Olympic bronze medallist Rowena Webster on how she got her head back in the game. By Jack Kerr.
Mind craft: Rowena Webster, 28, water polo player
In this story
You hear about the importance of the one percenters. Sports psychology gives you more than that. It’s totally cutting edge. It can be the difference between finishing sixth and winning gold. But there can be a stigma around it, like you’re weak if you need it. We have two sports psychologists at the VIS [Victorian Institute of Sport], and I think they are the most underused practitioners we have there.
I was really hesitant about using a sport psychologist at first. I had in my head that I can’t use one from where I train. I wanted it to be separate. Which now I think is so funny. Ignorant. And I would get frustrated that the answers weren’t coming straight away, and was thinking it was the biggest waste of money.
I can’t remember my breakthrough moment. But I probably cried. Actually, I think it was about a communication breakdown with the coach. Because I was a young girl at the time, if there were any problems, I would go through the senior girls in the team. But I wanted to be strong enough to be able to go straight to him, even if it was hard. So we broke through the barrier of what was stopping me and I walked out of that session feeling like I’d lost 10 kilos I never knew I was carrying.
“Boom!” That’s my cue word. When I’m feeling frazzled during a match, I just say that word and it helps me go through all these processes to calm me down. All those processes used to take me 15 minutes, but now I’ve got the cue word, I can go through them in three seconds. Everyone knows I’m nervous before a game, and there’s one player who’ll say it to me in a Mr Bean voice. It’ll will snap me out of it, straight away.
I couldn’t get to the root of my inconsistency verbally, so we did almost like a data analysis of my life. For months on end, I would map out my training, schedule, personal life and all that, and I’d also score myself after every game. We could see these waves in my performance and could link them to what was going on in my life map. It was evidence of a theme, and a lot of it had to do with routine – which you’re not getting much of when you’re on tour.
So I had to learn to be either comfortable with being uncomfortable about routine, or find routine in a non-routine system. I now try to incorporate things I do in my home life into my time overseas. It might be something as simple as getting up early so I have time to myself to read the news. That helps me feel grounded, not like I’m in a bubble. I always knew that touring was different to home life, but since I wasn’t unhappy, I never noticed it affecting my performance.
I missed a pretty important penalty, and it haunted me literally for two years. That one shot. The pressure, the situation. And leading up to the Olympics, I knew no matter what I did physically, I was going to not be right unless I addressed it. Doubts about that missed penalty, they still come up. But I smile at that thought, and push it straight back out.
We had a burning ceremony to get rid of all our superstitions. Some of the girls had epic superstitions that they were struggling to let go of. Some were completely attached to something physical that they had to take on tour. They wouldn’t have played if they lost it or it had gotten stolen. So we literally burnt all these things as a team.
Leadership is another big part of it. Just look at the Western Bulldogs. To win an AFL grand final with no real superstars, that comes from a really good leadership style. Everyone needs to feel like they are a valued member of the team. Every action of every player is important, and valued and noticed. The best systems work when you get rewarded for things that most spectators may not have even seen.
There’s a saying that if you’re happy and comfortable in your life, your sport does the talking for you. I’ve only had to deal with minor things, but some athletes are carrying things from their past into their game. They might be affected by things they didn’t even know they were affected by. And a lot of athletes think they can use sport as a way of bringing down the roller doors on life. That it frees them from those issues. But they are interlocked. It’s not a separate world we are in.
• Rugby union: World Sevens Series finals
Saturday, 4.30pm (AEDT), The Sevens Stadium, Dubai
• Soccer: A-League – Central Coast Mariners v Western Sydney Wanderers
Saturday, 5.35pm (AEDT), Central Coast Stadium, Gosford
• Soccer: W-League – Adelaide United v Canberra United
Saturday, 7pm (ACDT), Elite Systems Football Centre, Adelaide
• Cricket: Australia v New Zealand, ODI series
Sunday, 2.20pm (AEDT), Sydney Cricket Ground
Tuesday, 2.20pm (AEDT), Manuka Oval, Canberra
Friday, 2.20pm (AEDT), Melbourne Cricket Ground
• Basketball: WNBL – Bendigo Spirit v Dandenong Rangers
Sunday, 3pm (AEDT), Bendigo Stadium
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 3, 2016 as "Mind craft".
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