Team GB’s Keira Walsh: ‘I work a lot with psychologists and that helps me’
After the World Cup in 2019, Manchester City’s Keira Walsh was hit so hard by the criticism she faced that she thought about stepping away from football.
In France Walsh did not look like the player who had become so integral to City’s midfield and defensive strategy until the semi-final against USA, where she played her best game of the tournament, with England’s underdog status perhaps lifting the pressure.
Two years later the defensive midfielder is back at a major tournament, after another exceptional season at City, and in a much better place. “I think it was important I got that experience at the World Cup,” says the 24-year-old, by the side of the training pitch at the Atsubetsu Park Stadium in the suburbs of Sapporo where Team GB are preparing for their second group game of the Olympics, against the hosts Japan on Saturday.
“Now, I do a lot of work with the psychologists and that’s definitely helping me and my confidence and has added something extra to my game that I maybe didn’t have before. But that experience was massive for me, the highs and lows of it, and I think I’ve learned now to just kind of stay on the same path and not get too high or too low.”
In the enclosed Sapporo Dome, where the temperature is about 10C cooler than the mid-30s outside, Walsh looked at ease in the opening 2-0 win against Chile despite her nerves.
“It was an incredible feeling,” she says. “It’s my first Olympics and I was a bit nervous before the game – everyone’s watched the Olympics since they were younger. It was a special moment for me but the main thing was the team got off to a good start in the tournament.”
Walsh anchored the midfield, with her clubmate Caroline Weir and Arsenal’s Kim Little completing a midfield three. Playing with Scotland’s Little has been a new experience. “It’s weird, I feel like I’ve known her a lot longer because she’s been around for so long and I’ve always watched her in the WSL and NWSL [in the US],” Walsh says. “She’s such a technical player and she picks up such good positions. It makes my life so much easier when she’s picking up those spaces because you can just find her and she’s always on the half-turn and trying to play forward. Obviously I play with Caz at the club and she’s also such a special player and such a technician.”
Walsh seems relaxed and happy and that is exactly what the manager, Hege Riise – an Olympic champion at the Sydney Games in 2000 – wants to see in her players. “She’s quite a calming influence,” Walsh says. “She works well with the assistant coaches; they all bring something different. She tends to sit back and observe and then pulls you on the one-to-one and tries to add influence that way. I think to have a coach that is just a little bit more relaxed and just wants us all to enjoy it is the main thing. She knows that to play the best football you’ve got to be enjoying it and that’s something that she always tells us.”
Complementing Riise’s calming influence is the meticulous attention to detail of the physical performance manager, Dawn Scott, who is tasked with preparing the players to compete in the intense humidity and heat.
“Dawn Scott’s the best – the best in the world – and she’s got us all in such great shape and we’re all ready to go,” Walsh says. “It’s the little things behind the scenes. As soon as we all stepped on the pitch we were ready. All the girls love her. She’s just to the point and very logical and you can’t argue with her methods. They’ve obviously worked because she’s won more trophies than anyone in our team, so we all just listen to and hang on every word she says. Hopefully it’ll pay off.”
Under tough restrictions that mean players can leave their hotel only to train and play, the “coffee club” (where players would go out for a coffee together) has become a “corridor club” where “we’ll have a little cup of tea at night and sit there with our masks on and just have a little socially distanced chat”.
The freedom is missed but there is a bigger purpose driving them. “It probably is just getting out [that I miss most],” Walsh says. “Just going for some fresh air; just going for a walk and having the freedom to go out and about. But we all know why we’re here: we’re here to win gold and that’s the main objective. So if that’s part of the process then that’s what it is.”