Category Archives: Women’s Football World Cup 2015

The psychology behind women footballers’ remarkable resilience

By Helen Owton

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.

The Conversation

Helen Owton is Lecturer in Sport & Fitness at The Open University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Shaking up gender relations in sport

By Helen Owton

Despite, England’s devastating loss against Japan (and I haven’t quite recovered from their cruel defeat), the nation’s eyes and attention now fall on the people who were partly responsible for the England’s Women’s Football Team success and impelled them into the semi-finals.

In the lead up to the Women’s FIFA World Cup, Mark Sampson was subjected to criticism (e.g. playing too defensively, selecting the right team) and he has had to prove himself during these few weeks. Not only does he have to prove his coaching, but he has had to be careful not to take all the credit for the women’s success. This isn’t just about football. Indeed Owen Jones argues that “men must embrace feminism, but not steal it” and Mark has given a lot of credit to the ‘England Heroes’ and his right hand person and England Assistant Coach, Marianne Spacey; it’s good to see women and men working dynamically and collaborating in their coaching roles behind the scenes to enable this success. Nonetheless, none of this changes the fact that there are so few women coaches, managers and officials in football, not only in the men’s game, but in the women’s game as well with just a global percentage of 7% of women coaching in football. Additionally, men hold 97% of European coaching licences and only 65 women hold a UEFA Pro Licence compared to 9,387 men.

Whilst more men are helping to progress the growth of the women’s football game and the viewing figures stormed to a peak audience of 2.4 million in the U.K. during the semi-final game between Japan and England, let’s not forget that the liberation of women is down to women and this is the same in football. The strides behind the scenes have been down to the struggle and sacrifice of women in football.

Helena Costa was the first female to coach a professional men’s football team, Clermont Foot but she resigned on the first day of her job. We don’t know the reason why she resigned but there has been some speculation and it might well involve a gendered argument particularly given the undercurrent of sexism that troubles football.

Women coaching men

In fact, there appears to be very few high profile examples of women coaching men in the whole of sport in the U.K.; Amelie Mauresmo coaching Andy Murray in tennis; Giselle Mather (Britain’s most prominent female full-time professional rugby coach at London Irish);Margot Wells coached husband, Allan Wells and is now an elite sprint and fitness coach working with members of the England Rugby Team; Mel Marshall was named Swimming Coaches Association Coach of the year in 2014 after Adam Peaty’s success – seven Commonwealth and European medals and two world records. They all seem to prove their critics wrong.

Recently, Murray has been angered by comments about his female coach but if he wins Wimbledon even more strides will be made for female coaches. Murray says that working with a female coach has meant that he’s been able to talk more openly and he argues in an article for L’equipe that ‘It’s a crying shame there aren’t more female coaches’. Tennis appears to be one of the more progressive sports for women with equal pay and mixed doubles, but prevailing gender norms are still reinforced. Once again, these progressions have been down to the struggle and sacrifice of women, particularly one woman in: Billie Jean King who has relentlessly fought for equality in professional tennis. These few examples of successful women coaches show that although they are in the minority, when they do get the chance they make a big impact.

It is evident that women are powerful influencers both as individuals, coaches, collaborators and enforcers of change in the world of sport. Sport is unquestionably missing out on something dynamic and influential if they do not have women involved and they have obviously started to realise this. Whilst initiatives are being created to include more women in coaching, women also need to be situated in more powerful positions (e.g. Executive committees) to challenge cultural attitudes that still need to change so that both women and men do not have to put up with sexism from the public, from organisations and sexist coverage that puts women off working in particular sporting fields and makes their job harder. The criticism women referees have received at this FIFA World Cup means that these initiatives would also improve the standard of refereeing at future International football tournaments as well, but we must remember that women are frequently subjected to harsh criticism when working in male-dominated roles.

We are taking the right steps forward to challenge this undercurrent flow of sexism but we still have a long way to go before women coach men in premiership leagues. We may be lost for words after England’s defeat in the semi-finals against Japan, but let’s keep the dialogue going about women’s position in football so that the next Women’s World Cup is not played on artificial turf.

Is the not-so beautiful men’s game putting people off women’s football?

By Helen Owton and Mark Doidge

The FIFA Women’s World Cup is getting to the business end of the tournament. On Friday and Saturday the quarter-final matches will kick off with an enticing prospect as Germany take on France. It conjures up memories of classic tussles in the men’s game, not least the infamous 1982 World Cup semi-final which saw German goalkeeper Harald Schumacher’s “assault” on Patrick Battiston. The trouble is, it may be just these sorts of comparisons which are holding back the growth of interest in the women’s game.

In the current tournament, although matches featuring France and the hosts Canada have been popular and partisan, other games have been sparsely supported. Whilst the global television coverage is touted to exceed one billion viewers, there have still been questions about the lack of spectators, and lack of media analysis of women’s football in general.

Crowd trouble.
GoToVan, CC BY

Women’s football might be one of the largest growing sports, but it has a long way to go. Consider first that while Germany received $35 million for their triumph in the 2014 men’s World Cup, the victors in Canada will win only $2 million. And women’s football simply doesn’t attract the same levels of spectatorship as the men’s game. There are plenty of reasons for that, of course. It takes time to build a following and fanbase; to create stars.

Potentially too, this lack of spectators may be due to the many myths around women’s football (that were beautifully satirised by the Norwegian team). Sexist attitudes still exist, as exemplified by the man in charge of promoting Brazilian football, Marco Aurelio Cunha, who said women are “getting more beautiful, putting on make-up”. Not should we forget that women’s football is not celebrated in all countries, as seen in the outrage of men in Saudi Arabia. But crucially, we fear that women’s football is suffering from the tarnished image of its successful but divisive sibling – the men’s game.

The Norway team keep a straight face.

Reputational damage

When people say, “but I don’t like football” they are usually talking about men’s football. This has become associated with two distinct characteristics: cynical professionalism and masculine fan culture. Elite level men’s football has become associated with unnecessary diving, over-the-top showboating celebrations, disrespecting officials and questionable actions outside of the game courtesy of bloated salaries and corporate sponsorships.

Too much?

Whilst it is clear that football fans are not one homogenous group, a dominant form of partisanship has developed that emphasises difference through hooliganism, obssessive fandom, sexism, homophobia, racism and other forms of prejudice. Now, the “beautiful game” has been tarnished by the recent FIFA corruption and arrests.

This culture of discrimination and violence has helped to send stadium attendance of men’s football into decline in many parts of Europe. This helps to create a rump of masculine fans who perceive that as they are the only ones still attending; they are the “authentic” fans.

Obsessive fandom and the culture of masculinity nurtures a sense of authority that aims to exclude others from voicing opinions on domestic and international games. Within the game, bad calls, needless diving, and “friendly banter” often dominate football talk. Within these conversations, subtle power dynamics are minimising the voice of the less masculine, less obsessive fan.

Head case. Pressure falls on FIFA.
Steffen Schmidt/EPA

Support network

While we are also falling into the trap of comparing women’s and men’s football, it is important to acknowledge that many of the viewing public will be doing likewise. It is important to create a space that challenges the dominant masculine culture of football, replete with prejudice, and which consequently seems to influence why people watch the game.

Men’s football is locked into a symbiotic relationship between partisan support and commercial victory. As the men’s game has grown as a professional and marketable industry, the spoils of victory are manifest. Global celebrity, commercial endorsements and fan adulation can catapult male footballers into millionaires. Meanwhile, the masculine fan culture prizes these victories as symbolic domination over rivals. Within this environment, a mantra of “win at all costs” ensues. Ultimately the male players who dive or challenge the referee are replicating the chants and demands of the fans in the stands.

In contrast, the crowds watching the women’s game are much more diverse, far less violent, less abusive and less prejudicial. The current Women’s World Cup shows that there can be a space within football that permits a different form of fandom and spectatorship. It’s just hard to get there through the shadow cast by the big brother.

Cynical challenge

Women’s football doesn’t just represent the game being played well, it also represents a challenge to male-only spaces that value a very limited way of being a man. If you don’t want to push these agendas forward then at least support the women and men who are willing to. As Gabby Logan argues, women are entitled to occupy any space, and that includes sport.

The Kuwait football team.
Doha Stadium Plus Qatar, CC BY

Women have shown that on and off the field, they can excel in football. The BBC has shown excellent coverage by Jacqui Oatley, supported by Sue Smith, Rachel Yankey, and Rachel Brown-Finnis, and highlighted that good analysis of football is not the preserve of men; even if men perplexedly continue to dominate in coaching and match commentary roles.

On the pitch, Germany, France and the US have shown that professional, organised and enthusiastic teams can compete in high quality games and deliver spectacular goals.

The challenge for the women’s game is that as it professionalises, it avoids the cynicism that pervades the men’s game. Respecting the referee, avoiding diving and focusing on the quality of the football on the pitch has to continue in order to maintain a challenge the dominant, and damaging image of (men’s) football. In this way we can remember to appreciate just how beautiful the game of football is.

The Conversation

Helen Owton is Lecturer in Sport & Fitness at The Open University.
Mark Doidge is Senior Research Fellow in Sociology of Sport at University of Brighton.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Preparing for Penalty Shootout Pressure at the Women’s World Cup

By Caroline Heaney

With the Women’s Football World Cup now into the knockout stages football fans will be preparing themselves for the prospect of a penalty shoot-out or two. Penalty shoot-outs are rarely missing from a major tournament and in fact the last Women’s World Cup was won by Japan on penalties.

England fans have a love-hate relationship with the penalty shoot-out. The excitement of a penalty shoot-out is unquestionable, but England teams are not renowned for their success in penalty shoot-outs. The men’s team have had several exits from major tournaments at the hands of a penalty shoot-out (e.g. 2006 World Cup, Euro 2012) and the women’s team exited the 2011 World Cup after losing to France on penalties in the quarter final stages. So what is it about the penalty shoot-out that makes it so intense?

The penalty shoot-out in a major tournament is probably one the most highly pressured situations in football; the stakes are high and the margins for error are small. Additionally, the personal accountability of individual players is probably higher than in any other situation in football, where normally responsibility is collectively shared. No-one wants to be the player responsible for their team exiting a major tournament, and history shows that unsuccessful penalty takers are often ‘scapegoated’ and ostracised by their national media. Interestingly it appears to be the penalty takers rather than the goal-keepers who tend to fall victim to this negative media attention, perhaps due to the expectations of a penalty shoot-out: penalty takers are expected to score and goal-keepers are expected not to stop them. Obviously when a goal-keeper makes a winning save they become a hero in the eyes of the media, but rarely are they subjected to the same media condemnation as a player who misses a penalty when they fail to save a penalty.

As a result of this teams often focus a significant amount of effort on preparing for the possibility of a penalty shoot-out, and the England women’s team have been reported to be doing just that. Psychology is certainly a significant factor in the penalty shoot-out. As a sport psychologist I like to watch a player prepare to take a penalty and predict whether they will be successful – there are certain psychological cues that are indicative of the outcome. Researchers have investigated these and have identified various factors that can influence the success of the penalty shoot-out. Some of these are explored in our penalty shoot-out game:

Penalty Shootout Game

Click here to play our penalty shoot-out game

As with most tasks, confidence is key. A player who is confident and believes that they will score is more likely to do so. There is no room for doubt in a penalty shoot-out. Confidence can be seen through visual cues such as eye contact. A player who lacks confidence may avoid making eye contact with the goal keeper. Good goal keepers recognise these signals and will draw strength from an opponent who won’t make eye contact. Additionally, a successful penalty taker will normally take their time and not rush. Rushing can be seen as a sign of panic, whereas someone who waits is giving themselves time to compose themselves before executing the skill, perhaps utilising psychological techniques like imagery and positive self-talk before taking the penalty kick. A player may use imagery to rehearse taking a successful penalty in their head before taking it and may use positive self-talk to enhance their confidence and focus.

Experience is obviously an important factor for penalty takers. Players who have previously successfully taken penalties and won penalty shoot-outs are more likely to be confident in their ability to take a successful penalty. The reverse of that however is that those who have had bad experiences are less likely to be confident, which goes some way to explaining the serial penalty shoot-out defeats seen in teams such as the England and Holland men’s teams – the culture of expecting to lose a penalty shoot-out perpetuates. Research by Jordet revealed  that success rates in penalty shoot-outs are considerably higher for teams who have won their last two penalty shoot-outs compared to those who have lost their last two shoot-outs (89% versus 57%), even if the team membership is changed. Interestingly ‘higher status’ players, whilst likely having more experience to draw on, are sometimes less successful in penalty shoot-out situations; perhaps because the pressure of expectation is far greater for them than for players of lower status.

This shows that the successful penalty taker is one who is highly confident and copes well with pressure. Next time you watch a penalty shoot-out, watch the players prepare and see if you can predict whether or not they will be successful.