When the USA women’s team were 2-0 down to Australia in the bronze medal match at the 2016 Hockey Champions Trophy, their dreams of a first medal at a top tier international championship since they won bronze in the 1994 Hockey World Cup looked to be at an end.
Somehow the team picked themselves up and clawed back to 2-2, before winning the match on penalty shootout. It was, says Head Coach, Janneke Schopman, one of the most telling signs that this was a squad with deep reserves of mental strength.
The Dutchwoman, who took over as Head Coach to the USA in January 2017, believes that mental strength is the deciding factor among the leading teams.
“The difference in skill level among the top players is so minimal,” she says, “that it comes down to the mental strength of your players. Yes, attention to detail is important but, for me, the ability to stay strong mentally is a match winner.”
Australia's Head Coach Paul Gaudoin is also a firm believer in the power of mental toughness to precipitate success, along with the ability to bounce back from defeat. It is something that he and his coaches are working hard to instil into the Hockeyroo's culture. "I think it’s practice and experience – you want to put yourself in positions where you do fail occasionally so you can build to get better as you go along. The challenge is to make it authentic and real, and to be able to push the girls to understand that this is training for pressure situations."
With the Hockey World League Semi-Finals on the horizon, mental strength is something all the participating teams will need. USA will be competing in Johannesburg in July, with the dual prize of a place in the Hockey World League Finals and qualification to the 2018 World Cup at stake. On this occasion, Australia will not get the chance to even things up after the Champions Trophy defeat – the Hockeyroos are competing in Brussels at the end of June, with their eyes on the same two targets.
Although both USA and Australia have a team psychologist who is available if the players need to speak to them, Schopman and Gaudoin do much of the mental preparation of the players themselves. For Schopman, knowing each player’s personality and learning which buttons to press to get the best results is vital in her role as a coach.
For Gaudoin the process is as much an art as a science: "I think that’s the art of coaching. You’re a manager of people and you need to have a genuine interest in the athlete and the person behind the athlete and that’s important. You have to build a strong relationship with each person within the group.
"It involves group discussions being led by either staff or players and it’s as general as that. It can range from what we do out on the pitch to how we’re living our lives as well, and how we can support each other."
Michelle Vitesse is a veteran of Team USA, with two Olympic Games to her name. She says that mental preparation remains a very underestimated area within hockey and it is something that she is working hard to develop within her own game.
“Mental preparation allows me the ability to best equip me to control my emotions and perform under pressure,” says the forward. “I think it elevates my game because it trains me to not let my emotions or thoughts take me away from the present moment. Anything in the future or from the past takes away your presence of mind. Being mentally tough allows you to stay grounded and in control.”
Vitesse has adopted the practice of mindfulness in her daily life as well as on the hockey pitch. She believes it helps her to “view things through a different lens” and has helped her develop qualities of patience, choice of response and attitude. It is something that she hopes all her teammates will embrace, although she concedes that some players take a more ‘mindful’ approach than others.
“I think ideally, mindfulness will help each athlete's understanding of each other's behaviours. However, at this point in our journey, it's still a work in progress. I think the more each athlete recruits mindfulness in their everyday routine, it will benefit our culture.”
Mental strength is a tool in the player’s kit that really benefits from experiences and time. Vitesse says that her own approach within the stressful atmosphere of elite sport has become far more resilient as she has matured as a player.
“I had to push myself on a regular basis to realise that I could keep pushing my own limits. I have learnt resilience and mental fortitude as I keep pushing my own comfort zone. When I first started out, I did not fully understand the commitment needed to be successful in a high performance environment. I was my own worst enemy. I think believing I was capable of anything was the first step.”
Vitesse and Team USA will be competing in the Hockey World League Semi-Finals in Johannesburg, South Africa. The event takes place 8-23 July, click here for further information. Australia will be competing in Brussels in the other women's Semi-Final, which takes place from 21 June to 2 July. For more information about the Hockey World League, including the Men's Semi-Finals taking place in London and Johannesburg, click here.