How can football navigate the ‘profound’ perils of the online space?

Full story first published for SBS’ The World Game:

With technology and social media’s presence growing more with every passing day, former Sydney FC and current Socceroos mind-mentor Mike Conway believes Australian clubs need to work with their players to find the best outcomes when approaching the web for both on and off-field well-being.

Conway is most known in footballing circles as the ‘Emotional Intelligence, Resilience and Mental Agility Coach’ of Sydney FC during their re-emergence as a powerhouse under Graham Arnold, whom he later went on to work with at the Socceroos.

The Manchester-born coach has also worked with Socceroos goalkeeper Mat Ryan and Perth Glory. 

Recently presenting at the Football NSW 2020 Coaching Conference, he will next week partner with Football Coaches Australia (FCA) to deliver the first FCA/XVenture Mind Games Cup and has also teamed with FCA to develop accredited courses for coaches, especially grassroots coaches, focusing on the mental side of the game – a segment of which is set to include technology and social media.

“What we’re doing now, for an elite sportsperson who is trying to get good at focusing their attention, they’re getting good at distraction,” Conway told The World Game. “And they begin to crave those distractions when they’re not there. They have a profound effect.”

Though discussions surrounding their use are fraught with the risk of descending into a moral panic, it’s inarguable that modern technology has forever altered how society interacts.

Studies have shown that phone users can check their devices up to 221 times a day, while others have pegged average mobile phone use at three-and-a-half hours a day.

Floods of notifications appeal to a person’s built-in orienting response and pull-to-refresh and infinite scroll features encourage users to lose themselves in browsing.

That’s not to say, of course, that the online world is a complete drain – far from it.

Friendships, connections, business ventures and information sharing have all flourished because of the ability to connect to anyone anywhere in the world that also has an internet connection and, in 2020, the importance of being able to converse in forums has been well and truly hammered home.

Modern tech means that, in theory, the collection of humanity’s entire accumulated knowledge can be accessed from a device that sits in a person’s pocket, and the business of coaching, analytics and tactical and physical preparation has also been revolutionised by progress in data collection and information-sharing fostered by digital technology.

Nonetheless, there remain pratfalls from both a physical and mental side of things, especially in a sporting environment.

Conway details how the effects of excessive smart device usage – even before any social media app has been opened – can take away from the performance of elite athletes by reducing focus time, affecting sleeping patterns and even fatiguing eyes that blink less while browsing.

Subsequent forays into comment sections, discussion boards and other areas of the internet public square can also kickstart a feedback loop.

“When you start using social media, you’re changing the way your mind works,” Conway said.

“Notification training, I call it. You’re looking at it and you’re going, ‘oh that’s good, someone likes me,’ or ‘I don’t like that, someone said something that didn’t feel right for me’.

“What you’re doing is you’re moving into the area of the mammalian brain, it’s the limbic system part of the brain and that is from evolution, it’s all about the flight, fight or freeze response.

“It’s actually looking for a moment where you are at risk. As soon as it’s doing that, it starts to change your hormone outputs.

“Cortisol is kicking in and it’s saying, ‘oh my god, you’re at risk here’, and the cortisol is getting you ready for fight or flight; your breathing tightens, your heartbeat quickens, your sweat glands open, your muscles contract when you’re put on edge by what you’re seeing on social media.

“Cortisol is creating more anxiety in the person – it’s supposed to. Consequently, it’s taking a long time for it to be removed and what’s happening there? They’re not sleeping, they get up, they’re feeling lousy, they go to training not feeling good and on edge, they make a mistake because they’re not tuned, (they) feel even more disappointed and go home with more cortisol.

“(Conversely) if you see something that’s all good, the dopamine kicks in, and that dopamine is built for reward, so you do it more and more because you like rewards.”

Coaching a team that features prolific social media favourite Alessandro Diamanti, Western United coach Mark Rudan is well accustomed to working with players that have well-cultivated online presences.

The 45-year-old told The World Game that, when it came to players under his purview, he sought to focus on what they sought to get out of social media.

“We’ve got rules in place about what they can and can’t do, clearly,” he said. “My question is why you feel the need to be on it. I think that’s the best place to start. Why do you feel you need to be on it?

“The second question is, if it’s going to have a negative effect on you, why? Those questions are always important.

“And then we go through it’s affected me for X and Y reasons. Then you keep going through it – is the best thing for you to not be on it? Why do you feel you need to be on it? Is it a self-esteem issue?

“I’ve had this conversation with my staff, I mean we’re a different generation altogether. Why do you feel you need to get your words out to that social media spectrum? And how does somebody saying something to you affect you? As an elite athlete, the only people that should affect your life are your family, friends and your club. I don’t think anyone else’s opinions should matter.”

Conway believes that a simple attempt to place a blanket ban on players accessing social media is not a way to solve the challenges associated with its use.

As would be obvious to anyone that has dealt with children, people’s aversion to being told not to do something is so inbuilt it has a psychological term – psychological reactance – and attempts to do so can lead to negative thoughts and feelings of anger, hostility, and aggression.

“What we’ve got to do is find the intrinsic motivators within any person as to why they would actually make a change,” Conway said.

“The challenge that we’ve got with social media now for quite a few people is that it’s habit orientated – it’s already locked in. And to change a habit is very difficult. It doesn’t matter what the habit is; it’s really hard if its habit oriented. If it’s at that point, it’s not about ‘don’t do it’.”

Instead, Conway believes it’s important to reassess habits on social media and, for footballers, determine what exactly they want to take out of the experience and from there, figure out ways they can accomplish this while minimising, or even eliminating, the deleterious effect that it can have on their focus and performance on the training field.

Finding a football-based incentive that replaces a direct order with a goal to work towards.

“If you’re trying to maintain a safe environment and look after this amazing asset that you’ve got called a player, (it’s) what you should be doing not just around the brand that is Sydney FC, Melbourne Victory, Perth Glory etc,” Conway said.

“But that you also know what’s being said about your players and that you have someone able to address that.”

Socceroos coach Graham Arnold strikes a similar tone.

“It’s something that the coaches need to speak to the players about and the clubs need to take more on board: the individual dealing with social media,” the Socceroos boss said last week.

“When I was at Sydney FC, I worked so hard, and I still do with the Socceroos boys, about getting off social media.

“Not looking at it and not listening to it and not letting it affect your life and not being in a position where you’re listening to people you don’t even know. Because it can affect your confidence, it can affect your form, it can affect everything.

“It’s something that the coaches need to look at, not only tactics and training sessions, but there is also a personal side of what the individual goes through at home.

“I will always, as a coach, want to have an idea of what a player’s personal life is like and what type of environment he comes from.”

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