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Leave the Matildas alone

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Media editor Dr Lee Duffield wonders about the dumping of the Matildas’ team coach just ahead of their World Cup campaign.

THIS IS ON BEHALF of all those who will be getting a bit worried about how our women’s soccer football team is going to handle things now.

We have the Australian Men’s Cricket Team prone to go wobbly on the field and now the Football Federation looks like putting pressure on the Matildas to go the same way.

Citing surveys into the Matildas “workplace” by the players association the PFA, and the Our Watch organisation set up to counter mistreatment of women including domestic violence, the FFA on the weekend suddenly sacked the team coach Alen Stajcic.

WELL MANAGED?

That was not well managed, not transparent: the survey reports have not yet been made public. The coach had done well with the team in competition and they were fast becoming the apple of Australians’ sporting eye as great improvers, working up to the World Cup in just five months’ time.

Some of the players in their social media posts gave an inkling of the psychological impacts that can take hold and baulk the competitors in hard, unforgiving elite contests:

'I am still shocked and upset. My trust was in Staj to lead us to the World Cup final and I believe he was the best coach for that.' ~ Samantha Kerr, 2018 Young Australian of the Year

'I’m still in shock. The achievements we succeeded in with him guiding us were monumental.' ~ Lydia Williams, goalie

'Today our world turned upside down. Although we aren’t privy to the finer details of Staj’s dismissal, I respect him as a coach.' ~ Elise Kellond-Knight mid-fielder: 

Others are said to have dumped on “Staj” in the surveys – about them being put under “mental stress” – although, as said, the survey reports have so far been withheld.

The ABC's Richard Hinds gave a best-available appraisal given the amount of secrecy:

As we have seen in Australia across the past year particularly, Australian women's sport is improving rapidly. This is partly the result of improved pay, tougher training regimens, demands for greater commitment and other raised standards.

 

At the same time, rightly, the field is now considered a workplace with players' mental wellbeing, health and safety and other rights to be respected even as coaches scream at their players to run another lap or lift another weight.

 

What we don't know is whether Stajcic crossed the line, made unacceptable demands of now semi-professional footballers and, as some have alleged, even facilitated an abusive culture; or whether those players who expressed their concern to the PFA and the FFA were simply incapable of meeting the tougher demands expected in an elite sporting environment…

 

But throw into the mix inevitable personality clashes and the age-old problem of discontented players blaming the coach for their non-selection or allegedly unfair treatment and this is murky water.

WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT?

Does it have to come down to this: be tough and Australia wins in a tough world at the top, or be nice, avoid putting players under pressure, and we lose?

The answer seems to be to balance out both, highest standards and the most mature treatment — tricky even for the best of professionals.

Likewise, we have to tussle out different kinds of pressure — the out-there pressure of a "meanie" coach getting you motivated, making you train-and-train and go for it, or the more Byzantine kind, where off-field conflicts, half-explained sackings and knifings just might make the team forget to compete, go sick at heart.

The support system affects the competitors who are the ones to ultimately face the question: if it is about competition, how much do they want to win?

Something happened to the swimming team at the 2012 London Olympics, maybe to do with motivation, application, distraction, need for overdrive. Those who would recall watching successive teams striving at time trials over the years were left wondering. It looked like a lot of Facebook messages getting sent home instead of medals.

Back to the Matildas who now need to keep their focus more than ever.

They can get some inspiration from going over the records of Australians over the decades making a great mark in international sport across the board — plenty of cutting edge and science, work, more skills development, team spirit, green-and-gold, concentration and don’t forget character.

Media editor Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.

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