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The Pressures of Preparing to Compete on the World Stage

A Glimpse into the Mind of Football Fern Claudia Bunge

After an evening of Mexican food, I sat down with Claudia in her parent's home in the middle of Ponsonby. With the huge spectacle of the Women's Football World Cup creeping up, we reflected on Claudia's football journey through a psychological lens. As one of my nearest and dearest friends, I have observed Claudia through most of her football career from kids, through the teen years and now as the strong athlete she is today. Her natural leadership qualities, calm and mature nature and willingness to consistently put in the hard yards have led her to where she is today. She is quite simply the bees knees and I hope you can get something out of this chat if you are or know a young athlete looking to follow in her foot steps.

Do you get nervous before games? How do you get yourself into the correct headspace?

“Yes, I do get nervous before games. Even club games. But I feel like nerves are a good thing. It means that you care and you want to do well. I think having nerves is good, but being too nervous that you can't eat or feeling too anxious is not so good. I guess I just like to chill before the game and, yeah, spend time with my family, go for a walk, get a coffee. But if we're catching a bus to the game, I like to listen to music, just chill out to kind of get me in the right headspace first.”

Any specific type of music?

“I like house music. It's not very calming, but, yeah, I like getting pumped up before a game.”

Do you ever have self doubt? If so, how do you talk yourself out of it?

“Yes, I do have self doubt. I feel like every person has self-doubt. In a game, it can be really hard at times. You dwell on mistakes at any level, but I think particularly at a professional level, you're always being judged on the performance. Yeah. It's like trying to be present and then just if you muck up or lose the ball, you just have to focus on the next job because the game moves quickly and is only 90 minutes. You are going to make mistakes. So I think knowing they're going to happen, but kind of trying to park it and move on to the next thing. And something I guess I do is if I lose the ball, I try to get on it again and just connect a pass to get my confidence back up.”

​​Was there a specific period of your career, a specific age or camp that you found mentally challenging? Why was it the most challenging mentally?

“Honestly, probably a recent camp in Turkey. That was our last overseas camp before World Cup selection kind of happened, and I didn't play much. I got on both games, but I think altogether I played about 20 minutes. Not starting definitely was hard. You start to question your ability and whether the coach rates you. But, yeah, we had our sports psychologist with us, and she was really great. You kind of just have to try to control the controllables and do what you can in training, whether you're in the starting team or second team, you still have a role to play. So, yeah, it was cool having Kylie (sports psychologist) there and yeah, just to have a bit of perspective. Like, it's obviously a big deal with the World Cup happening soon, but it's not the end of the world, it's not life or death. So I think just having a bit of perspective helps, but yeah, the recent tour in Turkey was pretty hard, but there have been a few, but I think that one is probably the freshest.”

Does it take a specific type of person to play at your level? Could anyone do it or do they have to be quite mentally strong and able to deal with the different highs and lows?

“That's such a good question. I definitely think not everyone could do it, which is why only few do it. And if everyone could do it, it would mean that it's pretty easy. And it's not easy. There's a lot of shit times but those are the times when you get the most gains. And with that, a lot of people don't like to go through the tough times. So I feel like someone who's got a good work ethic is really important, someone that's quite open minded and willing to always learn and be better is another one.”

“It's a small group of people that get to the top. I definitely don't think everyone can do it. It can be the worst when you're losing or if you've lost consecutively for a long time, it is the pits. Kind of trying not to get caught up in the highs and lows. It can be a bit chaotic but also having other things going on in your life helps. Like if you are studying or working, having other things to keep you grounded, because I feel like if you just rely on football as your one avenue of happiness the negatives can really get to you.”

How do you deal with pressure? Do you think it can elevate or hinder your performance?

“I think as I've gotten older, I've learned that pressure comes more in those big moments but I've kind of learned how to deal with that a bit more. Now I try to see pressure as an opportunity and like a privilege. When I was younger, being a teenager you can get caught up in the pressure a bit. It can be quite scary and the pressure can cause insecurity and self-doubt. But yeah, I think having been in more high pressure situations, it makes you feel a bit more confident. If you feel the pressure, I think it's just an opportunity to grow. If you make a mistake, you make a mistake. You're only going to get better from it.”

“ I don't have any specific technique. I try to keep it as simple as possible. When I'm on the field, I know my role and a couple of things I want to really work on. I'm a simple person. I don't like to worry about too many things. So if I can just keep things easy, that helps as well.”

Who have you played with in your career who you deem as mentally strong?

“Actually, a lot of my teammates. I feel like most of my teammates to some degree are all pretty mentally strong. One person I can think of from club is my center back partner Kayla. She did her knee last season in the first game. It was awful. Despite her injury, she was still in and around us all the time. I don’t think she missed a single training. She smashed her rehab. Came back this season, honestly it didn't even look like she had done her knee. She got stronger, faster, and had a really good season. She's pretty open about how tough rehab was for her which makes her comeback even more admirable.”

Do you have sports psychology resources in your team? And how beneficial do you think this is for players?

“Yes we have one for the Ferns. Her name is Kylie Wilson, she is amazing. I think she has worked with the Black Ferns and the Blues as well. She's been with us for about a year now. Obviously with the World Cup and mental health of athletes in general, the psychology part of sport is becoming really big now. Probably wasn't as much back in the day. She's an absolute game changer and I think having access to her just helps. And in sport, I feel like everything's quite heightened. So, yeah, having her there constantly is really helpful. I know all the girls love her and I've spoken to her quite a bit and yeah, she doesn't tell you anything you don't already know. So often you'll just be sitting there doing most of the talking and then she'll kind of dissect it and then feed it back to you in a way that is just simpler and kind of gives you a method to your madness. So, yeah she’s fantastic and I really hope she stays with the Ferns.”

With playing at such a high level, competition for spots is obviously tight, especially as a centre back. How do you approach this tight competition for game time during the build up for an event as big as the World Cup?

“Knowing that competition is healthy and is a good thing is beneficial. If we're all pushing each other in the same position, we're only going to make each other better. You're only as good as the person next to you, kind of thing. I think the Ferns and myself included are getting better at that mindset. Obviously everyone wants to start, but with this in mind I think we're getting better at kind of knowing our roles a bit more. If that means you're on the bench, you need to know your role just as much as the people on the field. You know, things can change so quickly and you could be thrown on at any time. The same goes for trainings. If you’re pushing the starters then it’s only going to make them better and yourself better too. Also taking a day by day approach to training is good as you don’t want to get too fixated on selection and things. You can’t really control it. So doing what you can in trainings, doing your best and controlling the controllables because you can’t influence the coach. Their decision is their decision at the end of the day.”

Do you think you bounce back quickly from mistakes?

“As I am getting older, I am getting better. Even when I was younger, you’ll remember this one Shania, at school Nationals when we were year nines playing in the final against MAGS. I fouled Jade Paris in the box and we lost the final because of that. Which is pretty heavy for a little year nine. I joke about it now, but at the time, I think our coach's reaction was throwing a chair or something. He was very passionate. But yeah, I was pretty distraught after that. Now, I don't think I would fixate on a mistake so heavily. But what I said before is that if I make a mistake, then as soon as I've done it, I will try and get on the ball again and just do something good, even communicate a good piece of information. The longer I leave it, the more chance I will shy away from getting on the ball again.”

From a psychological perspective, what would you tell young girls wanting to be in your position?

“Big question. I would say to young girls that football is a fantastic sport. You can get an education from it and meet the best people ever. But it's also got some lows and you're not going to get those highs without those lows. It's seriously just part of the journey and, yeah, I think not getting too caught up when things are going bad, as hard as that is, and it's a lot easier said than done. Yeah, just know that you should play because you love the game and there will be times where you do win or you do make a team and it's the best thing in the world. So, yeah, just not getting too caught up in the bad times. But, expect them because they are going to happen. And, yeah, it's not easy. But the lows make the highs that much better. Like I said, if it was easy, everyone would do it.”

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