23/04/2024

Stefan Mauk is on a mission to share his experiences with junior footballers so no one feels like they are struggling alone. (Image: Stefan Mauk, Design: Will Cuckson)

When talking about junior sports we tend to think of all the positives; having fun, staying fit, and socialising with friends new and old. Little thought goes into what happens when these same young players get rejected in a trial, ignored in state team selection, or regularly benched.

At a young age, these children face adversity, and how they deal with it goes a long way to shaping the adults they will become in the coming years.

Former Adelaide United captain Stefan Mauk has identified the need young footballers have for support and is on a mission to help them win their own “Inner Games.”

Mauk can pinpoint the moment he figured out that what was going on in his head was as important, if not more, than what he was doing on the pitch. At the age of 15, Mauk moved to the Australian Insitute of Sport (AIS) and it served as a reality check.

“I got into an environment there (AIS) where I was surrounded by Australia’s top players so every day was a challenge,” Mauk shared with The Inner Sanctum.

“Playing club football back in Adelaide City for example, not that it was easy, [but] I didn’t feel like I would have poor performances often. Going to the AIS and being surrounded with players of a similar ability that’s when you start to notice that it is not so easy.

“The mind is such a powerful thing, both when you use it in the right way but also when you are lacking confidence you almost feel like a shell of yourself.”

Mauk was obviously able to overcome setbacks that he faced as a junior footballer, going on to become an A-League Champion with Adelaide United. He would then become the club’s captain in a subsequent spell in South Australia, as well as playing in Holland and Japan during his career.

Reflecting on his own mental struggles as a junior footballer has inspired Mauk to create a resource for up-and-coming young players to take advantage of.

After creating ‘The Inner Game Journal’ during his time in the A-League, Mauk is taking his commitment a step further with ‘The Inner Game Mentoring Program’, which will see junior footballers connect with Mauk himself in one-on-one sessions.

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Along with a range of journal products, participants will not be purely receiving a talk from Mauk, instead a mix of his stories, and experiences.

This includes intimate, tangible demonstrations of how to address the five major areas that underpin this program, namely, ‘Goal Setting, My Best Game, Self-Assessment, Self-Discovery, and Life as a Professional Athlete’.

“We’ve had many people present to us before and a talk is great but if I can give something tangible for them to do, that is what I’m really going to focus on,” Mauk said.

“I believe that by giving the kids some tasks to do throughout the workshop, they’ll be listening but they will also be figuring it out for themselves.

“For example, I will teach them about goal setting, but then I will actually go through it with them during the session.

“I will teach them how to set long-term goals, medium-term goals, process goals, and daily goals, while also giving them tips on how they can achieve that long-term goal by focusing on the daily goals.”

Stefan Mauk’s schedule for ‘The Inner Game Workshop’ in 2022. (Image: The Inner Game)

As an athlete, Mauk admits that the mental struggle is constant, with the difficulties often overshadowing the positive moments.

The move from his comfort zone at Adelaide United to J2 League side Fagiano Okayama in Japan was an important reminder of the importance of practicing what he preaches, especially when it started off in the worst possible way.

“It’s been very tough,” Mauk shared on his time in Japan.

“The biggest thing it [a positive mindset] has helped me with was at the start. In my first game, I got sent off after probably 10 minutes and that would be hard for anyone to take.

“I learned a lot from my year experience in Holland, I did a lot of things wrong there and I knew what I had to do right here, but then I got off to the worst possible start. It was hard, but I knew that that was just the start and that I could change that very quickly.

“The next game I played after that, I came off the bench and I scored a 90th-minute equaliser, so for me I think that justified everything that I was doing is working.

“Being over here is probably the most mentally challenging thing I have ever done, but I am still here and playing quite regularly. Sometimes I’m not in the squad due to the foreign rule, but it’s something that has helped me grow a lot as a person and I am proud of myself for that.”

Stefan Mauk writes goals on his hand before games as a reminder of what he needs to focus on. The above stand for ‘Positive, High-Energy and Aggressive’. (Image: Stefan Mauk)

Despite many elite athletes like Xavier Duursma, Jess Stenson, and Chelsea Randall utlising ‘The Inner Game’ resources, Mauk gets great satisfaction when his words positively influence young footballers.

That was the case when a junior footballer that didn’t pass his first three trials persevered and got accepted on his fourth attempt.

“He referenced my story where I didn’t make the state team for four to five years, and I spoke about how one coach’s decision shouldn’t impact your future, you’re the one that is in control of it,” Mauk said.

“It is really rewarding to hear those stories from the junior players rather than focusing on the professionals.”

It is not often that a professional athlete embarks on a project like this in the prime of their career. Growing up in a world where a professional athlete publicly sharing their struggles was unheard of, Mauk wants to become the voice he would have liked to hear in his formative years.

“It’s been a passion of mine because I have struggled quite a lot with it, especially from a young age from when I got my first contract at 16, there have just been so many ups and downs,” he explained.

“I was really frustrated with poor performances, lacking confidence, and not believing in myself and I hated feeling like that.

“I guess I really wanted to share my story and not many other players talk about that. Growing up I thought I was the only one going through it, so I really want to be the one that shares that story because these kids, they’re all going through the same thing.

“They’ve been rejected, they’ve been benched, they’ve been told they’re not good enough by a coach. If I can share my story and give them a resource that actually helps with the mental side of the game while I’m playing, it is something I am proud of.”

Stefan Mauk has given talks to schools and football clubs about mindfulness, gratitude, and goal setting. He is pictured with junior footballers from the Adelaide Cobras Football Club. (Image: Stefan Mauk)

These skills Mauk is vying to teach young footballers are obviously transferrable to everyday life, making this workshop accessible to junior footballers of all abilities and aspirations.

He admits that his messages echo many that parents try to deliver to their children, but they may be more effective from a sporting context.

“It doesn’t matter if you are doing a maths test or you are trying to make a state team, it is the same process,” Mauk said.

“If I can push that message as much as possible, the kids will hopefully realise that if you put in that work and you have that growth mindset, you can do anything that you put your mind into.

“I think this is something that parents tell their kids, but it can be more effective when a professional athlete or somebody that is living the dream that their kids want to live delivers the same message.”

At the end of the day, what Mauk is hoping to achieve is to display an example for young footballers in need to be able to look at.

Representation matters, regardless of the context, and seeing someone with a successful football career struggle and overcome any setbacks to achieve great things can be a game-changer.

“Hopefully, the day I do a presentation about my setbacks may be the same day someone has been told they’ve not been selected in the state team, so they can look at my career and think, ‘he didn’t have the smoothest of paths, so I can also make it even though I got cut’.”

Stefan Mauk will be running workshops in December in Adelaide, Sydney, Brisbane, and Melbourne. For more information, visit ‘The Inner Game’ and enquire for details.

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