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!!

Sidelines from the Euro2013 Sideline

Monday, September 30, 2013

Sidelines: From the Euro2013 Sidelines

This article originally appeared in the September Issue of Our Game Magazine. Subscribe now.

[Sidelines] The marathon season of Damallsvenskan requires that we report for preseason at the onset of the new year amid raging, bitter cold ...and finish just prior to the year-end holiday season, our final matches dusted in fresh white snowflakes. For the last two years there has been a two-month hiatus mid-season, in 2012 for the London Olympics and in 2013 for the EUROs in Sweden. During this season’s cessation, I spent the latter part traveling throughout the country to five different arenas to watch seven games and nine different teams compete in this exciting and prestigious tournament. And despite the nagging sensation – I WANT TO PLAY—I can say that I enjoyed the change of perspective from the pitch to the sideline.

As an athlete I’ve been told many times that the moment that I cross over the paint onto the pitch I must leave everything else behind me... and again when the match ends...I should...well... “leave it on the pitch.” Still, at an elite level, football becomes not only a source of income, but also a social circle, a source of pride, a vehicle for aspirations, and even a home. Hard as I try, the sport seems to transcend all demarcations. In many ways, I embrace this border-free lifestyle. The skills I’ve honed over the 20 years of my football career concerning technique, tactics, group dynamics, and training have simultaneously taught me about autonomy, confidence, problem solving, perseverance, and the pursuit of happiness. Again and again, I am reminded that soccer is, simply put, “the game of life.” And from this perspective, I refuse to “leave it on the field.”

From the stands as I watched Europe’s best football teams compete nation versus nation, it struck me that perhaps a without- boundary-embrace of the game happens on a much larger level. Each country’s style of football became vivid as if I were watching different styles of dance, and each squad seemed to move in a unique rhythm. I couldn’t help but notice that a national team’s tempo and strength reflects the culture of the very country in which it was born.

Football is self-expression. Like food, art, and dance, it is a microcosm of society: dramatizing the social order as well as the culture of its people. These teams from different nations reflect the varied virtues, vices, and priorities of the country. As I watched Spain versus Russia, France versus England, and Norway versus Germany, I observed the collision of cultures and witnessed their unique displays of patriotism manifested through sport.

American soccer epitomizes this connection between sport and society. In the land of the American dream—rags to riches through hard work—it only makes sense that the football culture centers on mental toughness, physical prowess, and dogged persistence. I would describe both American soccer and American society as highly competitive, tenacious and expedient. Like pursuing the American dream itself, the USWNT sustains a fast paced, high-intensity game throughout the match -- a pace, I might add, that few other nations can match.

At the risk of over generalizing, the USA celebrates success at the finish line, in contrast to Spain, which takes more time to celebrate the way. Known for Flamenco music and dance, bullfights, sunny beaches, and Sangria, the passionate, close-knit people of España live festival- style just about every day. I witnessed this first hand my junior year of college as I
spent winter quarter studying in Madrid. We have a running joke in my house about “Spanish time” as the rest of us wait on my Spanish roommates, sometimes hours, after practice as they stretch, talk, and shower shockingly slowly. During the EUROs, the Spanish Women’s National Team demonstrated their appreciation for the game’s beauty and nuances, as they tiki-taka’ed the ball up the field with all the creativity, freedom, and passion of a festival. Spanish football was born and nurtured on the streets, where there is an authentic and ever-present love for the beautiful game. And, although I am well aware that the USA appreciates the beautiful game and Spain does play to win, there is a notable stylistic difference on the pitch.

In contrast, Swedes describe their lifestyle with a word unequivocal in English: lagom. Over the last year and a half in Sweden, I have surmised that lagom means enough, adequate, just right, in moderation, in balance, optimal, and suitable. Lagom suggests the feeling of appropriateness, where in similar circumstances, we Americans tend to use words like “average,” which carries a connotation of mediocrity. Within the game, lagom comes from an understanding that putting the team first is the best way to reach any goal. In the USA, teams are more often built around star players; playing football in Sweden, however, the whole is valued much more than its parts. As I observed from sold out stands cloaked in yellow and blue, two of Sweden’s EURO matches, the lagom mentality was on fine display. Sweden played with group tactics, team organization, and defined player roles. With lagom, there is room for everyone to share in the successes as well as commiserate in the failures. I watched in admiration when the bench practically stormed the field after every Swedish goal, when the team marched united around the stadium to thank the fans, after their heartbreaking semi-final defeat, and when the newspaper headlines the next day read: “Save Your Tears, We Are So Proud of You.” I was once again reminded of the connection between football and the society of lagom.

Finally, Germany stole the EURO trophy with a disciplined, organized, and consistent style of football. They were not the flashiest of the competitors this year, but for the most part, Germany played minute 90 with the same intensity as minute 1. The Germans conceded just one goal throughout the tournament and squeaked out 1-0 victories in the elimination rounds. In my perspective, their compact and systematic play reflected some of the same qualities associated with the prevailing culture and economy. The German people, like their football, are largely considered a forward-thinking people, who appreciate security, rules, and planned organization. Across the board, the Germans sustain high levels of performance and stability in sports. In football this is made evident by the consistency of the player roster for this tournament. Like the present population of Germany, its women’s national team reflects a diverse yet cohesive set of talents. No, they did not play the most glittery football, but the trophy sure did sparkle.

I started this article by stating that football is so much more than just a game. It transcends the boundaries of the field’s sidelines, reflecting and dramatizing society. While highlighting some of the cultural differences between countries through nuanced stylistic variances, football simultaneously acts as a social union, thus, transcending this very notion, and emphasizing the commonality between all athletes and all people. The moment the whistle blows at the start of the match, the Russians... same as the Swedes... same as the English...same as the Danes entered an even playing field, all dreaming the same dream, ending with the same image: hoisting the Cup amid the golden rain of celebratory confetti before fans and state. 

Mind Matters

Monday, August 5, 2013

[THE PITCH] A sports psychologist once asked me to complete a simple task. He held out his index finger and said, “focus on my finger for one minute.” I directed my eyes to his finger and told myself, “Okay, that’s his finger… that’s his finger… that’s his finger, I wonder why he wants me to focus on his finger? Christen!… that’s his finger… that’s his… which part of his finger am I supposed to be focusing on?” His smug smile confirmed that he made his point. It’s impossible. “Focusing,” he said, “is the process of constantly refocusing.”

I’ve returned to the blog after a month long hiatus from writing… during which we played and tied our rival Damallsvenskan team Malmö, and I attended USWNT camp where we played South Korea and Abby Wambach broke the all-time scoring record.  I went home to California for three weeks, then returned to Sweden for “pre-second-half-of-the-season” which consisted of training while traveling to watch teammates and friends compete in the  Euros...well...I digress...My point here is...I'm back !!!
I think it is only appropriate to dedicate this blog to refocusing.

Vedic meditation demonstrates the same point as the focus-on-my-finger task. While you try in vain to focus on your mantra, distractors—impeding thoughts—creep in and fight for your attention. The point of meditation is to accept these sometimes-stressful thoughts, and by mere acknowledgment and active refocusing , you can strip them of their power to dictate your life. I have been practicing Vedic meditation for 18 months now, and only recently realized its massive implication to my sport.

Long ago I recognized the importance for me to make 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 pitch, 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 outscore me or 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 cacophonous chaos the game is going on. Perhaps I have lost track of my position on the field, of the ball, or my teammates. Trying to coach myself into positive thinking consumes all of my attention, taking it away from the most important task: 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. By not accepting that sometimes I am simply going to have doubts and worries and by getting angry at myself for this, I give power to the negative, and remain distracted from the goal at hand for longer periods of time.

I thought my mental strength resulted from positive thinking. I was wrong. I thought that if I masked my fear and my frustration with louder positive thoughts, I could trick myself. I was wrong. Like the baby Buddha I try to be during my 20-minute twice-daily meditation, I can bring this mindfulness onto the pitch. Repression is not the answer. Acceptance is. My power as an athlete will grow from maximizing my refocusing speed, the same way as my power as a person. Negative thought in my meditation? Deep breath, get back to my mantra. Negative thought in my game? Deep breath, get back in the game!


Saturday, July 13, 2013

"Riptide": A Stanford Soccer Story.

This article originally appeared in the college edition of Our Game Magazine in July 2013. 

[Sidelines] “I have failed over and over again in my life and that is why I succeed.” – MJ 

The tide does turn. It has before, but the feeling is somehow different this time. I watch with an eerie indifference as the clock winds down. Tic- toc – tic- toc. A calm washes over me like the final wave. The thought, “This cannot be happening, not again...” is interrupted by the piercing cry of the final whistle. 

What day is it? What year? If someone had told me it was December 2009 I would have believed him. But it’s not 2009, it’s 2010. And this time we aren’t drowning in the Tarheel baby blue under-toe. Instead, the shrill screams of victory are emanating from a sea of Notre Dame deep navy. The fear of this fate—back to back undefeated seasons, only to lose in the National Championship final—made me sick to my stomach for months. But in the fruition of this reoccurring nightmare, I am numb. I must be numb for I feel nothing, not the stiffness in my back nor the fatigue in my legs. 

Just one day earlier we had been deemed the heir apparent to the NCAA National Championship crown, yet today the Stanford University women’s soccer team—my team, my family for the last 4 years, my identity—now lies on the icy hard field in College Station Texas. The cries of the broken aren’t shrill at all. They are low and breathy and haunting.

Once upon a time, my fear of losing made me hate the game. My fear lost me games. I lost the game to hate. And while simultaneously fearing and hating the game, I lost myself.

The college soccer system is an excellent proponent of women’s football. The lure of scholarships gets a lot of girls playing, increasing the competition. Title-9 guarantees opportunities to play at a higher level. And the college environment brings top-notch resources (unmatched by any women’s professional environment I’ve seen), fans, and the competitive culture of deep-rooted rivalries. Yes, it was a fantastic experience; and also not a wonder why it felt like winning and losing were life and death. 

Overtime, I’ve learned that the stories that aren't often told are the ones most worth telling. The stories that begin when the cameras shut off and the reporters walk away, leaving the athletes on the field, some to pick up the equipment, and all to pick up the pieces. The stories that appear to be about losing something, well, they are really stories about finding something… finding oneself. Because, when the bright lights go off, another light comes on. While you’ve read the story about me falling down, I lived a different story about getting back up.

For as long as I can remember, I have overlooked the ocean. It is home. I watched it appear from the thick gray fog in the morning and disappear in a warm orange glow at dusk. In the winter I can observe its dramatic ebb and flow from my parent’s balcony, and in the summer, though calmer, I know that it rolls in and out in a natural rhythm. 

Like me, the ocean is always moving and always changing as a result of its surrounding elements. But more specifically, I connect with the waves because they are the way I want to be: resilient. Storm after storm, they crash and break against the cliff rocks but are not diminished. The ocean does not hate or fear the wind and the moon. It thrives on these elements. After the waves have been pulled and strained and sucked down by the tides, they form again. I have observed the waves of the Pacific breaking and rebuilding for years from the cliffs by my house, but I never realized I was watching the soul of a great athlete. 

I can remember so clearly how I felt on that cold, winter night at College Station. I wipe my face and look upward. I am still alive. I know because my heart beats hard and I choke on every breath. Losing has taken a chunk out of me, but somehow left me more whole. I stand with my team in a circle that lies somewhere between despair and hope. And with our arms linked we transcend the pain of loss. Somewhere under all the hurt, we can feel that we are on the brink of beautiful. There is something magical about being so close to teammates... it gives us a reason to carry on…to keep striving. 

So much is made available to the young player because of college athletics. While learning and honing the game, we learn and hone important life skills. Over the course of our college careers, the physical, technical, and tactical improvements, which the outside world judges and rates, sometimes overshadow the subtler yet more valuable changes in our maturity and character. The former list will surely garner the accolades, but the latter will carry you through life.  Losing is a part of life. But it’s up to you how big a role you give it, and  your choice will set your life’s stage.

“It took me a long time to realize that there ain't much difference between winnin' and losin', except for how the outside world treats you. But inside you, it's about all the same. It really is. Fact of the matter is, I believe that our only curses are the ones that are self-imposed. You know what I'm sayin'? We, all of us, dig our own holes.” – Friday Night Lights

Very Superstitious!

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Very Superstitious!: The role of rituals in sport.

This article originally appeared in the June 2013 edition of Our Game Magazine.

[Sidelines] When I was 12 years old, a close friend of my family gave me a small glass elephant that gently flickered when the light hit it just right. I kept it safely tucked away inside my soccer backpack. Soon after, when we set out on a long car ride to play the first round of State Cup—let me add here that if someone in our household mentioned State Cup back then, you might have thought they were talking about the World Cup—I pulled the elephant out hoping to get lost in the kaleidoscopic diversion. My mom caught a glimpse of its sparkle in the rear view mirror…and I’m pretty sure I caught a glimmer of panic in her eye. She asked to examine my elephant so I handed it over. It seems, she explained, that elephant figurines like mine, with their trunks turned down, are actually bad luck. And before I could say “I’d rather be lucky than good,” she promptly rolled down the window and sent it flying into a gully.

What sphere of life arouses otherwise intelligent human beings to hold on to such bizarre superstitions as does sports? I can’t quite understand it. I adhere to them, like salt over the right shoulder, and avoid them, like the dreaded crossing black cat…but I’m not sure just why.
I am sure that it was 1993 when I became superstitious. Every day…countless times a day… I would play this game with myself: In the spur of a moment, I would come up with a personal challenge—if I can stop that ball before it crosses the line… if I can jump over 3 cracks on the street… if I can swim to shore in the next minute—I’ll win the national championship with my club team Slammers FC. Soon, I was swimming so fast and hopping so far I was nearly out of breath and clearly ready for my triathlon, when fate left its calling card. I still have the slip of paper from a Panda Express fortune cookie that I opened before the finals of Southern Cal State Cup. It reads, “A tropical destination is in your near future.” Low and behold…Far West Regionals were in Hawaii that year.
For sure, none of those mini challenges affected the outcome of the State Cup games, but, when the next check comes, I might advice not to throw out those pre-sealed, sugary, albeit stale, fortune cookies.

Today in the House of Happiness, matches do not pass by discreetly. Game days are marked by florescent yellow nail polish, Meghan’s GAME DAY neon tee shirt, and Kristina Maria’s “Our Song” on full volume, windows down, voices up, hair flipping everywhere.
It’s common for a man to not shave his beard throughout the playoffs…for luck. It’s common knowledge that Michael Jordan wore his UNC shirt under his Bull’s jersey…for luck. Cristiano Ronaldo never shoots towards the goal in his pregame warm up because he dare not “waste the goals.” And don’t even think about messing with the USWNT seating arrangements on the bus.Although some rituals are downright dirty…like a former teammate who refused to wash her sports bra. Some are quite pure…like those, rooted in a team’s legend, which involve kissing a picture of the Virgin Mary before every match. When I asked my teammates/housemates their thoughts on the subject, Verónica Boquete confessed to hopping with both feet before crossing the line onto the pitch before each game. She hops with both feet at the same time because, obviously, she doesn’t want one foot to feel left behind and jealous. As for Meghan , she admits that she used to have a specific order to putting on every garment, after which she would tap her shin guards twice, stand up, and turn once to the right. But that sounds less like superstition and more like obsessive-compulsive behavior.And, since we are all coming clean here…every morning before the game, I go out to the field and take 21 shots. If a field is not available to me, then I sit on my bed with the door closed and all the lights off, visualizing myself at the field taking 21 shots. Hmm, if I deferr to the wisdom of CR himself, then I wonder just how many goals I have left in the back of my pillow…On the other hand, USWNT teammate Yael Averbuch told me, “I try to avoid them [superstitious behaviors]. Because, to be honest, once I believe something like that it'll make me go crazy.”

But is it really craziness? It’s hard to watch sports. It’s hard to watch someone you love take on a formidable opponent with no way to help. For fans, superstition serves as a channeled vehicle to feel a sense of control. Rally caps fall under this form of craziness. As for us athletes… perhaps it is because sports, and especially football, seem to be controlled as much by luck and fortune as they are by talent or skill. In our desire to achieve, it can seem like, all too often, the ball rolls the wrong way…hits the post…was out of the view of the ref …the list goes on and on. Wouldn’t it be nice sometimes just to hold your fate in your own hand…your right hand of course…and an elephant in the other hand…with his trunk turned upward. J

Still, years later, when I look back at my wrinkly old fortune sitting next to my youth soccer national championship medal, I am still in awe of its power. Not power to predict the future, but its power to affect it. If believing is achieving, then maybe there is more to superstition than we give credit.I was 14 when I succumbed to superstition. I am 24 today. Ten years later, I try everyday to be my own fortune cookie, my own college undershirt, and my own play-off beard. And I do so through positive self talk. Yogi Berra once said, “Ninety percent of the game is half mental…” Pumping myself up with positive self-talk is the most powerful and effective tool I can use. It is the process of crafting superstitious self-fulfilling prophecies. Unfortunately these little mantras don’t keep quiet during my matches. Last week was not the first time I’ve heard a defender on the opposing team ask if I’m crazy as they see me mouthing and gesturing to myself on the field. Oh well… Muhammed Ali said, “I told myself I was the greatest long before I knew I actually was.” That little bit of trust that we feel inside because of our rituals, that instant of hope found in our superstition, that moment we imagine how success feels after our “little lie”… is added power. And perhaps that power…that magic… is an edge. And at the very least, our superstitious rituals and behaviors help us cope and manage our fears…

“Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me. Insisting on this story was a form of mind control, but for the most part, it worked. Fear begets fear. Power begets power. I willed myself to beget power. And it wasn’t long before I actually wasn’t afraid.” – Cheryl Strayed in WILD.