‘Tough mental preparation’ key to Team GB’s hopes against Australia
Hege Riise spoke of the importance of managing the mental toll tournament football can take on players and described her whirlwind management of Team GB as a “privilege” as she readied her squad to face Australia in the quarter-finals of the Olympics.
The former Norway midfielder – who won Olympic gold in 2000, the World Cup in 1995 and the Euros in 1993 and was an assistant coach with the US women’s national team from 2009 to 2012 – joined the England setup as a temporary assistant coach alongside the Canada international Rhian Wilkinson in January. With Phil Neville parting ways with the Football Association to become manager of Inter Miami shortly afterwards, Riise stepped up as interim England manager and then the FA turned to her to lead Team GB in Japan with Wilkinson as her No 2.
“It’s been a privilege working with the staff around me to get the most out of the girls,” Riise said. “We have been working on the culture, the ‘who are we?’, the ‘how do we want to be seen?’, the ‘how do we want to perform?’ I think all the players, 22-strong, buy into that. They know what it will take for us to go all the way so they all bought into that and I feel like we have done a great job.”
The team are unbeaten, with two wins and a draw, and, perhaps more importantly, seem to have found some fluidity very quickly despite numerous changes.
Each player talks about the effect of being a “22-strong” squad as key. “We build connections every day on and off the pitch,” said Rachel Daly, who played at left-back in the opening game against Chile and on the right wing in the final group game with Canada. “All the way through prep camp I was playing in different positions. People are played in multiple positions, positions that they’ve not played in before. It’s obviously really important to get a connection with people who you’re playing with, because you don’t know who it’s going to be on what given day.”
Games come thick and fast at the Olympics and Riise has had the luxury of being able to rest players confident in the squad’s strength in depth. Against Canada the energetic forward Lauren Hemp was not in the matchday squad.
“We all know, when we have been in major tournaments, that when it is your first tournament, like for Lauren Hemp, that you use a lot of energy not only on the field but also off the field,” said Riise. “That was the main purpose for us to take her totally off to relax … she will be important for us.”
That pastoral care is important to highlight in the context of this Olympics, where the wellbeing of athletes has been at the forefront of conversations.
“We talked about the resilience that we need to have,” Riise said. “We need to expect the unexpected and be comfortable doing that. So we talked a lot about that going in.
“When we left Sapporo we were happy to change the scenery, change the hotel. There’s a little bit more freedom here [in Kashima]; it’s a bigger hotel where we can walk to other places and even sit outside for a few minutes to get some fresh air. That helps a lot – having the opportunity to choose a little bit helps from a mental perspective as well. And of course the players use [the sports psychologist] Kate Green a lot, just to get things out of their mind and refocus. For all of us it’s tough mental preparation that we have done. I feel like all of us have coped with that quite well. We try to look after each other.”
Daly, who has kept a journal to help her reflect, has had an experience of the pandemic that has come with its own mental challenges. She has played in three continents, first in the US, then joining West Ham on loan and now competing in Japan.
“I’ve learned to deal with things in different ways,” Daly said. “In football I’ve taken to watching a lot more video, analysing games a lot more, whether it’s opposition or whether it’s my game – that’s really added to my game. I’ve found ways to give back, to use my platform to be a better person and help out where I can. Things like that are quite rewarding. I am in a very privileged position right now to be able to be at the Olympics living my dream.”
There will be a sense of familiarity in this quarter-final. Australia started each group game with at least five players attached to an English club, including Chelsea’s Sam Kerr, “one of the best forwards in the world”, according to Daly. “We know the qualities that they bring,” Daly said. “It’s going to be a big game and massive test.”
Riise sounded well prepared. “I guess they will be in a 3-4-3 with three attacking players that always run the line and are always looking at being in the box for crosses,” she said. “So we will match that and we will challenge them hopefully by implementing our style a little bit where we’ve been successful. We will not change too much of who we are.”