The mind is a powerful thing, and in any elite sport, we know that mental drive and self-belief are prerequisites if you’re going to make it to the top.
But the conversation around an athlete’s mindset has evolved beyond competitiveness and willpower in modern sport, as increasing research shows the importance of a healthy mind and wellbeing.
During the pandemic, the practice of mindfulness has become more important than ever before and for the NSW Swifts, the ongoing uncertainty of the 2021 Super Netball season was draining.
The year started off OK, before the middle of the season turned into an absolute nightmare, forcing teams to make regular dashes across state borders to avoid COVID-19 outbreaks.
In mid-July, with two rounds of the regular season to play, the league finally established a steady hub in Queensland, remaining there from round 12 to the grand final.
By then, the winning Swifts team had spent close to 70 days away from home, but they likely wouldn’t have got there without a change in mindset.
Swifts unlock their true potential
At the halfway point, right before the COVID chaos started, the Swifts had lost three of their seven games due to inconsistent form.
With a bye week looming, the team decided to use the time to do something different, giving high-performance mindset coach Emma Murray a call.
Despite her heavy workload at the Richmond Tigers, Murray jumped at the opportunity to work with a Super Netball team for the first time.
Some of her other clients include Olympic swimmer Cate Campbell, Australian Test batsman Will Pucovski and former Supercars driver Scott McLaughlin; and their success speaks for itself.
“Emma came for a one-day workshop and we spent about four hours with her before we found out we had to leave for Queensland and all the interstate travel began,” head coach Briony Akle said.
“That day was all about identifying what it feels like to be under pressure as a team — where our mind goes when we’ve thrown a bad pass and how we get back into the game quicker.
“The work she did that day stuck with us, and as we moved state to state, Emma was on the other end of the phone. … She was like an extra player.”
In their very next game, the Swifts beat the undefeated West Coast Fever.
The difference in their demeanour was clear, and although they were tight-lipped about the details of Murray’s influence back then, they attributed the win to their recent work in mindfulness.
Mindset helps Swifts overcome adversity
The initial stages of Murray’s practice involve creating a safe environment for the team, ensuring the coach and players are focused on growth over results.
Next involves working with each athlete to determine how they look and feel when they’re at their best, at their worst, and what distracts them from reaching their potential.
These processes help the athlete to become self-aware, so they can take control in stressful situations and concentrate on the present task.
Murray said her favourite part about working with team sports is the immediate feedback you get watching them play on the weekend.
“You share a tool with an athlete and then you can see it in their game – did it work or not, how did it make them feel?” she said.
“The magic is in the athlete who puts in effort and commits to their mindfulness so they can bring their strengths more consistently.”
Beyond this, the biggest challenges Murray said the Swifts faced was the real danger of burnout with so much time on the road, living under quarantine or league stay-at-home orders.
“They have to find a way to balance being an athlete and being a person in these hubs, because when they’re away for work they have this idea that they have to be a netballer 24/7 and that can be exhausting,” she said.
“It was important to break those stress cycles by ensuring they identified positive activities that made them feel better and making time to do these things to recharge.”
Grand final mentality
In the lead up to grand final day, the Swifts listened to visualisations and fixated their mindset on getting a strong start.
Murray spoke a lot during this time with injured players like Maddy Proud, who secretly played the match with a broken rib.
“A couple of players were really touch and go and that builds a lot of fear,” Murray said.
“Combine that with the thought of missing out and when you focus on those things you can’t heal because you don’t give your body the chance to rest.
“We worked on helping them get out of that headspace, through presence and acceptance of breath, so that they were ready to take the court and get through the match.”
Each time the Swifts strayed from their game plan, Akle would call a timeout, where the team would make a quick assessment before taking a deep breath together in the huddle.
It was the mark of a composed and determined team, allowing them to stay calm under pressure.
“I can tell someone how to be present and a lot of it is around breath work,” Murray said.
“But I didn’t actually tell them to do that at the timeouts, so it was amazing to see that because it shows they understand why they’re doing it and can feel a difference.”