'O Captain! My Captain!'

Saturday, March 24, 2012

[THE PITCH] The head coach of Gothenburg FC, Torbjorn Nilsson, is a former football striker and quite the celebrity here in Gothenburg. Around Sweden, they call him “futbollsgud,” and his likeness graces a skyscraper-size-billboard in the major soccer arena in the city center. Although the size of the poster accurately depicts his statue in the community, he is rather a gentle giant. Both humble and demure, Torbjorn has a sheepish charm. The girls tell me that when you get to know him, he’s quite the jokester. I can’t wait to start my Swedish lessons, so I can get in on all the fun! But despite the language barrier, he still conveys a welcoming warmth.
Torbjorn appreciates the joy in soccer and makes an effort to spread it throughout the team. Practice generally begins with ab activation, aka belly-aching laughter, during Torbjorn’s odd and creative drills. Some days he gives us words to spell out as a team with our bodies on the field. In a recent practice, we had a mission to physically flip over our resistant partner’s body. As one player flopped and made themselves as heavy as possible, the other tugged and heaved to get their teammate belly up. Humorously, the smallest player on our team, Ingrid Wells, was paired Torbjorn. I was unsuccessful in this drill myself because I was too busy laughing as my head coach flipped my "Tiny" teammate like a pancake.

Still, when Torbjorn gives me tips, I soak it up like it’s the last drop of water in the desert. He laughed when I pulled out my notebook and started scribbling down his Swenglish. His jumbled language does not matter because for Torbjorn, soccer is a game of numbers, not words. He is teaching me how to assess my teammates on-the-field decisions, by breaking down their habits to the percentage (she is 70 percent offense and will only make a pass if she judges it to have a 80 percent chance of success.) He has demonstrated how a few inches of ball positioning relative to my foot can be the millisecond difference that wins the game. Lately, his lessons have focused on how to be a “clever” player…

Last week, we discussed the “culture clash” in soccer communication. I was taught from a young age that loud and clear communication was essential to being a great soccer player (you are never going to get the ball unless your teammates knows you want it and you are confident about it, right?); and now I am learning how to communicate without words through movement, using cues from my teammates, and reading the game. At first, I wanted to object and show him how if I call for the ball, I will still beat my defender into the space; but I remind myself that I am sitting in a meeting with one of Sweden’s all-time greatest strikers, and he is telling me how to become the best player I can be, not simply how to get by. Torbjorn seemed genuinely flabbergasted by my tendency to announce to all of the 21 other players on the field where and when I want the ball. “There is no deception,” he told me. And he is right. How effective would a play in American football be if instead of the quarterback calling a signal, “Blue 42!,” he shouted before the snap, “The wide receiver runs an inside route and I pass it to him.”

This week, Torbjorn and I went to the field to work on my movement and runs. He showed me how to get the timing right, signal to my teammates where I want the ball, and add some trickery to throw off my defender. At one point, we came to a run I was more familiar with. When I told him I felt comfortable with this, he responded with a grin, “Ah, yes, I have seen you make this run and you are alllllmost a clever player here, but…” Insulted? Yes, but smiling with him.

My life lesson here is in how to learn a lesson. Instead of focusing on the criticism, I must look for the opportunity to grow. I find this great striker’s humbleness humbling. When I normally want to debate until I have proven to the world that I was right from the beginning and all other arguments are flawed, instead I am trying to be receptive to these new ideas and add these new skills to my repertoire. I fully intend to stay true to the player I am and the style of soccer that I love. But I can still be me with some new influences. I brought an American outlook on football with me to Sweden, and the fresh perspective is serving to be an advantage for me here. But a wise traveler leaves room in her luggage for “souvenirs,” and I know that if I swallow my pride, I will have much to stuff in my bags on my trip home.

[Stoppage Time] It’s hard to write about losing. This week, we played the second leg of the Champion’s League quarter final against Arsenal at home. We were fighting an uphill battle (having to win 2-0), but I woke up that game-day morning feeling as inspired and confident as ever. The game day was full of superstitious team rituals and butterflies in my stomach, followed by energy from the crowd and smiles from my mom (who had flown all the way here to support me.) I made a concerted effort to improve the things I had struggled with in the first game, and I had some success. We won 1-0, but it was not enough and this run at Champions League is over. I’m finished now. Ah finishing… something I did not do on game day!

Final Score:
Göteborg 1 - Arsenal Ladies 0
Göteborg 2 - Arsenal Ladies 3

Rookie for life, Christen Press


Sunday, March 18, 2012

[THE PITCH] I have been in Sweden for over two weeks and I think it's a good time to decompress. I like to speckle my weekly blogs with alliterations and metaphors, as I relay specific lessons in soccer and show how that lesson altered my point of view in some way. Now, I feel is a good time to step back and give you a little background perspective.

I've brought nothing with me to Sweden but an open mind... and about 140 pounds of luggage… and okay, my 20-year-old Teddy bear, Brown bear (I was a clever 3 year old), but you get my point. I left my expectations and preconceived notions at home, as I set off to accomplish two big things.

First things first, change is scary! It's hard to leave home, especially when home is Palos Verdes Estates, Calif. But my little sister, Channing, recently brought to my attention that I am change. I love fashion, but I change my style spontaneously (not good for my bank account.) I left Chadwick, my high school, claiming to be a moderate. When I left Stanford my sister Tyler described me as "a baby hippie.” I can cut off my hair on a whim, like last month, and I am glad to be at a point in my life where I am secure enough to love it. I am determined not to miss out on any experiences in life. My motto here in Sweden is (à la Nike) … "Just do it... Just do it all!”

This season I'm hoping to have an Existential Experience Exploring the Errors of my Earlier Existence...(couldn't resist) Meaning I want to find myself and learn to love myself unconditionally. I believe that traveling and living abroad is just the opportunity to do such a thing ... but I'll get back to you on that in December...

When I walked through the gate at the Gothenburg airport, I was prepared to receive a new culture with open arms. I'm not shy or introverted. I am not afraid to meet new people or to be alone … Still, I wanted to make sure I left any tendencies to be standoffish behind. I'm not the same girl I was 5 years ago, nor do I want to be.

Another objective is is to push my game to its physical and mental edge. I have big goals for myself in soccer. It's no secret that I want to play on the world stage someday soon. But instead of focusing on the disappointments of 2011 ... my plan for 2012 is to ensure I am the best player I can be in 2013. And to do so, I want to be exposed to another facet of the game … goodbye soccer, hello football!

Some days, Swedish soccer really does seem like an entirely different sport. The players here train quite differently. I'm sure over the next few months, as I discover, digest and decompress, I will understand the differences more, and I look forward to writing about it. I strive to be a complete player. Ideally, a great finisher who is consistently great on and off the ball. If the game has four parts -- tactical sense, technical ability, mental toughness, physical prowess -- Gothenburg FC focuses is the former two, while my experience in American soccer has always concentrated on the latter. So training in an environment with different priorities feels like finding the missing jigsaw pieces. Only time will tell if I am able to complete the puzzle.

It is with this open perspective that I take the streets and fields of Gothenburg. Who is this person living alone in an apartment in a foreign country, thousands of miles from my family and friends? How will I respond to an entirely different set of norms, style of living and climate? What will happen when I hit that inevitable bump on the road? While I don’t know which way the road will turn, I’m sure it’s going to be worth the trip!

[Off the post!] Many of the girls on my team have been together for a very long time. One player has been at Gothenburg FC since 2004 and so, played here with Hope Solo. A good “core” of players are going on their seventh year together. One player read a book awhile back that said that when a couple reaches their sixth year together, it’s a good idea to have a baby or get a pet to maintain a strong relationship. Well, last year, the team decided to get a pet…!

I use the term pet loosely here, as the team actually got a bug, Pinnisch the walking stick. In Swedish, the word for stick is “pinne.” (The girls are evidently as clever as I when it comes to naming!) Anyways, they loved Pinnisch and fed it leaves and took care of Pinnisch until its dying day. The girls told me that Pinnisch is still somewhere in our locker room, but I’m hoping that something got lost in translation …

[Stoppage Time] We traveled to London to play in the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinals against the Arsenal Ladies. My very first game just happened to be the biggest game in the history of the club. I was so excited to have the opportunity to play in the Champions League. It’s a big deal! So big, in fact, my father flew from Los Angeles to London for a one-day trip to see the game. I don’t think I’ve been that excited to see my dad since I was 5 and my sisters and I used to fight over who got to go with him to the dry cleaners on the weekend.

I had been training with the team for just two weeks, and circumstances were such that I had met four starting players only a few days prior to the game. As I considered our preparation, or lack there of, I remembered that soccer is a crazy game. Sometimes you do all the right things and are perfectly prepared, only to fall short in the end (... NCAA national championship 2009, 2010)… and sometimes you do everything wrong and still win (… like when I downed a corndog during my warmup for the Surf Cup final.)

At the end of the loss, I felt both disappointment and a spark of hope. When I explained this to my teammate, she said, “I think it's a good thing because all the players are feeling this way: knowing that we were a strong team, but still could do 30 percent better. The feeling is in our hearts and we all just want to take it to the pitch to let it all out…”

Final Score:
Göteborg 1 - Arsenal Ladies 3

The second leg of the series will be streaming live on our website Wednesday 7 p.m. Swedish time (2 p.m. ET)!: http://www.goteborgfc.se/

My Valhalla aha! Moment

Thursday, March 8, 2012

[THE PITCH] Why is it that the minute the alarm goes off in the morning the bed feels so warm and cozy? The weight of the covers is secure but not oppressive. Sometimes I think I could lie in bed forever and be perfectly content, snug and safe…

The morning of Feb. 15, however, was not one of those dreamy-eyed mornings. It was the beginning of a long day spent anxiously awaiting word from Göteborg FC. And even though I signed my contract that evening, I spent that night tossing and turning under what now seemed like suffocating sheets. What did fate have in store for me? Neale Walsch said, “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” Nine days later, I touched down in Gothenburg, Sweden. Well … hello world… I’m here!

By the time my alarm went off on Feb. 25, my eyes had long been open and my heart racing. In meditation, I learned that the three most stress-inducing agents in life are change of home, change of relationships, and change of job. Today I would see my new city, meet my new teammates, and have my first practice at Valhalla Stadium … in the snow! I had, it seems, scored the stress trifecta.

Coming from Southern California, I had braced myself for the effect the cold weather would have on my personal comfort, but I never really considered the impact it would have on my game. The first touch I had sharpened over the last six months failed me time and again as the ball slipped under my boot, and it wasn’t long before my feet were completely numb. I know I had 10 toes when I arrived ... What’s more, the savvy layering technique I employed to keep my body warm eventually agitated me in every way as my clothes bunched up and rubbed in all the wrong places.

Unluckily, the physical challenge was the easy part. As it turns out, the biggest iceberg would be the language barrier. While one of my teammates tried to convey the gist of the coaches’ talks and practice rules, I apparently missed a word or two. As we began a finishing session, I was pleased to see that all my practice was paying off. I consistently drilled the ball into a target placed at the low corners. “This cold isn’t messing with me,” I thought, “I’m on fire!” The coach stood sideline, smiling and shaking his head all the while … oh wait, is he laughing …? Twenty minutes later, I realized that the fence was actually not a target; the objective of the drill was to avoid the fence and shoot into the Upper V. This is what my dad likes to call “a bonehead move.”

The constant state of confusion stripped me of my confidence. Since I could not understand my teammates on-the-field commands, I was hesitating and second-guessing myself. Unable to problem solve, I was forced into a passive role, a lost lamb inside the herd.

Luckily, the human body is built strong and something amazing happens when a person loses one of their senses of perception. Physiologically, the plastic brain re-wires creating more room for the other sensory pathways; in essence the impaired individual develops exceptional perception in their other senses as compensation. (Thank you Bio101.) This biological phenomenon is a dramatic illustration of what happened to me on the field on a much simpler level.

Listening was clearly not an option, so over the last week, I have started to cultivate new ways of dealing with the “uncomfortable.” Now, blow-drying my toes is a pre-practice ritual. I go out to the field early to warm up and shed some layers so chafing and bunching are no longer an issue. I’ve started picking up signals from my teammates and coaches’ body language. (I can actually figure out which direction my team is attacking ... Viola at Valhalla!!) And when I make a mistake, we are all laughing together! Sometimes you step out of your comfort zone, sometimes you're pushed … but either way, you’re better off…

I wake up every morning here and know it is going to be an adventure. You see, new friends come with new hopes, and new hopes lead to new goals, and all three are welcome changes. Stepping outside of my comfort zone is also building a more resilient version of myself. The days in Sweden are harder, but I find the harshness of the wind and the awkwardness of the language invigorating, not comfortable, which is good, as I know I will thrive in the discomforts of day and do my dreaming at night in my brand-new, cozy IKEA bed…

[Off the Post!] 
Five Tips for a rookie trying to survive in Sweden:
1) When in Sweden, do as the Swedish do! Except when it comes to eating pureed shrimp out of a toothpaste-like tube … then you’re better off Roman.

2) Do not borrow a blow dryer from the locker room, unless you want your hair to smell like sweaty socks!

3) Try to avoid using a Spanish accent when speaking Swedish … Espanswenglish?!

4) Do not tell the chef "inte bra" when you mean "mycket bra" unless you want spit in your meatballs.

5) Try to think of as many words that sound silly next to Valhalla … and laugh at yourself. You will be forgiven for botching Swedish culture in every way, shape, and form.

Christen Press, Rookie For Life

Finding Flow

Thursday, March 1, 2012

[THE PITCH] When I signed my contract with Atlanta Beat in early November, 2011, I took a brief sigh of relief, then came to an exhilarating realization that, for the next six months, soccer was truly my own. What to do … I could have revitalized my on again off again relationship with the ever faithful Southern California sun … The beach was calling … so loudly I could not even hear my mother’s voice reminding my 12 year old self that Pele took at least 200 shots a day.

I could have packed my bags and headed south to my family’s time-share in Mexico. The sun was shining … so brightly that I could no longer picture my old Stanford fitness packet that highlighted the dreaded mile repeat test. Having the license to choose my soccer experience has been empowering and enlightening. With no commitments, no training mates, and complete freedom, I began scheduling, all day every day, with each 15-minute interval marked neatly in my planner in permanent ink. Lifting, fitness, technical trainings, pick-up games … one after another, filling my days, until my soccer freedom became a well organized, invariable, regimen.

Soccer is my passion, my talent, my outlet. It is inextricably tied to my family, my friends, my education, and my dreams. Soccer is also my job. My game is the product I am selling and my approach for building a fine-tuned machine had always been business-like. When I go out to train, I am on the clock: I count reps and time rests. Since I was now in charge … I would have to be both the production and the quality control departments.

This is a typical day:
160 Shots in 30 minutes, 25 minutes Agilities, 25 minutes Sprint workout, 2 hour pick-up game

This is a typical shooting session:
80 shots per foot (10 of each of my favorite 4 shots, from 2 angles with alternating dribbling patterns) 30 second rest between sets

This is what happened:
The closer I came to preseason, the more intense my sessions got. The words, “You are either getting better or you're getting worse. You never stay the same,” echoed in my head all the while. But one bright December morning, I was 76 shots into my training when a young Colombian guy asked to join me. I checked my clock -- 20 minutes until pick up started -- and I tried to explain that I was not out there for fun. I was training. “Hmm,” he said, “Maybe you need to train yourself to have fun!”

This is when I realized I had it all wrong:
Had my training had become so inflexible that it bypassed the spirit of the sport I love? Sometimes what seems comforting is actually stifling. I had compromised efficacy with expediency. I had focused on the product and overlooked the process. I'm not playing American football, where there are a finite number of plays to perfect. Soccer is, after all, a fluid, free-form sport; it is the world’s game, la joga bonita, but somehow in my zealousness, this essence had gotten lost in translation. I had lost it among stopwatches and measuring tape, buried it underneath timetables and deferred dreams, and hidden it behind the everyday grind of my assembly line training.

This is when I got it right:
Skeptically, I let him join in. We worked on crossing and finishing, skills impossible to develop alone. We talked, we laughed, we shared with each other, which is also impossible to do alone. When the pick-up game started, I felt better about playing than I had in a long time. You see… I had a choice to make. I could have given in to the old me -- rigid and easily frustrated -- or I could have followed the example of the game itself and go with the flow. I decided to embrace the latter. I started coming to the field without my planner. I let my body and mood guide my workouts. I varied my training sessions, relaxing, improvising and enjoying the feeling of sweat on my face mixed with joy in my heart.

This is the pay-off:
When the WPS league suspended operations for 2012, I, like other players in the league, was left in a state of anxious uncertainty. Once again, I found myself at a crossroad. While the old me tried to rear a rigid head in panic … Wasn’t my contract written in stone? ... The new me decided to take stock of my situation and look beyond the horizon for a new opportunity. Right now, I do not know what type of preseason I am preparing for or what system I’ll be playing; I do know that as long as there are fields and soccer balls, there is a place out there for me. And so, I will do my best to enjoy the journey, and most importantly, go with the flow…

[Off The Post!] I play pick-up games at the public park in Manhattan Beach three times a week. The regulars look like the cast of misfits in a Telenovela. Some are fit, some are not; some are technical magicians, some are not; some are young, some are … not. But they all love fútbol, they are very competitive, and they are eager to teach… I’ve learned a lot of Spanish curse-words! One of my favorite guys, Spider, is not the most technical player on the field. He laughs at himself as he trips over the ball, and teases his teammates when they miss an open net. Every time I go out to play, he, somehow, scores the game-winner. After he does, he throws his hands up in jubilation and declares “YO … SOY … EL … MEJOR … DEL … MUNDO!!” (I AM THE BEST IN THE WORLD!)

An infectious grin spreads across his face like a child who spots his favorite character at Disneyland, and everyone on the field cannot help but shake their head and laugh along with him. I think his words capture the feeling every player in the world covets: the feeling of being unstoppable. It is a fleeting emotion, usually lasting only until the whistle blows, but the boost it gives our spirit sustains us long after.