At the end of the hallowed halls of Wimbledon, before the players step onto one of the most famous sporting arenas in the world, the words of Rudyard Kipling’s “If” are inscribed over the player’s entrance.
“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same”
“Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!”
After the announcement of a squad to participate in a tournament, a lot of the focus and euphoria understandably shifts to those who have been selected.
Who can often be forgotten are the players who, despite their best endeavours and participating in a majority of the same training and preparations, are cut from the squad. Sometimes the cut is early and other times it is the final call at the last moment.
With an interval between hearing the news of non-selection, to the time the public are informed, that pain of the cut can often be felt in isolation.
“In all instances you’re angry,” said Melissa Barbieri, a 13 year veteran of the Matildas.
“If you played poorly you’re angry at yourself but you outwardly show anger towards those that select the team.”
“If you play well and are not selected you are angry and frustrated and completely heartbroken because you know you have done everything in your power to get in.”
“You might say the wrong things in this instance as the emotions are very powerful. If you’re able to control this you’re pretty switched on.”
USWNT forward Crystal Dunn, who was the last player cut from the team prior to the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup, wrote frankly about the aftermath of receiving the phone call.
The reactions and strengths of players are often in proportion to their expectations. Being called into camp after camp builds up hope and hope leads to visualising the realisation of that dream.
While the emotions are nowhere near the same, imparting the news can often affect the coaching staff as well; whether they are club, state or international coaches.
“Any coach will tell you it’s the toughest part of their job letting players know that that is the end of their dream for that particular point in time,” said Matildas head coach Alen Stajcic.
“It’s never easy. It doesn’t matter whether you are telling a 30 year old international or a 15 year old kid that they are not in the team.”
For many of the coaches they have built personal relationships with the players through years, sometimes decades, of interaction. And the margins between selection and non-selection can be fine.
“There are always those fringe selections where you have lean one way or another for the balance of the team, for positions.”
“It is always very hard when some-one’s dreams are not realised and you are the one who has to deliver the news.”
Of course this is no consolation to those who are left behind. For those players it is about picking up the pieces to move on. Often the burden of that falls to family and friends as they try to help the player cope with the news.
“I usually coped with tears and a lot of them,” said Barbieri.
“Support is first hand given by teammates then you reach out to family and friends who will tell you what you want to hear. Or apologise for what’s happened.”
Sometimes support is even provided from those who have been selected for the squad. As captain of the Matildas, Barbieri has been on both ends of the selection news and says the support from the team can be dependent on the strength of the team bond.
“The closest team members support those who miss out. All teammates give their love in their own way. If they don’t visibly support you it’s just because they don’t know what to do. They might feel guilty for getting in.”
“I was always conscious of people’s interpretation of my support but because I was older I knew that my support was more important than what it was perceived to be.”
From speaking to players, in many ways it is like walking through the stages of grief. In this context it’s the loss of a sporting dream and denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance all emerge in some form or another.
Organisations have become better at supporting players through the process. There are professional services available through Professional Footballers Australia, the Australian Institute of Sport and in the Olympic process. Whether players take advantage of this external support is entirely a personal choice.
“Professional help was out of the question for me because I felt I didn’t need it,” Barbieri said.
“You might also go into depression which is quite real for us. People think it’s just a game but it’s not. Not when you spend every living moment engulfed in it.”
“It’s hard to admit you’re struggling and it’s hard to see that what you are doing might hurt you in the process.”
While the tournament itself is going on it is not unusual to see players on holidays or never tuning into a single minute. Others face the disappointment head on and attend the tournament itself.
As with the grieving process, coming out on the other side effects players differently.
For some it can be mentally and emotionally crippling and devastating, for others it leads to defiance; a burning need to prove to the coaching staff that they were wrong in their assessment. When being an athlete is a large part of your identity, it takes a certain type of bravery to open yourself up time and again to be judged, assessed and to be found wanting. To be rejected.
“It takes time but you get back on the horse. Bouncing back takes time but one day you go to training and you remember.”
“You remember loving the game and what it has given you. You forget about the heartache and you use it to fuel your next goal.”
For players like Michelle Heyman and Chloe Logarzo, that refocusing has led to the chance of a lifetime – the Olympic Games.