In a 2014 World Cup qualifying match this past Wednesday, Portugal and Sweden played a scoreless first half. The highly anticipated game featured Portugal captain Cristiano Ronaldo and Sweden captain Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Unlike the first half, the two acclaimed strikers and captains did not leave the second half scoreless. Five minutes into the second half, Ronaldo scored his first goal off of a through ball. With twenty minutes left in the game, Ibrahimovic scored two goals within four minutes, giving Sweden a 2-1 lead. Only five minutes after Ibrahimovic put Sweden ahead, Ronaldo scored two goals in five minutes, completing a hat trick and securing Portugal’s spot in the 2014 World Cup with a 3-1 victory over Sweden.
As seen in Wednesday’s game, fierce competition can bring out the best in great players. Although Sweden lost to Portugal, both Ibrahimovic and Ronaldo performed exceptionally well, particularly in the second half, demonstrating their killer instincts. Players with killer instinct possess a competitive drive and the ability to be assertive and work hard no matter the obstacles they may face. For example, when down 3-0, killer instinct pushes these players to persevere and remain assertive, rather than lose their intensity, determination, and passion for competition. On the contrary, when beating a team by a significant margin at halftime, players with killer instant continue to play with all their effort and drive, not allowing themselves to lose focus or intensity; in this regard, they are respecting their opponents and the game by continuing to put forth their best effort. Players with killer instinct love to compete, regardless of the score or their competition. One way to develop your killer instinct is to set challenging goals for yourself. Think about what your ultimate outcome goal is as a player; maybe you want to win the championship or play at the professional level. Use this outcome goal as motivation to guide your play and the process goals you create and focus on during each training session. For Ibrahimovic and Ronaldo, the goal of playing in the 2014 World Cup may have fueled their killer instinct and phenomenal play in Wednesday’s qualifying game.
The Portland Timbers are preparing to meet Real Salt Lake in the second leg of the MLS Western Conference Championship this Sunday. They find themselves down 4-2 on aggregate, with 90 minutes and a two-goal deficit standing between them and a first-time appearance in the MLS Cup championship game. After a regular season spanning 8 months and a fairly consistent game schedule, players have grown accustomed to performing on a weekly basis. However, ahead of the most important matchup of the season, both teams must cope with the lengthy break in between the two-leg MLS semifinal. With a 14-day break in between the two legs, both teams face the danger of letting their training intensity drop before heading into the biggest game of the season thus far.
Timbers coach Caleb Porter gave his players the weekend off to “recharge the batteries,” and when it came time to train, put the first team and reserves through a realistic match to simulate and address Real Salt Lake’s tendencies. He believes that the much-needed time away from the field, along with consistently high intensity in training will prepare his players heading into Sunday’s second leg in Portland.
In the steady rhythm of a typical regular season and playoff schedule, it can be easier to maintain a high level of intensity and focus each week because players are able to establish and enjoy a consistent routine. A game is played, followed by a day or two of recovery, and a few days of tactical preparation for the next game. But what happens when this routine is disrupted? When you are faced with a longer break in between games, it may be challenging to stay focused and prepared. Players should strive to develop a healthy balance of recovery and training. Give yourself some time to recharge, but also use training time wisely and put forth enough effort to ensure that your intensity remains as high as it was during the regular season. Using a process-focused approach (rather than an outcome-focused approach) in training may help you maintain focus and high intensity during times when it is more difficult to do so. To do this, set short-term process goals for each training session. These small milestones or objectives can help you stay engaged and focused, so that you are ready to perform at your highest level when the whistle blows.
Intuition is sometimes called your instinct, sixth sense, or gut reaction. It is your automatic way of responding to a situation without analyzing it or consciously thinking about it. With intuition it seems like you just know how to respond, even to a situation that you have never encountered before.
People with good intuition are able to process information quickly by recognizing patterns that they have seen before. A good way to develop this pattern recognition in sport is through experience and repetition. The more deliberate effort you put into your sport, the better your intuition will be. Increased repetition of skills and mindful pattern recognition helps you learn to make decisions quicker. Your responses become automatic.
Here are some ideas to improve your intuition:
• Start to pay attention to your initial response to situations. What does your gut tell you? How often do you follow your gut? What kind of results do you get?
• Silence your inner critic. If you tend to ignore your intuition, it may be due to self-doubt or over analyzing. Try to listen to your intuition without judgment and follow it without hesitation. Trust yourself and be willing to take risks.
• Increase your focus to help with pattern recognition. Make sure you attend to the information around you. Having information will help you make the best decisions possible.
• Repetition, repetition, repetition. The more time spent in your sport engaging in deliberate practice (either at practice or on your own), the better your intuition will be.
The ability to make quick and fluid decisions is essential on the soccer field. Players can be decisive when they use their intuition. Intuition allows players to automatically respond to familiar and unfamiliar situations. The key to being an intuitive player is recognizing the patterns on the field during play. However, it takes practice and experience to develop the ability to recognize these patterns. One way to improve your intuition is by mindfully playing and watching soccer. Lionel Messi, forward for FC Barcelona, is an intuitive player. Time after time, as Messi accelerates down the field, he quickly makes decisions that increase his chances of success. Even when he does not have the ball, he stays focused and plays mindfully. In an interview with Time Magazine, when asked how his skills have evolved, Messi stated:
“With [Barcelona coach] Guardiola, I learned to play tactically, which is what I most needed, what my game needed. From the tactical point of view, it’s been about knowing how to stop [and think] on the field when we don’t have the ball. And that makes us better when we have it.”
As Messi explains, it’s important to play mindfully on the field. Understanding the purpose of the drills you do in training can help you learn to play mindfully. To understand the purpose, be engaged during training sessions and games even when you don’t have the ball. Try to connect to each drill in training, rather than just go through the motions. Figure out how the drill could improve your skills or transfer to competition. Try focusing on the ball, your positioning, your teammates, and your opponents. Eventually, you will begin to recognize patterns in play during training and games. As you get used to recognizing these patterns, you may find that you start responding to them automatically, without having to take time to think about your decision. This is when your intuition really beings to develop. By mindfully training on a consistent basis, your brain will prepare to recognize patterns immediately and know what the best decision is for the particular situation. Players who play mindfully and develop quick responses on and off the ball become intuitive and efficient players.
28-year old Manchester United player Wayne Rooney has, for some time, been considered one of the best strikers in the world. In ten seasons with United, he has scored over 200 goals across competitions. He began his professional career with Everton at the age of 16, and after moving to Manchester, has since collected five Premier League titles and a Champions League trophy. When questioned about his typical pre-performance preparation, Rooney has noted the importance of visualization in his routine:
I always like to picture the game the night before: I’ll ask the kitman what kit we’re wearing, so I can visualize it. It’s something I’ve always done, from when I was a young boy. It helps to train your mind to situations that might happen the following day. I think about it as I’m lying in bed. What will I do if the ball gets crossed in the box this way? What movement will I have to make to get on the end of it? Just different things that might make you one percent sharper.
Wayne Rooney has established himself as one of the top players in the world, and is known for scoring big goals in big moments. The use of mental skills such as visualization to prepare for competition is arguably a large contributor to his success, and can be an essential tool in a player’s arsenal. Young soccer players aspiring to reach the heights of their professional heroes often look for ways to model the playing style and behavior of these players. Professional and amateur athletes use visualization to mentally prepare for situations they could encounter during competition by imagining themselves responding well and excelling on the field. Before a game (i.e., the night before, the morning of, or on the bus en route to the field), try integrating visualization into your pre-performance routine. Run through various circumstances or specific actions in your head that could arise during competition, paying attention to the sights, sounds, emotions, and even smells associated with these images. This is a way for you to mentally prepare for physical tasks and challenges you may encounter. Using visualization can be a great way to ensure that you are focused and ready to play, and to maintain a mental edge over your opponent.
In an interview with Fox News, former Green Bay Packers quarterback, Brett Favre, discussed his passion for the game of football. When asked why he got emotional after games, Favre responded, “Every game I’ve ever played, regardless if it was pre-season or Super Bowl, meant the same to me, and I laid it all on the line.” After playing professional football for 20 years, Favre’s legacy exemplifies the effort he put into each and every game. Among the many NFL records Favre set, his most notable include defeating all 32 NFL teams and playing in close to 300 consecutive games. Favre’s career is the product of dedication, continuous hard work, and effort exerted in each game he played.
During training session and games, there are many things that you cannot control: the field conditions, the referee’s calls, and the weather, for example. However, the effort you give on the field is something that you always control. Therefore, it is your choice to give your all during every training session and game the way Brett Favre did in his record-breaking career. Players who choose to demonstrate effort work hard, both mentally and physically, in each training session and game. Playing your hardest during training prepares you for game situations. The drills practiced in training sessions should be physically and mentally demanding in order to develop your ability to persevere in challenging conditions and prepare yourself to give 100% effort during competition. Players who demonstrate effort push through feelings of fatigue, but also take opportunities to conserve energy and let their bodies recharge. These players recover after making a mistake because they view mistakes as learning experiences and quickly move on to the next play. The next time you prepare to train or compete, choose to perform with 100% effort.
Often in competition, the sudden interruption of an otherwise-stellar performance can cause an athlete to lose focus or motivation for only a few seconds. In the midst of performing well or enjoying success, an unexpected encounter with adversity can potentially shake a competitor’s confidence and composure. If an individual loses control in these circumstances, this momentary lapse in concentration can often bring about further setbacks, and a downward spiral in performance. However, for Ethiopian marathon runner Buzenesh Deba, an ability to maintain composure and focus under pressure may have allowed her to overcome such adversity and continue to perform well.
In the 2013 New York City Marathon on Sunday, Bronx-resident Deba jumped out to an early lead in the first mile, and was soon well beyond the rest of the pack. In fact, overall, Deba led for more than 80% of the race. At the halfway point, she was over three minutes ahead of one of her main competitors, Priscah Jeptoo (Kenya). However, Jeptoo increased her pace after hearing about this deficit from a race official, and eventually overtook Deba in the 24th mile to win the marathon.
Many athletes, when faced with a sudden setback during competition, can succumb to a temporary lapse in focus. As a result, their subsequent performance may suffer. When Jeptoo overtook her late in the race, Deba could have easily faltered and dropped out of the top-5 or top-10 finishers, especially because her goal was set on winning the marathon, not placing second, as she had done before. Yet, it seemed she was able to maintain her composure and focus, and achieve an admirable second place finish. After a difficult setback, athletes can use mental skills such refocusing cues to help maintain focus and composure. Refocusing cues are short, meaningful words or phrases that are used to redirect an athlete’s attention or focus to a desirable target. In a case like Deba’s, refocusing cues could help athletes focus on their own performance and efforts rather than on an opponent or the outcome of the competition. When you are faced with a setback, try to use phrases such as “Focus on my training” or “Zone in” to regain focus, maintain composure, and perhaps boost energy levels. For Deba, maintaining a high level of focus and composure may have allowed her to finish the marathon strong despite getting passed in the final stretch, rather than succumbing to the pressure of adversity and allowing her performance to suffer.