The Chicago Daily News

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

[[THE PITCH]] Growing up, one of my dad’s favorite expressions was the complement, “She always brings her lunch pail.” The phrase, with roots in American football, tips its hat to the blue-collar workers who were so hard working that they barely took time for lunch. So, “On Any Given Sunday” right before I took the field, my dad would nudge me, “You better bring your lunch pail!”

Football has brought me back across the Atlantic into the heartland of the USA, and I am awe struck by the impressiveness of Chicago. Always an explorer at heart, relocating here has made me not only a member of the Chicago Red Stars, but also, an excited and happy tourist. I’ve spent my first month trying to figure out what it means to be a Red Star as well as a Chicagoan, and I’m starting to think the identities are not too different.

On my first day here, they handed me my CRS jersey, and a few minutes later I found myself comfortably cloaked in Chicago’s city flag. I have to admit it was an upgrade from the Ronald McDonald costume we rocked on my last team. J With red stars lined across the chest, the jersey links the team to the city’s blue-collar core and the student in me wanted to know how.

The four stars on the flag represent significant events, two tragedies and two triumphs, in Chicago’s history.

One of the stars on our jersey symbolizes the Chicago fire of 1871. While most people know about the destruction of this devastating disaster, many have no idea what happened next. Faced with the enormity of debris from the fire, the people of Chicago pushed tons of rubble into Lake Michigan, creating a landfill, which is now the foundation of Grant Park. Walking through this beautiful lakefront public property, alive with museums, grassy fields, bike trails, and amphitheaters, I can’t help but think about the concept of repurposing for the greater good.
The flag commemorates the persevering spirit of the city, a spirit very much alive in my new team. It seems to be the signature of a team for whom, last season, led the league in comebacks and goals after the 80th minute. We are headed to a similar stat this year: in four of my first six games, we have come back from a deficit to steal points.

Playing in Europe for three seasons has equipped me with some new tools, and I was excited to come back to the US and try them out. While my first few NWSL games don’t compare to the great Chicago fire, I will say that they left me a little singed. After just a few minutes on the field, it was clear that the tempo and style of play were quite different here, and I struggled to figure out the timing and movements. Is it possible I am a foreigner in my own country? Practices were frustrating. I considered chucking my “tools” into Lake Michigan. Or maybe it was me who needed a dip in the icy lake. In the end, I got my wake up call from a more gentle water source!

When I wake up every morning, I look out my window at the tranquil flowing turquois water of the Chicago River. The guides on the Chicago Signature Tour have revealed that it wasn’t always so beautiful. As a young city, the river was contaminated with sewage and industrial waste. In 1900, through the ingenuity of a civil engineer they changed the direction of the river water to flow away from Lake Michigan toward the Mississippi River. Today, I’m told it is one of the cleanest city rivers in the country. To find a solution, sometimes you need to change your way of thinking, and sometimes changing your way is the solution.

When you visit Chicago today, you see a dazzling skyline of architectural masterpieces jutting out of a sophisticated metropolitan center. Amazing as it is, it’s the knowledge of all the work that is buried below the surface that has inspired me.

Maybe, for now, I need to worry less about my toolbox and get back to focusing my lunch pail. After all, Grant Park didn’t build itself. The wreckage was carried and transformed by the hard working team of people that is Chicago. The result is pretty magnificent.  My new team is a young team, and if we are going to build something great together, we are going to have to put in the hard work… show a little patience… and for me: consider a change of direction.

The Swan Song.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

[[THE PITCH]] “Now wakes the Owl…Now sleeps the swan...Behold the dream…The dream is gone.” -Pink Floyd.

I have never been less excited to write a blog post. After two and a half years sharing stories about my journey through Sweden as a professional footballer, how could I possibly skip over the biggest game of my career and the final goodbye? Well, other than a country western composer, who wants to write about a heartbreak? That is what May brought: a heartbreaking loss in the Champions League Final and and sad ending to the best chapter of my soccer life.

It seems that my journey in Sweden led me to this final...Falling in love with the city of Gothenburg...and then giving it up to surround myself with some of the best players in the game... Then... falling in love with Stockholm and the small suburb of Tyresö. Losing titles and teammates and friends... Struggling to stay afloat amongst a sinking ship that once was one of the top clubs in the world in the midst of an exciting Champions League run. So many games leading to that final game. Hello Lisbon…Goodbye Sweden!

I've played in finals before. Heck, it's been 4 USYSA Club Championships, 2 CIF High School Championships, 2 NCAA Championships, 2 SuperCups, and one Swedish Cup... The experience of playing in those games I’ve carried with me, but in the preview of the CL Final,  they seemed like recreational games. There is something about a final. In this tournament, where in each round you're given 180 minutes with each opponent, the likelihood that the better side will advance is increased. But there is just one shooting star 90 minute final, where anything you can imagine can happen. And, for us, on that day, the unimaginable did.

We stole the first half with certainty and flair, but we played at just 75% of our capacity, giving away too many balls and with a palpable tension in our game. Still, it was more than enough. We had the majority of possession and when we ran at their back line, it seemed to dismantle them. We went up 2-0 on Marta and Vero goals.

Half two was a whirlwind. They scored a great goal within the first two minutes and we took it like a punch in the gut. Deflated, we tried to keep the pieces together and defend our lead. Marta and I switched spots as she was nursing a hamstring strain, and out of position, we lost our pressure on their back line. As much as the first goal against rattled us, it was nothing compared to the second. In just 10 minutes, we lost our lead and all of our confidence. I looked at the faces of my teammates. We had so much experience on the field, but faces seemed stricken with panic. So many our fittest players began to cramp halfway through that half. It was chaos.

Against the run of play now, we scored to make it 3-2! We encouraged each other. Fight back!! It's our game now!!! We did fight, but it wasn't our game at all. Minutes later our right back Meghan Klingenberg went down with a charley horse turned total leg cramp. We played the ball out of bounds so she could get medical attention. While the play was stopped, Tony subbed our right forward Malin Diaz out for Madde Edlund, but nobody came in for Meg. Wolfsburg threw the ball in and went straight up our right side to their unmarked forward: 3-3.

When their forward scored the final goal unmarked inside the six yard box with just ten minutes to go, we didn't give up, we kept fighting until the end...until it was over. I was in shock because it was so little about soccer and so much about emotions. After everything we had been through, this was not how it was supposed to end. Yes, Wolfsburg deserved to win. They were resilient, strong, and tactically smart. As they raised the cup under a downpour of confetti I thought: soccer is a cruel, cruel game.

I've tried really hard the last few years to be less attached to winning. I would like to fight as hard as I possibly can in each and every game, and win or lose, leave it at that and move forward. I know in my heart that that is the mindset I need to be a successful and happy athlete. But still, I knew that this game had taken a piece of me. With the team ending and my time in Europe over, it is a piece that I will not get back. Once again, I looked into the stands, and there they were: my mom, dad, and sisters, where they always are: on their feet, clapping their hands, and crying. In the end, I'm the same girl I was when I was 14,  just wanting to make them proud. I saw my dad take out his handkerchief. A few hours later, as my family held me in their arms, through a flood of tears, I thanked them for coming to all of these heartbreaking finals. I assured them that one day we were going to win...and there was comfort in knowing that they are foolish enough to keep coming back...

Just two days later we were expected to fly home and play against our toughest Swedish rival: FC Rosengård (formerly know as FC Malmö.) So that's exactly what we did. For some of us: me, Meg, Whit, Vero, and Seger, this would be our last game with the team and a sort of send off... A swan song. For the rest, not knowing just what the future held at the club made the game totally meaningless. After our embarrassing loss, what would have been the biggest game of our Damalsvenskan season now seemed dimly lit. There was no motivation to play. Points didn't matter as we suspected that we wouldn't finish out league. We weren't getting paid.

What actually happened was a reminder of everything I love about athletics.

Our team-- broken bodies and spirit-- played exactly how we wanted everyone to remember us. Two days after a strain and cramps in the final, I watched Lisa Dahlkvist make tackles and spray balls like few other women players can. I witnessed in awe, Vero, who had not practiced in a month due to injury, play the second of two back-to-back battles, picking up balls and unchaining Malmö's defense at full speed. And me? I was re-invigorated by the freedom of playing solely for the love of the game. I never felt more confident on the field. My heart insisted that we would end this on a happy note. And so, tied 1-1 in the 85th minute, when I shot from range, empowered by my team’s display of courage and integrity, I knew, the moment it left my foot, it was going in. After the ball whipped right and brushed the back of the net, the team huddled together one last time. In the corner of my eye, I saw Tony unabashedly celebrating on the sidelines.

Now, a few weeks later, I can hardly remember the Wolfsburg game. When people ask me what happened, I struggle find the words. But these final images of my teammates overcoming against all odds stay with me and continue to inspire me.

Was it redemption for our loss? Not even close. But perhaps it was something bigger than that. Since then, the club has pulled out of Damallsvenskan, all of the players were released as free agents, and all of our results deleted from the standings. Still, that final ultimately meaningless performance is what the beautiful game is all about for me: getting back in the ring and fighting the next fight...with style and class.  I used to think that losing titles made me a loser... But as I packed my life back into my luggage, I knew that although I was losing everything-- not just the title, but also my team, my training environment, my life, my friends--- I had won something more.

Hej då.


Tony, Trust, and Titles

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

[The Pitch] It's the morning of the semifinal and I've woken up with knots in my stomach. I can hardly remember the last time I was actually nervous for a game, but I'm relieved I was able to sleep through the night. The first leg of this semifinal ended 0­-0 in Birmingham, and now we lay just 90 minutes and one goal away from a dream final in Lisbon. Yesterday reporters asked me, "Do you feel pressure as the favorite?" "Yes." "How does it make you feel that if you don't win, you pack of your bags and leave?" "Stressed." "Do you believe that this team can really win?" 'Absolutely, but a football is round, and if I've learned anything this year it is that not everything is in my control..." 'What has Tony told the team?" "Find a way..."
I was told that, in his first meeting as head coach of Tyresö FF in July 2012, Tony Gustavsson's words were about , "…the road to Lisbon." Taking the team halfway through the season, Tony led the Yellow and Red to a Damallsvenskan title, and with it clinched a place in the subsequent Champions League. During the winter window, he signed just two additional players, and I was one of them.
In an interview he said that I was “the perfect complement” to one of the most talented midfield lines in the game. After playing a year under Törbjorn Nilsson at KGFC (see Oh Captain My Captain!), I had fine-­tuned the nuances of running behind a backline, which Tony hoped would add a new dimension to his possession style team.
In my first full team meeting in 2013, Tony, smiling, introduced "the fabulous four"­-- his nickname for the four titles we were gunning for that season: Super Cup, Swedish Cup, Damallsvesnkan, Champions League. The expectations were high, and our hopes even higher. TheFab4 came to an abrupt end even before it began. In our first official match of the season, we lost to my old club KGFC in penalties of the SuperCup final. Tony brought the team together after the penalty shoot out. He wanted us to keep our heads up and feet moving forward. It was in that moment that I first noticed what makes Tony stand out as a coach. He was truly a part of the team. Instead of being disappointed or angry at us, he felt the game, our anger, and our disappointment with us. The loss marked the beginning of a season that would take us, as a team, through "Hell and high water."
It was difficult coming on to a team that had just won the title. It seemed there was nowhere to go but down. At the first sign of trouble I wondered if my teammates were thinking that they were better off without me. I would play alongside some of the biggest names and games in football. I awkwardly struggled to fit into yet another unfamiliar system and a team that rarely played balls into the space behind (where I had trained hard to become most comfortable finding them.) I felt my team was frustrated and unable to understand me. Our 2013 Damallsvenskan campaign seemed plagued by setbacks. The team rarely had the space to play Tony's preferred TikiTaka style. Against Tyresö, teams had learned how to sit in­--what in Sweden they refer to as "parking the bus." We underperformed, we dropped points, and in the end we hardly challenged Malmö for the title.
I remember a practice at the beginning of last year when I woke up feeling a little dizzy. I went through the motions at training, and instead of my usual post practice shooting regimen, I rushed off the field to rest and rehydrate. Tony met me in the parking lot after the training. He had noticed that something was off and wanted to know if there was something he could do to help me through days like these. I told him that I felt a little off, physically. I saw him checking my face, wondering if I was the type of player to make excuses.
Trust is THE quality in a great football team. In trust, a team finds the patience, the strength, the quality, and the magic. The team creates chances and must trust the forward to finish them. For me, no trust means no chances, which means no confidence. As we struggled through that Damallsvenskan season, I worried that I was not earning the trust of my teammates and of Tony. This insecurity stayed with me through countless trainings where we worked tirelessly at wing play, and I felt completely unnoticed and uninvolved standing alone in the middle of the park.
After dropping the SuperCup and the league title, it was clear all of our eggs were purple and white (CL colors) and sitting in one basket. Big wins against PSG and Fortuna in the first two rounds of Champions League restored some faith and lifted our spirits.
When I arrived back to preseason this winter, I had set a clear goal to help build trust within this team. I thought we were the best team in the world, but we hadn't played like it... Maybe we really didn't know it or believe it. I wondered how I could give our team confidence and earn their trust during preseason without any official games to prove ourselves?
I’ve found that trust, respect, and confidence are built from the bottom up, brick by brick...ball by ball. It is a culmination of subtle nods of encouragement and high fives and smiles. The outside world had seen us fail­, losing the title. They wrote, "How can a team that couldn't win their league win Champions? But only we, our team, had seen the brilliant save our goalkeeper made in 5v5. And many of our clever combination plays are unknown to the outside world buried under the preseason snow of a remote and small, Swedish suburb.
Tackle after tackle, shot after shot, through turmoil and chaos, media drama and bankruptcy, we showed each other what we were made of while nobody else was watching. Sure, scoring a big goal in a big game can help you gain the attention of the world. But fame can be fleeting and forgetful. You're only as good as your last game. Trust, however, built slowly within a team does not waver with a mistake or a missed chance.
In the final training before our home leg against Birmingham, I had a great practice. One of those trainings where everything you touch ends up in the back of the net and you play with freedom and power and fearlessness. Instead of my usual post practice shooting regimen, I rushed off the field to rest and rehydrate... After all, tomorrow was the big game! Once again, Tony met me in the parking lot. A year’s time had passed since our last encounter here, and I wondered if he, too, remembered it. This time, there was no quizzical look on his face. And no words were exchanged; just a smile and a pat on the back before we got in our cars and drove away...
I feel the trust we have built as a team every day when Tony smiles at us. He's always smiling, and I mean always. He screams at us during games and has to deliver us the worst news about the clubs financial situation, but he still ends his words with a flash of teeth. The sparkle of hope in his eyes never seems to fade. And lately it's grown bigger and brighter as we creep closer to our semifinal.
Tony shows up to the locker room dressed 'to the nines.' The team requested that he wear a game day suit to our home semifinal leg, so he wears it with a smile. When he walks in, he bubbles over with excitement. We all smile back. He has told us so many times before that he wishes he could be out there on the field playing and battling with us, but he doesn't say it today. Like always, his facial expression says it all: your best is good enough! But this time, we already know!

[Stoppage Time]
0': Birgmingham made this a battle on and off the field. After our first leg tie, they mocked us in the media, announcing fake injuries and even saying, "Where was Marta? In Chelsea Weston's back pocket." As the kickoff whistle blew, the war began. The last image in my head was the ball's logo: Final Lisbon 2014.

25': Every scoreless minute that passed was a minute lost for us and won by them. In high-stake games like this, missed chances have the opposite effect than normal for the dominating team. Instead of providing energy (since we are knocking on the door), the evidence works adversely to make it seem that the odds are stacked against you. Still, we play on.

45': Our halftime locker room is never loud and energetic with HBO pump up talks... or yelling... or fist pumps. We rest and we talk tactics. I, however, was deep in thoughts of a mathematical nature, "135' have gone by and still scoreless." 

50': Hand ball in the box: penalty kick! As Marta steps up to take it, she's accompanied by Birmingham's captain whispering sweet nothings in her ear like: "you're gonna choke! You think you're the best player in the world?" As the ball sailed over the cross bar the stadium was silent.

60': Our midfielder Vero Boquete picks up the ball in the center of the pitch and turns. She's been riddled with injury through most of preseason and struggled to show her true colors. As soon as she turns toward the goal, I know she's there. As I watch her dribble up the field I think, nobody in the world wants to win more than us. She lets one rip and it shakes the entire goal as it bounces off the crossbar. The mental clock in my head tells me that we have 10-15 minutes to score before the game will turn into utter chaos. We play on...

70': Our 20 year old, 5' tall midfielder Malin Diaz gets the ball. No matter how many times she does one of her signature turns, it never ceases to amaze me how quickly she can change direction. She slips a ball past two final defenders, and the rest is a blur to me. Right foot, left foot and I watch the ball slow roll past the goalkeeper into the far post.

91': We are winning 2-0 and I feel so powerful as we pass the ball around Birgmingham with control and freedom. I decide to give it one last max sprint and take the ball charging at midfield. I find Marta and she finds me back. 1-2. The first and only English word from her mouth on the field escapes: "Wait." As she sprints passed the back line, I pass her the ball behind the defense, and it's over. When we huddle around her in celebration, she's crying. She looks at me and says, "Thank you." And that is the proudest moment of my soccer career.


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!