, he’s a much quieter individual. He’s a lovely human being and has been dealing with some things not just on the field but off the field. That, for me, was about saying ‘I’m there. I’ve been there. What can I do? Is there anything you need?’.
“He communicates quite differently. Maty wants a face-to-face, but Aaron doesn’t necessarily want to do that.
“So it’s about being respectful about how people communicate, not forcing my approach. Most importantly, it’s about being an active listener with those things. If they walk away saying, ‘you know what? They gave me time,’ that can be as good as anything.”
There has been a lot of talking in the two days following the France game.
Nothing formal though, no sit-downs in an office chair or questions over a clipboard.
It’s been small-talk in the line while waiting for lunch. Passing by someone in the hall or on the training pitch and asking how they’re going. Grabbing a coffee and reflecting on the experience from a different point of view.
Speaking with some of the team’s leaders, including former members like Tim Cahill and Luke Wilkshire, so that they can have the chats with players away from other staff. In other words, to have the conversations without having them.
While addressing individuals is one thing, ensuring their needs are balanced with the wider needs of the team is quite another. That, for Conway, is the challenge, particularly as national teams are always ebbing and flowing in their personnel.
How to make space for players who experience these deeply private, emotional moments while also considering the team in which they exist is a constant negotiation.
“Football is a team game, but we can become a bit self-centred about things,” Conway said.
“In this group, it’s about removing the ego about ourselves, and focusing on what’s great for the team. So that’s messaging, that’s care and attention, making sure everyone’s okay and no one’s been left on the sideline. I don’t mean in relation to the game itself, I’m talking about in life.
“How do we bring all these people together, knowing they’re all kind of different and they’re all sitting on a slightly different level in relation to what I call ’emotional agility’?
“The big word here is trust. There’s been a lot of trust built over the last four years. I’m not trying to paint a pretty picture with no issues – because there definitely are some – but we’ve got a group of very adaptable young people here.
“You see the superstars of the world in other teams, but we haven’t got any real superstars like that. We’re a group of people who care for each other, but we also know who we are. It’s a very cohesive environment, and that comes from four years of doing this.”
Conway arrived at the Socceroos after helping build an emotional and mental resilience program with Arnold when he was head coach of Sydney FC.
Before that, he worked in the NBA, women’s cricket, and even The Wiggles, creating activities around team-building, trust, communication, and leadership. But before any of those can occur, he first needs to understand the people he’s working with.
“I’m not a problem-oriented person, I’m a solutions-oriented person, so the kinds of things I want to get to are what’s their self-awareness like? Do they have any self-management tools already under different conditions?” he said.
“How do they deal with frustration or disappointment? How do they handle being left out? Funnily enough, in football, those are the things that often bring people down, those feelings. So those are internal.
“Then there’s external things. Do these people have empathy? Do they care about their team-mates and their coaches? What are their social skills like, how do they communicate? Especially when communication is fundamental in team sport.
“And then, what’s their intrinsic motivation? What’s really the thing that’s driving them to be successful? Why are they here at a World Cup? Does it matter for them? Is it really about the team, about leaving a legacy, about themselves?
“A fifth measure is are these people leaders? I don’t mean leadership in terms of the captain or coach, I’m looking at key moments in time. Can they lead at that moment? Can they follow? When do they step up and why?
“The final one is resilience. How do they handle disappointment and how quickly can they overcome it?”
Once he understands the kinds of personalities that are interacting in a group, Conway then creates activities for players and staff to work on the various emotional and psychological skills he’s identified.
In the Socceroos’ first training camp under Arnold in Turkey, for example, there were several tasks aimed at getting a new group of players to get to know each other and work together to achieve shared goals.
It was there that they developed their ‘many journeys, one jersey’ motto as part of an identity-building activity. There were others involving drones, robots, inflatables, VR headsets, and sets of dominoes, all geared in some way to building their trust and communication with each other, especially with players who are young, shy, or new to the fold.
Another big part of the emotional management process, from a coach’s perspective, is finding ways to reframe the language around failure.
While the lived experience and the score-line may make the France game look and feel a certain way to players, Arnold’s job – as well as that of his staff and team leaders – is to make it look and feel another.
It started as soon as the full-time whistle blew, with moments like Ryan’s conversation with Atkinson, and carried on into the analysis in the hours and days that followed.
“Straight after the game, we got back to the hotel and I grabbed them straight in a room and told them how proud I was of their work ethic and their commitment,” Arnold said.
“All the stats showed they put in 100 per cent plus.
“If you don’t deal with [the failure early], then players will just… energy will go, belief will go, everything.
“[France] was the best ‘friendly’ we could ever have. It’s a two-game tournament now. It was three games, but yes, we’ve got to win the next two, and there’s no better opposition to play against in a so-called friendly than France.
“I just said to Nathaniel Atkinson ‘you’re going to remember this for the rest of your life, mate. You’re going to sit there in 20 years’ time when you retire, with a beer in your hand, telling everyone how you played against one of the best players in the world. And you’re gonna show them two mistakes, but 10 things you did great’.
“You’ve gotta look at the positives and what that kid’s gonna learn out of it. It’s these types of experiences that you’ve gotta focus more on, and to pick them up.
“We showed them a great video of energy of the fans back at home when [Goodwin] scored. We miss out on that; we don’t see that here. That special moment will stay with those fans forever.”
All of these things – from the individual strategies developed for players, the varying options of communication with mental health support, the team-building and trust exercises, the reframing of failure – are part of the psychological backbone of this Socceroos team.
These are the tools that players and staff have been given so that they can build and navigate these moments for themselves, and are the things that they will not only take into their next two games against Tunisia and Denmark, but also into the rest of their lives.
“In this group, we have got a really strong mentality,” Irvine said.
“We’ve got people around us; we have that support network as well. Being able to speak openly about feelings of disappointment in yourself and your own performance, and having players around you to lift you back up, there’s probably nothing better in a group environment than having those mates around you that can lift you back up to that level straight away. We have that in abundance here.
“As a group, we have a really good feeling and a really good culture of being able to push each other forward very quickly. We’ve always had that. As an older player now, it’s something I’ve had to adapt with and change as well: you’ve not just got to focus on yourself, you’ve got to help other players as well and move on very quickly.
“For us, we’re not feeling down. We don’t need to overthink because we’ve just got that environment that lifts everybody straight back up to be able to perform again.”