Monday, March 31, 2014

[The Pitch]  
 Late Morning, 19March 2014
Bankrutt is the only word I recognize as I scan Aftonbladet, a larger Swedish daily newspaper, reporting headline news. My club team Tyresö declared bankruptcy and was folding only two days before our Champions League Quarterfinal. We step off the field after our best training session of the season when the Twitter notifications begin to buzz on our phones. I look frantically around the locker room trying to understand, but the Swedish mixed with panic confuses me. I knew the club was meeting with the Swedish federal government that day, but I thought it was at 15:00. I check the clock: 11:30. The only thing clear is that the energy that sprung from a post-practice high has quickly depleted.  Everyone is as confused and scared as I am.  

Then, we receive an email from the club promising that the information reported by all of the major Swedish publications about our demise was, in fact, wrong. Well, it wasn’t the only time these publications had reported false information (I thought you could go to jail for that in Sweden. Darn that Girl With the Dragon Tattoo!). The decision about whether our team would continue via a government bailout—which in Sweden they call rekonstruktion—or if we fold would, indeed, be made in court, at 15:00. When the manager comes into the locker room a few minutes later, all he can muster is to say, to a team based in one of the least religious countries in the world, “Just go home and pray to God.”  

This wasn’t the first message I had received from the club about a “financial crisis.” The first came late last summer. There had been some unexplained mix up, and they had asked all of the players who had a "free car" stipulated in their contract to please pay the car taxes. Taxes, to the tune of a few hundred thousand dollars, which they had unknowingly owed for the last three years.  We did not pay. Another message came during the end-of-the-year meetings, when many players were asked to accept pay cuts or to agree to play for less than they had already signed for the following year. On payday in February of this year, we were informed that our salaries would be a few days late…and, “Thank you for your patience.” A few days turned into a few weeks and a few more empty promises... Finally, we understood that the club was in debt totaling $1.5 million and filing for rekonstruktion.   

Early Afternoon, 19March 2014
We must wait three hours before the court settles and seals our fate. I observe how each of us handles stress so differently. Some sit silently, some move and chatter non-stop to distract themselves. Some yell, while others make jokes. I, personally, have been through each of these reactions, but recognizing and accepting the complete loss of control over the situation acts to calm me…

On the drive home from practice, I thought about some of the moments that had passed since joining this club. I remembered the stress I felt before playing the Champions League match against PSG, knowing that if we lost, my time in Sweden would be over. I thought about the fight to continue to play in Sweden in 2014 amid the success of NWSL at home in the USA. I thought about the friends I had made on this team and the ones I had lost as the team continued to shuffle players. I thought about the rumors that circulated the week before that we would not be able to play our Cup match, as the club did not have the money to pay for our one-hour bus ride. And I even had to smile thinking about the fast food from McDonalds we ate after that game to celebrate our 2-0 victory over Eskistuna. Thank you dollar menu! All of us had reached our personal “limit,” yet we were still all here.  Up until that moment, all of the drama seemed to play out in the background, with barely any information or communication coming directly from the club to the players. We acted blissfully unaware, but were consumed with the worry of our suspicions. With what little we did know, we managed to stick together as underfunded players and staff, united in our frustration against a club that was lying to us.  

Under the rekonstruktion assessment process, however, the media had gained access to a lot of the club’s information, including salaries. There were only a few minutes separating the apology email we, received from the club and the tweets with links to articles headlining things such as: Tax Money Goes to Foreign Football Stars. The media attacked from every angle, and our inboxes were inundated with incendiary questions like, "Do you really think you are worth 10x the value of your teammate?” or, “Is your small salary a correct depiction of how much you contribute to the club?” All the while, the publications had released incorrect information that further sensationalized the situation. They published what players were owed in February as if it were their monthly salary, not noting that some players were owed bonuses and reimbursements (spanning back to 2013) and others were owed less because they had reported into camp later, thus working fewer days. That was just another blow, but one that began to break through the thinning flesh of our team.

Late afternoon, 19March 2014
The phone beeps loudly and these words flash across my screen: "We are f'ing alive." I hold my breath as I read the news from our captain and just like that, we are back in the game!

Legally, when the federal government accepted rekonstruktion it meant that they would provide the club with money to stay afloat through June. The government will pay the players and coaching staff’s salaries at a maximum of 170,000kronor per person  (approximately $30,000) over a four-month period. In June, the club will be required to have the money to repay the government and take over all club costs going forward. If the individual maximum salary is reached before June, then it is the club’s responsibility to pay that player or coach. Before the first government payment had reached our bank accounts for February's past due salaries, Tyresö would need to have enough money to begin taking over the highest paid players' salaries.

We all feel lucky to still have a team.  Everyday begins and ends with a question mark, and that makes us uncomfortable as well as gives us perspective. Nothing in life is a given. Still, every time I receive an email from the club, I cringe. Some days, I can see the energy leaking from the team during our long and tedious meetings about finances and logistics, but other days, we laugh together. When we have a great training it feels twice as great because we know we are playing against the odds. As a team, we are winning the biggest game we will ever play: staying united in the face of adversity; staying honest in the midst of corruption; surviving together without greed and without blame. I'm not surprised that our little family is closer than ever.  

When I step on the field, I don’t think about the club that wronged and embarrassed us, I think about how proud I am to stand alongside this group of players and staff. Our goals now include the resolve to show up to work each day…mostly with a smile, even without a pay-check...for each other and for the love of the game.

[Stoppage Time] We had waited five months for the whistle to blow to commence this quarterfinal  match. Just two days before, we thought that our Austrian opponent Neulengbach would have a free pass to the semifinal. But there we were, 11 girls on the pitch, my parents in the stands, everyone grateful for the place in which we stood.  Maybe all of the pent up anger and frustration served as fuel, as we shot out like a rocket launched at Cape Canaveral. And after just 35 seconds I found myself relishing the energized embraces of a post goal celebration. It was the first of eight goals we would score that Sunday to all but guarantee a place in the semifinals.  During the game we had some brilliant moments, the collective work of a team that loves to play and plays together.  But despite the scoreboard and the highlight reel, I left the field knowing it was not a championship winning performance. I cannot suppress the urge to scrutinize and criticize in the exact moment when everything seems great and easy. But as these thoughts transpired in my head, I walked into the locker room with a smile stretched across my face. For the first time in a long time, I didn’t think about money or how on earth I would tell my parents to cancel their travel plans. I was thinking about football. Order was restored and we'd won.   

[Off the Post! Our away leg sent us to the classical music capitol of the world: Vienna. And as usual, The Utfarts followed.  Let me backtrack a bit. My parents renamed our family The Utfarts on a previous trip to Sweden. We are quite the motley crew in the US. Add jet lag, language barriers, and a stick shift and you have The Utfarts. The tag name was born when my sisters, parents, and my grandmother got lost inside a parking garage and everyone started to yell at my father: Just follow the utfart! (Utfart means exit in Swedish.)

Now as I was saying, Mama and Papa Utfart were excited for their trip and couldn't wait to absorb the history left behind by Bethoven, Struass, Mozart, and the likes.  Unfortunately, it took them almost all day to just locate Bethoven’s Memorial on the map written in German, so they were unable to snap a shot along side Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. On the way back from sightseeing they came across Motzart souvenir shop and it reminded them of one of their favorite stories. In the late 1980’s, Falco’s Rock Me Amadeus was a number one hit in the US.  My parents were dancing to the song at a club in NYC when they heard their close friend singing along. "Rock me hot potato!" And they fell out laughing. Now, 30 years later in the middle of their tour of Austria's capitol city, they broke into dance and song on the street, "Rock me hot potato!" And we fell out laughing again.!

-Rookie For Life!

What Morena Taught Me About Being A Better Footballer.

Monday, February 24, 2014

[THE PITCH] I recently read a New York Times self-help article by Amy Sutherland called What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage, and, as my family had just adopted a puppy, I figured I would employ some of her advice as a refresher course on reward-based training. The twist of the article is that Sutherland begins to use these animal training techniques on her most important human relationship, namely her husband… I thought about that saying psychologists love … our most important relationship is the one we have with ourselves. So the real twist, of course, is that I decided to apply these very same animal techniques to myself… as a puppy… err… player in training. I’m quite familiar with the idea of being my own manager, coach, and cheerleader, so why not add personal trainer?

Our puppy Morena was named after a cow... a brown cow that my family had milked while visiting a farm in Ecuador. I was actually the first “Mo” of the house, but my childhood nickname lacks any direct correlation… or any rhyme or reason for that matter. But hey, at least I wasn’t named after a cow. Morena is adorable with her sleek, silky honey-colored coat, oversized ears, and white dipped paws. As for me, I get my paws… err… nails dipped weekly and I have to take my coat to the dry cleaners to keep it sleek. (After seeing the last bill, I am really considering licking it clean myself). Appearances aside, the main thing that Morena and I have in common is that right now we are both in training.

Unlike me, Morena is a social butterfly. She’s clever and expressive. People and dogs love meeting her as much as she loves meeting… and jumping on them. Walking with Morena is probably the most social part of my day; she strolls confidently through the neighborhood, hips swerving, as she introduces me to her pals. Watching her go, I sometimes wonder what life would be like if I jumped up and down, shook my butt, and kissed all over every stranger that greeted me… I digress. Jumping is bad. And this habit of hers quickly jumped to the top of the “eliminate this behavior” list!

So, how do you begin to stop a dog’s bad behavior? According to WSTMAHM, you simply ignore it. Simple? Hmmm… The entertainment industry has a saying, “All press is good press.” Well in the world of puppy/husband/footballer training… it seems that all attention is good attention. That means that every time I acknowledge a behavior, whether positively or negatively, I encourage it. To Morena, shouting, “No!” and “Stop!” is likely to promote the errant behavior because the desired affect is the attention. Easier said than done, Sutherland! Especially when it came to training myself. Morena jumps on people. I miss shots. Hey, at least I haven’t knocked over any toddlers…well, not lately! Self-chastising had been an integral part of my game for a long time. And as far as relationships go…I found the words, “Are you kidding Christen!” a real icebreaker.

So, when Morena jumps on me, I make it clear that, although incredibly adorable, I am ignoring her by physically turning my back to her and continuing whatever I am doing. On the field, if I shoot the ball off target, I turn my back to get quickly into position and continuing playing, wasting no time or attention on the mistake. Even though I’ve ignored the missed shot and turned my attention to the game, “older dog” that I am…I find it difficult to stop the peanut gallery in my head. “Bad girl!”
Sutherland also suggests that instead of training the subject NOT to do an incompatible behavior, like, in the case of Morena, biting, we should substitute something else. Instead of yelling at her for biting our hands, we offer her a chew toy as an alternative and whenever she chews on her toy we praise and reward her.

As for me, instead of telling myself NOT to miss…duh! I started saying: SCORE! In high-pressure situations like sports, the brain often does not have time to process complete phrases. In the worst of cases, the actual words can be lost and the only understood message comes from intonation…not unlike speaking to a dog…just sayin’. Studies show that this type of error-avoidant thinking has negative affects on performance. I’ve experienced this phenomenon first hand when a teammate, in the heat of a battle, screams, “RELAX!!!!!!!!” The effect is usually not relaxing. More often, under duress, the brain narrows in on the nucleus while missing all the modifiers, namely, negation. So, if you are telling yourself not to kick the ball over the goal, there’s a good chance that you will only absorb “kick it over.”

Both Morena and I are very much a work in progress. But throughout this process, I started to see how some of her natural behaviors could be really an advantage in any athlete’s training. For example, she talks with her body, and as I’ve said before, body language is paramount in team sports.  Tail tucked? Out of the play. Tail up? “Just give me the Damn ball Keyshawn!”  At the dog park, Morena really gets into her tackles. She is relentless in her pursuit… chasing down the small dogs and pestering the big ones.

Most of all, Morena listens to her body. Right now, the off-season for Damallsvenskan is the time in my life that I have the most control over my fitness regimen. And when I have control, I tend to over do it. On the other hand, I’ve had to smile more than a few times when baby Mo ever so dramatically throws herself down on the floor, as if to say, “Enough!” At just four months old, she listens to her body and refuses to continue doing something she enjoys when she’s exhausted. At 25, I still have not mastered this skill. How can I get in my lift, extra shots, and rehab if I took a nap? How can I play, write, and spend time with my friends if I stopped when my body was tired? Well, what our little Morena knows is that for quality play, you need your rest! You might be thinking: That’s Impressive…but I call it: Best In Show!

Win Or Go Home!

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

[THE PITCH] A wise man once wrote... "Again and again, I am reminded that soccer is, simply-put, "the game of life." Oh wait, that wasn't a wise man...that was me. Two years ago, when I started this blog, a thread relaying many of the experiences I've chanced upon in my football adventure and the lessons I've learned along the way, I was already aware that football is a microcosm of life. That is, that the ups-and-downs that players experience on the field mirror the ups-and-downs in life for all of us off the field. But never has this been clearer to me than with events occurring over the last few months. Literally speaking, the advent of Champions League has become a metaphor for my life: win or go home! Let me explain…

In the US, the sports world thrives on an all-or-nothing, playoff mentality. “Win or go home” is the tagline for the NBA playoffs and also the phrase my youth club coach used every game en route to the national championship. Consistency, stability, and endurance—the qualities it takes to win a league—give way to grit, big plays, and the luck it takes to win in a playoff. Of course, there is much more to winning than is visible on the field and, like the effort and commitment required to rear a child, it takes a village…

In 2006 in a small, unknown city in Sweden, a small, unknown, division2 women's professional club team made a commitment to win the most prestigious title in women’s professional soccer: Champions League. The goal was lofty and would take years and more than a few sponsors. Five years later, some of the world’s best players from several different countries joined the journey, and took Damallsvenskan by storm. And so, in the winter of 2012, when I was offered the opportunity to jump into the dream, I strapped up my snow boots and plowed my way into the House of Happiness.

I came to Tyresö one year ago with the dream to win Champions League on May22, 2014, and winning aside, my two years in Sweden have been invaluable. Outside of the American pressure-cooker environment, I've become much more confident and comfortable with the game and with myself. That being said, when I moved abroad I did it in hopes of one day making the US National team. That dream to play in my country and for my country has not left me for one moment. The main reason for my move from Göteborg to Tyresö last season was for the USWNT. I needed, in legal terms, to be released for any and every USWNT call-up, something that KGFC would not do for me, but TFF would.

Being a part of the USWNT is my number one priority as a professional women’s soccer player. I am grateful to be included in the pool and for every opportunity afforded me by the US Federation. I’m relatively new to the team, with only 11 caps occurring all in the past calendar year. Since my move to Sweden ended up being my “roundabout route” to the national team, I never expected my two dreams would become mutually exclusive. Yet three months ago, I got a phone call from the US Federation, detailing the reasons why US Soccer wanted me to come back to the NWSL for the 2014 season.

There are, in fact, so many reasons to return home to the NWSL and I fully intend to come back for this league. It’s simply a matter of when. I support the NWSL and I respect it. I know how important it’s existence and success is for the women’s game. I also know that proximity and visibility are important for myself personally, as a player just breaking into the national team.

US Soccer has put a lot of money, energy, and effort into building the NWSL. For them, a strong domestic league is an essential element to ensure future national team success as more and more countries get competitive on the world’s stage. US Soccer is also my employer. And they want their “Americans abroad” to return to the NWSL in 2014 to help promote the league, raise the level, and lure both fans and top international players. The problem is I really feel my time is not quite done in Sweden, that my lessons are not all learned. The federation recognized how important I feel staying in Sweden is to my development, and in consideration of this, a compromise was formed. We agreed that I could stay in Tyresö but only as long as the team was in Champions League: In other words: advance to the next round or say goodbye to Sweden.

Yes, I have the opportunity to make both dreams a reality: to play at home in the NWSL and to play for a Champions League title. I am grateful for that. But the moment I hung up that phone call, "win or go home" took a new meaning in my life. "Go home" does not just mean the end of the Champions League season, but it would mean the end of an era: the clock would run out of my time playing for TFF, the finish of my life abroad in Sweden, the goodbye to all my friends, and the closing of a beautiful chapter in my life.

I had thought that the most powerful lesson I had learned thus far was to separate my life from my sport, my happiness from my outcomes. In Sweden, I had found my identity outside of football. And that identity allowed me to play and live in harmony and composure. But in that moment, it seemed that I was right back where I started two years ago. Soccer was no longer just a reflection of my life. It had tentacles reaching out grabbing and clinging to every aspect of my existence. It once again seemed impossible to see where soccer ended and my life began.

When we drew Paris-St. Germaine in the first round, a team that had also announced it’s intention to win CL and then backed it up by signing numerous top international players, including two USWNT teammates, I felt the sudden pang of panic.

It was the first of many pangs over the following weeks as we began to gear up for our first Champions League rivalry. The days became colder and colder as October snuck up on us in Sweden, and it became more and more difficult to separate my football outcomes from my personal decisions. The plummet in the outside temperature ran counter to the surge in my heart rate. It was getting harder to distinguish Christen-the-footballer-free-spirited-traveler from Christen-the-over-thinker.

A week before kick-off, team Tyresö met with our general manager. Yes, it was him Hasse who, back in 2006, dreaming of a Champion’s League title, set the wheels in motion toward that end. He stood before us, surveying the room filled with some of the most notable faces in women’s soccer including players from six different countries and showed us the names of all the players and staff members that had been a part of this seven-year journey. He reminded us how far we had come and how many people shared this dream… and then he begged us not to blow it.

I sat simmering in that pressure cooker until it hit me. I could allow the heat to cook me…melt me away… or I could let it evaporate like the steam it really was.  Instead of trying to untangle this jumble of goals and agendas, I decided to crack the lid. I could not separate let alone satisfy all of the dreams, emotions and stakes in that one room. It was far too much for one person to take on, but fortunately, we had each other. We were a team. The only positive thing I could do was to just leave it all there…

And play.

Of course, we are still in the thick of things. Advancing to the quarterfinals in March has bought me some more time in Sweden, but the journey continues with the rules unchanged. As I said before, it’s only a question of when…win or go home…or maybe…win AND go home!

Mind Games.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Mind Games: How training the mind like we train the body can enhance them both.

This article originally appeared in the December issue of Our Game Magazine. Subscribe now. 

[Sidelines] The idea of athletes training their brains as well as their bodies is far from a new concept. But only recently did I start to understand just how much studying sports psychology and applying some of the tools could help me take control of my game, and my life. I had to understand the workings of the mental game in order to stop losing it. I found that using my mind to study my mind actually allowed me to free my mind!

Psychology classes in college opened the door; reading Gary Mack’s Mind Gym set the table, and the process of learning Vedic meditation all made welcome some beneficial principles. But it was a revelation of  “mindfulness” that made it all click. Mindfulness is non-elaborative, non-judgmental attentive awareness of the present moment in which each thought, feeling, or sensation is acknowledged and accepted as it is. In essence, mindfulness is acknowledging each stressful thought and accepting that we cannot control this intruder. By actively refocusing, we can strip stressful thoughts of their power to dictate our lives.  The lessons are simple and well worth learning!

At the beginning of my interest in sports psychology, I came to understand the importance of making performance goals – goals that compare me to only me – rather than outcome goals – goals that compare me to others. Performance goals are in my control. Focusing on the things I can control is where I thought I could find my mental strength.

So, on the field, when I start to hear the self-doubt in my head that stems from outcome goal anxiety – if I don’t score, [fill in the blank] is going to take my spot – I get angry at myself and begin the self chastising. I begin by yelling  -- Don’t think about this Christen!” In the middle of all this chaos, the game is going on. Perhaps I have lost track of my position on the field, of the ball, or of my teammates. Trying to coach myself into positive thinking consumes all of my attention, taking it away from the most important task at hand: playing football.

Yes of course, I want to think positively about myself, especially during a game. I’d pick confidence as the single most important factor for success. But my mistake is the emotional reaction to my natural stress and worries. By not accept that sometimes I am simply going to have doubts and by getting angry at myself for this, I give power to the negative and remain distracted from the actual goal for longer periods of time.

I thought my mental strength as an athlete would result from positive thinking. I was wrong. I thought that if I drowned out my fear and frustration with louder positive thoughts, I could trick myself. Again, I was wrong. I can, however, bring mindfulness onto the field! Repression is not the answer. Acceptance is. My power as an athlete grows from maximizing my refocusing speed, the same way my power as a person grows. Just as in meditation practice: a negative distraction? Deep breath, get back to my mantra... negative thought in my game? Deep breath, get back in the game!
Mindful Lesson #1 Let’s take it outside!

One of the hardest aspects of the mental game is fear. I once described fear as a twisted torch, simultaneously igniting the heart and scorching the soul as it leads the way. Sometimes taking control means letting go. Like flickering flames, soccer’s precarious nature can be unnerving. There have been plenty of times in my career that I’ve felt that I have played a good game, but was unable to ignite my team and we lost. On the other hand, there have been times that I was not exactly smokin’ yet the ball "bounced off my shin guard" and into the back of the net, yielding a win, and setting the crowd on fire. I am trying to embrace the unpredictable properties of this sport. They are, after all, what make it so hot! It does, however, take more than time to tame a fire. It takes patience, persistence, and, yes, power to tame my fears. A certain level of insecurity is good. I know that to play football the way I want, I have to use this fire for fuel. A mindful athlete does not battle fear – fighting fire with fire—but rather faces and voices it. As a forward, I fear missing the game winning shot… rationally, I know that I will survive the disappointment. How many times have I already done this? And yet, this thought can still emotionally cripple me. Sports psychologists say that my overreaction to this fear is due to compressed time. My real fear is actually a string of insurmountable fears: What if I never score again? I’ll probably be released from my team in six months time. I’ll move team to team… I’ll have to move back in with my parents and start searching for a new career. I’ll have to go back to school, but grad school is so expensive, so I’ll take out student loans and go hundreds of thousands of dollars into debt…

To apply mindfulness to this situation before it and I spiral out of control, I go to my room and light a candle. I close my eyes and I tell myself the words I’ve run from for most of my life. I will choke. I will fail. I will let the team down and we will lose. And… I WILL NEVER, EVER SCORE ANOTHER GOAL. In my head, I make those thoughts as close to experiencing their reality. I imagine the faces of my teammates, the smell of the pitch’s wet, rainy grass, the sound of the disappointed crowd.
Now… perhaps you’re thinking that this is the big, climactic moment where I turn it all around in my head. But no, there is nothing more to it. With a mindful approach, I simply open my eyes, blow out my candle, and return to my usual activity: these days probably making hummus or watching Scandal. In doing so, I’m teaching my body that my fears have no power over my life. I acknowledge my angst, of course I’m scared, the stakes are high, I accept my reservations, but by simply moving on, I’m taking away their supremacy. Going back to normal life just after imagining the fruition of my biggest fears teaches me that winning or losing… choking or zoning… scoring or not scoring… life will go on.
Mindful Lesson #2 Get A Room!

The more I learn about life and football and psychology, the more I realize so much of humanity operates out of consciousness. When I’m nervous for a big date, my automatic (yet archaic) response system prepares me to face a lion. My body receives a trigger—apprehension—and then reflexively begins preparing for potential combat. Well, hopefully I’m not actually going to run into any lions, so this prewired fight or flight condition is way over the top.

A mindful athlete retrains the brain to respond appropriately during sport. Using the ABCs of mindful psychology, we can see how an “untrained” brain works:
A)   My Automatic initial response to a mistake on the field:  You’re the worst Christen!
B)   My reactionary Behavior in an attempt to make myself feel better: the thought, No!! Christen, be positive! You’ll get it next time.
C)   My Consequence: Temporarily relief.
Earlier I discussed how this inner monologue could distract me from the game. But perhaps what causes more harm is that throughout this process of: errorànegative thoughtà positive combative thoughtà relief, my brain is learning. It learns that to achieve my temporary relief, I need positive self-talk. It also learns that to achieve this relief, I need the combination of negative thinking followed by positive thinking. It always goes back to Pavlov’s dogs! (And by that I mean the discovery of classical conditioning in which Pavlov observed that by ringing a bell and then presenting food, the dogs began to salivate at the sound of the bell.) Just as the dogs began to salivate before the actual presence of meat, a footballer begins to enter this negative thoughtà positive thought cycle even before something has gone wrong on the field.

While we cannot control the automatic initial response (this we just accept), the mindful athlete steps out of the cycle by removing the reinforcement. Instead of the reactive positive thought, which puts all attention on feeling better, we simply let go and put attention back on the game.
Mindful Lesson #3 Let the dogs out already!

You don’t need to be spiritual be mindful. Mindfulness is an innate, though often dormant, capacity we all possess.  I know first hand the positive impact it can have on playing football but more importantly I am starting to realize the benefit in my everyday life as well. To cultivate mindfulness is to activate our inner power to be happy…and who couldn’t use a little more of that?

One Hand In My Pocket.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

[The Pitch] “And what it all comes down to is that I haven’t got it all figured out just yet. ‘Cause I’ve got one hand in my pocket and the other one is giving the peace sign.”

Last month, the USWNT did a “friendly” tour through San Antonio, San Francisco, and Columbus. While European countries have begun their World Cup 2015 Qualifying group play – a 6 team/ 10 game ordeal that spans over the course of a  year – the US has begun the countdown to the two week qualification tournament: 11 months!

It’s interesting to note how the system of qualification highlights one of the differences between American soccer and European football. When discussing the topic of qualifications here in Sweden, I might remark how difficult it is for a team to be at their absolute best, or as we like to say in the US “the peak,” for an entire year-long season; while my European friends would surely mention how unfortunate it would be to get injured if it happened to fall during the two week tournament, or how one bad referee or a single “bad bounce” could shatter your World Cup dreams.

11 months away and the team is gearing up physically, mentally, emotionally. The United States World Cup Qualifying squad will enter the tournament in top shape and peak condition after 150 plus days together in 2014 alone.  If one “bad bounce” could change everything, then the only option is not to leave it up to one bounce. There is little room for error! But in case you haven’t heard… Pressure makes the USWNT. Well… I can attest that the pressure, that the exciting style, and the exhilarating nature of do-or-die tournaments has built an un-paralleled fan base for the team… After the USA’s electrifying World Cup (ie: Brazil Quarterfinal) and Olympic (ie: Canada Semifinal) performances, people are still coming out and lining up to watch games and meet players. In this most recent three game tour, we saw 52,000 people. WOW!

Through it all, the team never takes its eye off of the prize: World Cup Gold, a feat that has eluded us since 1999. Being the first year under head coach Tom Sermanni and officially an “off” year with no major world championships, it was certainly, and quite naturally, a time for uncertainty. While trying out different line-ups, formational systems, and playing styles… we are, perhaps, a team without a defined identity. Of course, making the team, a game roster, or even a camp roster is unpredictable, so I write the word “team,” let alone the words “my team” with tentativeness.  But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I wrote a blog at the beginning of the year called To Build Me Up, Break Me Down, and I still feel that way today.  If I were to replace the word “uncertainty” with “freedom” stating, “It is certainly a time for freedom,” then, the benefits would be obvious and…we’ve got a whole different ball game.

While I cannot say exactly what the coaches and staff are intending, I would be surprised if this exercise of freedom was not intentional. In my observations, individuals, like teams, progress marginally if left on a straight course. But when they encounter some tough situations and decisions along the way or some forks in the road, even if they chose the wrong path, they learn, and usually emerge stronger. In this way, the team would probably benefit from a few setbacks and/or shake-ups, as tougher competition both inter- and intra-squad make for a better team overall.

Perhaps there is more room for a possession-based style in the USWNT future. Perhaps you’ll see some new faces emerge on the world stage. But whatever way it goes, I’m quite certain that this team will always work to keep its greatest strengths: intensity, high work-rate, athletic prowess, and a winning mentality. A shift in playing-style, tactics, formation, priorities or players will never come at the expense of this proven edge. Sometimes we are so focused on improving, changing, and moving that we forget to see the power, importance, and effectiveness of what’s already there.

This is true for me on an individual level as well. While shifting back and forth between two very different teams, I often find myself wondering exactly how to adapt. To find success with the national team, should I forget the tools that have given me success in Europe? For example, the high-paced and direct USWNT game rarely affords the time to position myself on a defender’s blind side. Should I forgo the tools that I’ve garnered in an attempt to fit into the American system? I also know that it is really not possible or even savvy to try to play high-pressure alone…So, to be successful in Europe, should I neglect the traits that I know have made American soccer produce the most winning women’s team in the world?

When consulting my Tyresö coach Tony Gustavsson on the subject, he made clear that the answer is the same for a team as it is for an individual player. “Everyone needs to grow, to improve, to adapt, to change, and to absorb. But always stay true to your identity as a player. For you that means staying sharp inside the penalty box. Keep focused on your strengths because in the end, scoring goals is your forte and also your job.” Maybe I have the time in Sweden for little opposite movements to create space for myself, while in America I need to rely more on speed and fitness. Patience is key in my footboll, while focus and readiness is key in soccer. So yes, I can adjust the details of my game to thrive in different environments. But whether I’m wearing the red, white, & blue or yellow & red, come hell or high water, I need to finish. That is uncompromiseable. That’s my edge. The USWNT can change jerseys, players, styles, and all… you can change your runs, your first touch, your outlook… go ahead! Adapt, add, try- out, trial-and-error. But find your core and believe in it. All the rest is just icing on the cake.

I think this lesson rings true off the pitch as well. Surprise, surprise!! A theme at last!  As I move from country to country and team to team, I have tried to hold on to my own truths… or as Tony put it: my core. Most important to me is that no matter what country, what house, or even what job, I want to always be on a path toward happiness, to accept happiness as my personal responsibility and challenge, to fight for it, and above all, share it with others. If that mean’s sharing joy with fans and teammates through hard work on the field or just sharing laughter among friends, I know that’s important in my life. I take that quest with me everywhere I go and in everything I do.

The shake-ups make life exciting. Embracing them is how I stay the course. Maintaining my true self keeps me grounded and provides the balance I need to keep progressing. Going forward as player means trying to thrive at the club and National team levels… and for that I intend to use everything I’ve got!
Like they sing in the Girl Scouts: “Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver, and the other’s GOLD.” And after all, doesn’t it always come back to gold?

[Stoppage Time] I have to admit that coming off of the bench has to be one of the most mentally fatiguing parts of the game. SO much so, that I find myself more exhausted after a USWNT game where I played in the final 15 minutes than after a full 90 minutes.

Most of my comrades on the USWNT bench are in the same boat, as we don’t normally find ourselves on the sideline in our club careers. So… it’s not uncommon to hear chat about just how tough it can be.  In most of my Stoppage Time sections, I’ve tried to give you an insider’s look onto what it feels like inside the paint… well this time, I’ll share what it feels like on the pitch, but out of the paint.
1)   We “stay warm” the entire game. This consists of periodic dynamic movements up and down the sideline. However, up and down from the cold bench only seems to bring attention to just how tight your muscles have become over the last 10 minutes…
2)   Watching the game means you don’t get the benefit of the distraction of playing. I’m a major victim of my own thoughts. HELLO MINDFULNESS, WHERE ARE YOU? Athletes often say that they feel nervous just until they touch the ball. Well, if that’s not until 70 minutes after the game began, nerves can build up a whooooole lot! When you’re playing, the crowd is a blur of energy, the coaches’ comments are often unheard, and you are somewhat oblivious anything that’s going on around the game. However, on the bench, it’s not like this. I’m keenly aware of every scratch or bruise on my body and I can hear even the slightest screech. From the bench, I can see just how many people came out to support us. I can absorb the energy form the fans, and from the bench, I get chills during the national anthem.
3)   It’s difficult to maintain the necessary balance between staying calm and collected while simultaneously ready to go in at any moment. While I’m so hyped up watching my teammates, I have to contain my energy should I be needed on the pitch.
4)   After an hour of trying to remain calm and stay warm on the sideline, if you are lucky, you go into a high-intensity, high-paced game that doesn’t afford you the luxury of taking a few simple touches to get your feet wet.

Now, this is not a letter to the editor about how horrible it is to sit on the bench. I’ve spent a long time working to get called in to this team, and when I’m there I am proud of my place on the bench. This is, on the other hand, a way of taking a moment to acknowledge the efforts of all the subbed-in soccer players in the world. This list of hardships is born of the wonderful challenge and incredible opportunity. There are “super-subs” who enter the game with energy and immediately have an impact. So every time I find myself on the bench, I think of that. How can I go on and raise the level of play? What does the team need? How can I make the most of my time on the field?

Because whether we are tied, up or down a goal…when the 4th official raises a neon green 23 into the sky, it’s go time!!