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The psychology behind women footballers’ remarkable resilience

Comeback kids. Dan Riedlhuber/EPA

The psychology behind women footballers’ remarkable resilience

On Saturday night, England played a phenomenal game to beat Germany for the bronze medal at the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2015. Members of the team played with confidence, but the odds were psychologically against them after suffering such a cruel defeat to Japan earlier in the week, never mind the fact that they had never beaten Germany before.

In psychological terms, resilience is a process that involves coping with challenges and experiences of significant adversity in different contexts. This evolves into particularly individual ways of viewing of the world.

The American Psychological Association defines resilience as:

The process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or even significant sources of stress - such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems, or workplace and financial stressors. It means ‘bouncing back’ from difficult experiences.

In a group context, adapting to unpleasant experiences (for example, losing a game from an own goal in the dying minutes) is central to performing well in a team.

With this in mind, let’s look at the resilience of the England players.

Fara Williams grew up on an estate in Battersea, had a difficult upbringing and was homeless for seven years from the age of 17, while playing for England. Karen Carney came back from injury, depression and self-harm. Fran Kirby has spoken honestly about her struggle to come to terms with her mother’s death, her battle against depression and her fierce return to Reading, scoring 33 goals in her first season back.

Katie Chapman is a mother of two, Casey Stoney came out in 2014 and suffered homophobic abuse on social media. At 26, Claire Rafferty suffered three anterior cruciate ligament ruptures and also works as an analyst for Deutsche Bank. Each of these journeys is personal, but a combination of factors contribute to team resilience.

Many studies show that the primary factor in resilience is having caring and supportive relationships within and outside the family that offer encouragement and reassurance. There is no doubt that it is possible for this to be found in a sporting team environment.

Together the team showed perseverance and trust in the ability of individuals, but also in their team’s ability and in the ability of the group of coaches, physiotherapists and psychologists.

Overcoming a cruel defeat

It is part of sport for athletes to make mistakes, as Laura Bassett did in scoring the own goal at the end of the semi-final against Japan. But many argue that resilience is key to overcoming mistakes in sport. A player who is not resilient will tend to mull over the mistake and it will affect their performance. A resilient player will use of the mistake as an opportunity to learn.

Everyone appeared to be heartbroken after the cruel ending of the semi-final game against Japan, but the team rallied round Bassett to bolster her resilience.

After the game, coach Mark Sampson said: “It’s ok to cry”. Being permitted to experience strong emotions (as well as recognising when you may need to avoid experiencing them) is important in recovering from an upsetting experience.

It was evident from the start that captain Steph Houghton was going to play her part in picking up the team to play formidably against Germany. Laura Bassett reflected on how hard it will be to move on from her own-goal heartache, but she captured the nation again by opening up, facing this head on and getting back on the pitch.

Teaching athletes to acknowledge, review and strategise after a defeat allows them to manage the emotional response which comes with making mistakes. Often, the most successful are those who have failed the most and after 21 attempts to beat Germany, it was England’s moment to finally claim victory.

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