PLAYING THE MENTAL GAME

Written by Jennifer Hoar

In any sport, keeping your emotions in check can be the difference between winning a championship, or falling devastatingly short.

Year after year we see the best teams do it, and we’re now seeing that focus on mental strength filtering down through the ranks of ultimate.

For Michaela Dunmall – who grew up in the UK before moving to South Australia with her family in 2002 – it’s a work in progress, although you wouldn’t know it on the surface.

The Adelaide Dragons receiver is part of the Australian Firetails’ upcoming Asia-Oceanic Ultimate Championships campaign, with coaches Anna Rogacki and Sarah Wentworth challenging players to become stronger mentally as well as physically.

“For me that was a lot about regulating my emotions and really learning to sort of take them more in stride rather than, I guess, having more of a childish reaction,” Michaela says.

“I think it changes the way you take on hard games … the frustration that comes with a tight game can, if you let that take over it’s the difference between potentially winning and losing a game sometimes and that’s always a bit heart-breaking, losing a game when it’s so close.”

Dunmall

That sort of frustration really marked the Dragons’ inaugural year in the AUL, with the side ending the 2018 season without a win despite some truly gutsy performances.

Michaela admits that was “rough”, but doesn’t regret a moment of her first AUL season.

“I’m not going to lie, the first year was hard,” she says.

“Going without a win is rough … it happens but I think, I think in terms of just advancing my play and especially my confidence, it was really important for me personally that I play.

“There were some fairly impeccable athletes playing in the AUL and it’s not often you get a chance to play high-level mixed with such a talented group of players from all over Australia.”

Inspiring her fellow South Australians

Being a part of the AUL is something Michaela feels is important, not just for her own growth, but for the development of the game in South Australia.

The state didn’t send a team to any national competition in the 2019 women’s season, with player numbers not sufficient to sustain the level of competitiveness seen in South Australian teams of the past.

“Giving up” the 2019 season was “a loss”, Michaela says, but the clubs instead decided to focus their energies on 2020, when they will host the Division 1 Australian Ultimate Championships in Adelaide.

“[We’re] really taking, almost a full year approach to developing a culture and a team that we can be proud of and, we think, that’s going to succeed as well,” she says.

Michaela’s first year in the AUL saw her literally play alongside one her heroes in Michelle Phillips; Michaela emulated Mish when she first started playing ultimate.

She hopes the competition can inspire more South Australian women to reach for the stars.

“Coming from such a small state, a lot of the player base is male and I think … having a professional league that’s focused entirely on that [gender equity] is super important and I think super valuable for, not only young, newer female players, but also males, to go ‘that’s how I want to play ultimate’,” Michaela says.

“It really just drives the culture from the bottom, like we really are looking to invest in our social leagues and our state leagues, and investing in women there and showing them that sometimes, you know, social league isn’t … the best of what our sport is able to do for their confidence.

“I really stand by the argument that the top women in South Australia are able to match the top women in any other state – potentially barring the few phenomenal athletes out there like your Cat Phillips [Melbourne Flames], etc.”

Retaining women the key to growth

Recruiting and retaining women in mixed ultimate leagues can be challenging, with fear of injury and feeling excluded all too commonly cited as the reasons newer women give up on the sport.

It’s a phenomenon experienced everywhere from Adelaide to Townsville and even the regional NSW town of Dubbo – where I live – with the shortage of female players the main barrier to the growth of our leagues.

Michaela, like many others, regards mixed as “a tougher route to go down as an elite female player”.

She says “I really do love playing women’s high level”, but hopes the AUL will inspire more inclusive mixed competitions across the country for everyone to enjoy.

“A bunch of people said that it [the AUL] wouldn’t work and … people wouldn’t be able to invest in it,” Michaela says.

“But it’s really exciting and I do hope it creates a foundation for something that people aspire to play in, hopefully long after I’m retired in ideally 10 to 15 years.

“Yeah. It does make me really excited just for the whole new journey of building confidence in something that as a professional – it sounds silly to say a professional player – but something that people can aspire to.”

As for the mental strength, Michaela admits she’s “still learning”. But she would recommend it to players at all levels of the game.

“This is something I wish I had instilled in me as a social league player, really not undervaluing looking at the skills of other people, and going ‘I want to do that’,” Michaela says.

“We talk about 10,000 hours to make something perfect, but those 10,000 hours can both be physical and mental, so … or if you want to be a handler, visualising a wider range of throws … or if you want to be a receiver, you know, get a look at different teams and their cutting patterns and things like that.

“Don’t underestimate the power of mental visualisation for skills you want to get better at, as well as the physical practice.”