Body Language.

Friday, April 19, 2013

[THE PITCH] “And don’t underestimate the importance of body language.” –Ursula, from The Little Mermaid

In Offenbach, Germany, a 16,000 standing-room-only crowd roared so loudly in the echo-intense arena that those of us sitting inches apart on the bench could hardly converse. The 22 American and German players on the pitch stood no chance at communicating at all. Four days later, Holland’s Kyocera Stadium was filled  with an orange sea of 8,000 enthusiastic fans partaking in a spontaneous wave so strong, I seriously wondered why the Dutch had not yet abandoned the use of windmills for energy... Needless to say, my 90-minute in-game conversation with myself was completely unheard, as well as all of my other attempts at communication with my teammates: calling for the ball, setting the press, cheering…

Back at the HOH...
Jenni is here. Tyreso's newest acquisition and Spanish international finds herself between a rock and a hard place as she speaks neither Swedish nor English. So, for the time being, Meghan Klingenberg (my fellow American companion, housemate, and USWNT + Tyresö teammate, more popularly known as Kling) and I speak English and some Spanish. Vero speaks Spanish and some English and we all smile awkwardly and point a lot....trying to communicate. 

Acclaimed management consultant Peter Drucker says, "The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn't said." Ironically, for me, this rings louder and truer everyday as I often find the most expedient form of communicating is body language. 

Minutes before the start of the game vs. the Netherlands, Heather O’Reilley ran over to me amid the noisy stadium. She had to shout for me to hear her, making her point that much more clear. She said something to the extent of… in a stadium where we can’t hear any verbal communication, the way we carry ourselves becomes that much more important. As strikers, the rest of the team will be looking toward you throughout the game, and it’s imperative to exude energy, positivity, and good body language for the rest of the team to feed off.

I've gotten used to reading players' body language and waiting for their cues on the field. In fact, forwards spend the whole game deciphering codes based on teammates approach and set up to the ball to determine when and where to make runs. But now, since playing for both Tyresö FF and the US, I’ve noticed that the player on the ball often waits for me to signal them where to pass the ball. So I have to keep that in mind. While I'm reading them, they are reading me! It is a fluid exchange of signals that neither starts nor ends with the match.

There is a whole series of nonverbal cues before the game: tons of energy is created through the exchange of high fives, pregame dancing, and smiles. Sometimes the pre-game music plays so loudly the inevitable sing-a-long is drowned out completely (and in my case that's a good thing!!), so all that's left is an amped up scene of hearts pounding and fists pumping.

In time we become, though sometimes subconsciously, aware of one another's manners, styles, and cues. For example, Kling has a unique cross that very unexpectedly bends speedily behind the defensive line. As a forward running into the box, I wouldn't know to run in front of the defender to the near post or fill the space in behind unless I could read her body language. Her approach before playing this ball is atypical, which makes it deceptive for both the defender and the other attackers, but now I’ve learned her "tell" and can react before she kicks the ball. Every time we train, I become more fluent in our only universal dialect: body language.

On the other hand, we quite consciously try to crack our opponent's body language codes, which can make our job easier in the match. For example, defenders use their body with the intent of dictating what you do with the ball. It is the job of an attacker to pick up on that body code and exploit it to your advantage. You can do exactly what they don’t want you to do, forcing them to readjust and possibly gaining that invaluable extra second, orrrr not. I’ve noticed that if a defender “gives” Marta one side, she explodes past them right through do you say "See ya sucker!" in Portuguese? 

I am happy to report that communications are improving all around. Right before our first game in Damallsvenskan, I made a point of trying to encourage our new teammate and friend. So, in slightly botched Spanish, I asked Jenni how she was feeling. Un poco nerviosa. I tried to tell her not to feel alone on the field and that we are all in this together. We ended up laughing at my misused cognate, but her thumbs up let me know she got my intent. After the match—a win and a great premier—she ran over to me and gave me a big hug and a smile. I couldn't help but smile too. Message sent...message received.

USWNT 3 – Germany 3

USWNT 3 – Holland 1

Tyresö FF 1 – Umeå IK 0



Wednesday, April 3, 2013

By Willian Earnest Henley

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, my unafraid.

It matters not how straight the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

6. X.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

[THE PITCH] The past two weeks marked the Quarter Finals of UEFA Women’s Champion’s League. Due to weather issues, the Swedish league season runs opposite to the central European leagues, starting in spring and ending in the fall. Which means that to qualify for Champions League you have to place in Damallsvenskan 9months before the tournament begins. In order to play out a Champion’s League season with a Swedish team, you have to sign for two seasons. Switching clubs last winter meant missing out on the CL quarter final this spring. So, over the past two Thursdays, I watched from my couch as Malmö and Göteborg, my rival and former club, took on their French opponents in the biggest club soccer tournament in the world.

Playing about 30 games with Göteborg last year and four times against Malmö (as well as watching the latter on TV several times), I feel quite familiar with the level of play of which these teams are capable when at their best and, also, when they are not at their best. And, while I know that the usual elements of travel, the away crowds, and playing on a grass fields put both Swedish teams at a disadvantage for the first leg, there seemed to be something more missing from their play both away and at home.

While I can’t put my finger on exactly what was missing, I could see it in the timing of their passing. It’s hard to describe precisely what went wrong, but I could feel it as I observed the familiar Swedish faces.

To put it simply, it appeared that neither Swedish team looked “played in.” Some may argue that Lyon is the top women’s club in the world because of the talented roster afforded by a considerable financial advantage in the club.

While of course, individual talent and economic benefit are huge components contributing to the team’s success (did I hear something about 100 game no-losing streak?), there is something more to the story here. Lyon’s cohesiveness and singular mindset, or “x” factor, give them the true edge. If a team is a sum of the individual players’ ability then, the addition of the “x” factor puts the beauty in the beautiful game for the fans, and the play in the game for the players. The presence of the “x” factor differentiates a great team from merely a team of great players. Like the sixth man in basketball, this variable is often the deciding force in the outcome of games as well. So, where can I find this “x”? 

In the case of Lyon, the majority of the team plays together on the national team and a large number have been a part of Les Lyonnaises for years. Unlike many women’s soccer environments today, the club is stable and established, so the players do not have to live with a lingering fear of instantaneous disintegration a la WUSA/ WPS. That being the case, players and the staff certainly know each other, and they understand each other’s goals and football philosophies. With that valuable information, they are better able to make each other look good.

On the other hand, both the Swedish teams were playing with significant roster changes for the new season and on a two-month ‘training-only’ preparation for these important CL matches. And in the case of Gothenburg v Juvisy, a match up of arguably equal rosters and resources, the more cohesive, unified, organized side won.

As the season progresses with matches and trainings, teams fight together, celebrate triumphs big and small, and commiserate failures both minor and colossal. With each training session, players learn their teammates’ tendencies, triggers, signals, weaknesses and preferences. As a result, the teams that have been together longer exhibit more confidence and are more consistent.

The benefits from this type of bonding has the potential for providing even more benefits. Research studies using virtual reality have demonstrated that mother’s can run faster/ jump higher when trying to save their babies compared to when they simply put forward their ‘personal best effort.’ The same phenomenon can be found in football too. I’ve noticed that players seem to move faster and work harder when they know their teammates are counting on them. A simple example of this can be found in training for fitness tests. No matter how many times I ran the “beep test” alone in preparation for preseason, I always ran it better with my teammates at my side. Yes, perhaps it was the heat of a little inter-squad competition, or perhaps it was something else: the feeling that when your goals include more than just yourself, you can be bigger than yourself, too. And through the mutual and consistent flow of blood, sweat, and tears...a team of reckoning is born. .

Taking things one step further, playing on a team of players that you know well and know you well creates a unique and advantageous training environment. This atmosphere can cause the most successful moves in a game can become the least successful moves in training. As your teammates learn your style and moves, it becomes increasingly more difficult to wield those “bread and butter” techniques and tactics during training sessions. Individual predictability is a game killer. You must learn that counter move and push yourself that much further to excel. Therefore, through training with familiar players, the individual’s arsenal is forced to expand and the player, quite naturally, grows.

When it is all said and done, the bigger the stakes, the bigger advantage a seasoned team has over their opponent. Knowing your teammates well is like getting the answers the night before the test: it is easier to stay one step ahead of the play, read the game faster and make moves more quickly. I mention these factors, as an observer from the outside looking in, not as excuses for the results in the CL Quarter Finals.

As the semi-finals edge nearer and nearer for the 4 remaining teams, Tyreso’ opportunity to play for this title sits idly. The start of the 2014 CL is months away in the fall. And, perhaps, even in those early rounds, we will possess the “factor” we might lack today.  The time spent waiting… just might be exactly what we need to prepare for this championship. Suddenly, it is clear…every touch, pass, sprint, every match, every practice, and every meeting… we have an end goal, and I, a sense of restored purpose.