Controlling the Controllables: Altidore Confronts His Goal-Scoring Drought Head-On

In the weeks leading up to this summer’s World Cup, national teams and players around the world are doing everything to prepare their bodies and minds to perform at the highest level for the month-long tournament in Brazil. Preparing for opportunities like this can be made increasingly difficult for players who are recently in a “slump” and struggling to rediscover their form. 24-year old striker for the US Men’s National team, Jozy Altidore, enjoyed a blistering World Cup Qualifying campaign, scoring 7 goals in 5 games for the USMNT, and leading them through a difficult CONCACAF schedule. However, soon after the US earned a spot in the 2014 World Cup, Altidore encountered a drop in his production, and has failed to score in his last five appearances for the national team, and a further 26 games for his English Premier League club Sunderland. Facing an intimidating 1,771 consecutive minutes without a goal, Altidore has two remaining send-off games to find the net before the US enters a difficult group stage in Brazil. Despite the challenge facing his star striker, head coach Jürgen Klinsmann expressed confidence in his most recent, yet goalless, performance in a 2-0 win over Azerbaijan. “Jozy did what we asked him to do,” Klinsmann told the media following the game. “He did a tremendous amount of work…He looks better every day. So I’m not worried at all. He will come through and he will start to score…obviously, the sooner the better for every striker, but I’m very, very positive.”

Altidore’s commitment and focus on his hard work and on fulfilling his role on the field is an important step in coping with, and overcoming, the adversity in front of him. During these difficult spells, it is important for players to return to the fundamentals of their game. Focus on the simple aspects of your training and preparation that can consistently bring you success and contribute to your team’s performance. For example, as a striker, during training, keep your focus on the present moment, by setting realistic challenges and goals for yourself (i.e., increasing the number of shots you get on-target, or the effectiveness of your decisions and the timing of your movement off the ball). During competition, focus on fulfilling your role and responsibilities on the field, rather than trying to overcome your own struggles by trying to do too much. Despite the temptation to focus all of your energy on overcoming your slump, players who focus more on contributing to the team’s success often rediscover their form more quickly along the way. Therefore, commit fully to your role on the field, and demonstrate leadership through effective communication by encouraging those players around you.

Furthermore, it is important to note the significant support role coaches can fulfill when a player is struggling to find their form. As a coach, it is essential to convey confidence and belief in your players, by continuing to encourage them through the adversity, giving them opportunities to perform on the field, and urging them to focus on what they can control. Altidore’s commitment to fulfilling the role Klinsmann has placed in front of him demonstrates a selfless, team-first approach, and it is a testament to the player’s mental strength and resilience. As he continues to confront his goal-scoring drought with two games left in the USMNT’s World Cup preparation, he will need to rely on further support and belief from Klinsmann and his teammates, and a continued commitment to focusing on what he controls in his performance.

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Resilience and Perseverance Carry Donovan and Edu Forward After Disappointment

The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” – Nelson Mandela

At some point in their careers, all players will encounter setbacks or failure. The ability to bounce back and recover after those setbacks depends on an individual’s perseverance and resilience in the face of adversity. Last week, U.S. men’s national team head coach Jürgen Klinsmann released his 23-man roster for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil this summer, and among five other names, prior World Cup attendees Landon Donovan and Maurice Edu were left off the list. While this was a very difficult announcement for both players, it was made, perhaps, more challenging by the fact that in returning to the MLS, they were to play in a game (against each other) three days later. Sunday’s match between the LA Galaxy and the Philadelphia Union provided an opportunity for Donovan and Edu to turn their attention back to their respective club seasons, and move on from the disappointment of the previous week. Across 90 minutes, both players rose to the occasion and met this challenge head-on. While the Union ultimately fell to the Galaxy 4-1, Edu left his mark on the game by scoring from the penalty spot in the 88th minute. Donovan’s performance was even more impressive, as the striker recorded two goals and an assist in the Galaxy’s win, and broke the all-time MLS goal-scoring record along the way. Following the game, Donovan noted that, “It’s been an emotional three days. A lot of down and a lot of up honestly…I’m just glad I could come back and contribute and help out.”

As a player, recognize that you will encounter setbacks or disappointment at some point in your career. Whether this adversity comes in the form of repeated injuries, or failing to make a team, it is important to develop your resiliency for these experiences. While initial disappointment or frustration in response to these experiences is often automatic, it is necessary to eventually shift your attention to the challenge in front of you in order to move on: continuing forward with renewed motivation and commitment to your training and your performances. Re-establish your focus on what you can control as a player by thinking about your role and your responsibilities in the next training session or game. Consider setting small process goals for yourself (i.e., running several times per week to increase your fitness) to keep your attention in the present moment, rather than on the past, and help you train to fulfill your role and responsibilities.

Another way to recover quickly from disappointment is to focus on your strengths as a player. This was evident in Donovan’s play on Sunday. The build up to his first, and record-breaking, goal was a testament to his exceptional qualities on the field: his vision, his ability to thread a pass on the run, and his movement and timing off the ball in receiving the return pass back from Robbie Keane. Like Donovan, after a setback, return to the basics of your game by relying on the strengths that have brought you success in the past – such as your communication, your hard work, or your vision or composure on the field. The omission of players like Donovan and Edu from the World Cup roster shows that even the greatest players face disappointment at times. Those players with the resilience to rise above this adversity and focus on what they can control are often the ones who are quickest to bounce back.

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Houston’s Ownby Learns the Value in Emotional Management

With the World Cup only weeks away, many MLS games have recently featured new faces, as many players throughout the league have been called into their respective national team camps before the tournament in Brazil. On Wednesday night, DC United topped the Houston Dynamo 2-0 in Washington D.C., easing the memory of three losses to the Texas-based club last season. Houston was forced into lineup changes like most other teams around the league, as three of their star midfielders were unavailable for the trip to the nation’s capital. Brad Davis and Boniek Garcia are both fulfilling their duties with their respective countries, while Ricardo Clark is sidelined due to midseason injury. As a result of these absences, third-year midfielder Brian Ownby earned a rare playing opportunity last night. DC United goals on either side of halftime left the Dynamo in a 2-0 hole late in the game. Ownby was enjoying more time on the field (77 minutes) than he had ever played; however, his performance was cut short and his team was forced to play a man down for the final few minutes, when the midfielder was given a red card one minute into second-half stoppage time. While the Dynamo were desperately pressing to score, Ownby lashed out in frustration and struck United defender Christian Fernandez in the face. While Houston failed to score a goal in the final minutes, the red card leaves them in a deeper hole, as Ownby will be forced to miss the next match as well.

Managing emotions is a difficult mental hurdle many players face before, during, or after competition. Whether due to a goal, a mistake, a foul, or a referee’s call, players can experience a wide range of emotions during a game, such as frustration, anger, embarrassment, or excitement. If they are not managed, these emotions could take your attention away from the game and hurt your performance. Many players feel that they should try to control their emotions – to suppress or bury them. But, it’s important to recognize that emotions are automatic when you play. Instead of trying to control them and stop them from happening, focus on managing them.

Players who develop the ability to stay composed and manage their emotions throughout the highs and lows of competition typically have more consistency in their performance because they are able to stay focused in the present moment and avoid distractions. Emotional management is not easy because a wide range of experiences during a game could make you feel the urge to lash out, or erupt in celebration. As a player, however, you can manage these emotions by focusing on what you control during competition: your effort, your attitude, your communication, or your quick decision-making. A refocusing cue, or a short word or phrase that brings you back to the present moment (i.e., “Next play” or “Find the ball”) can be an effective mental response in these moments; it can bring your mind back to the present so you can focus on working hard and fulfilling your role in the competition. Similarly, when you feel frustrated or angry, increasing your communication on the field can help you re-engage in the game. For players like Ownby, who hope to earn further opportunities on the field, emotional management is essential because it can help them remain focused and composed and bring their best game to the field.

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Dempsey Brings Intensity and Competitiveness to Leadership Role with USMNT

When the U.S. Men’s National team travels to Brazil in a few weeks to begin a difficult World Cup campaign, the players will walk out onto the field under new leadership. Head coach Jürgen Klinsmann recently handed the armband to 31-year old Clint Dempsey during the team’s qualifying run for Brazil. Playing in his third, and probably final, World Cup this summer, Dempsey is tasked with leading the U.S. into arguably the most difficult group stage in its World Cup history, as the team takes on Ghana, Portugal, and Germany in its first three games. The Seattle Sounders striker has been in outstanding form recently in the MLS, with 8 goals and 3 assists across only 9 games this season. However, according to his coach and teammates, Dempsey has earned the captain’s armband for more than what appears on a stat sheet. Klinsmann commented on his selection: “Is he highly talented? Does he have all the tools that you need to have to play at the highest level? Yes. But what is far more important, he has the drive. He has the hunger. He’s not satisfied … He always looks for the next game.” Dempsey’s teammate and USMNT midfielder, Michael Bradley, added: “He’s a competitor. He gives everything he has every time he steps on the field.

Many players perceive additional pressure and expectations after receiving opportunities such as earning a starting role or the captain’s armband. After acquiring a leadership role, some players might start to focus less on what they do well and on what they control as a player, and more on trying to prove that they deserve to be captain. Instead, facing these perceived expectations, recognize that your coach has placed you in a leadership position because he or she believes that you have demonstrated the ability to fulfill that role. In other words, recognize the habits and characteristics that have earned you the opportunity, as well as the potential you show to fulfill the responsibilities of that role, and continue to rely on them moving forward. The responsibilities of a captain, for example, include leading by example and being a vocal leader. So, for some players, taking on the captain position will require them to start being more vocal. While Dempsey is not necessarily known as a vocal leader, his new role with the national team requires more consistent and effective communication on and off the field. But, he is still expected to bring the same hard work and intensity that earned him this role.

Similarly, when you take on more leadership as a player, use it as an opportunity to improve your effective communication skills – by providing encouragement and effective feedback to your teammates. Before training sessions or games, huddle up to identify the team’s goals and each player’s role in achieving them. While playing, support your teammates and give them specific instructions for how to make changes to help them perform better. At the same time, lead by example by being physically and mentally prepared for training, working hard, and staying focused on the task. Dempsey’s ability to adjust to this role through a more vocal presence, while continuing to inspire the players around him through his drive, hunger, and competitiveness, will largely determine the effectiveness of his leadership this summer.

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This Year’s La Liga Title: What Every Competitor Desires

On Saturday, the La Liga title will be decided in the final game of the season – a tantalizing matchup between the top two teams in the table, currently separated by only three points. Atlético Madrid holds the narrow lead over FC Barcelona, and will attempt to add silverware to an already-impressive campaign, by earning at least a draw at Camp Nou, while a Barcelona win at home would earn the Catalans the trophy on their head-to-head record this season. Until recently, many would have deemed this an uneven matchup. Barcelona have won a total of 22 league titles, and four in the last five years, while Atlético have only won 9 and are nearly two decades removed from their last trophy. Yet, the club from Madrid has recently arrived among Europe’s elite, and has held the edge for most of this year, despite Barcelona trying to defend its title. While the two teams are arguably comparable in talent, they are markedly dissimilar in tactical approach. In the five previous meetings between these two teams this season, Atlético has held a slight edge with four draws and a win in the Champions League quarterfinal second leg. However, Barcelona has owned a dominating margin in possession, averaging 71.2% of the ball across the five games, and completing three times as many of its passes in these games. Atlético is more direct in its style of play, while the Catalans have, historically, awed the football world with their mesmerizing tiki taka, through short passes and constant interchanging movement around the ball. “They are the best in defence, they pressurise you, support each other and have different options up front,” Barcelona midfielder Xavi says of Atlético. “It’s a historic opportunity…It’s a great final, a fantastic match. It would be the icing on the cake for this generation, playing such an important match as this.”

In any athletic context, the greatest competitors are often defined by an appreciation for the fiercely competitive, pressure-filled, high-profile environment of a game like this. Competitive players thrive in these opportunities and don’t back down from the prospect of testing their talents against the very best. This is not to say nerves are not a factor. As a player, it is normal to feel nervous or anxious for this type of game. However, your interpretation of these nerves, your mental approach to the competition, and your preparation will influence your performance. Know that nerves are your body’s signs of preparing to perform well, and find pride and confidence in your training up until this point. Compete with the knowledge that if you put in deliberate effort and focus in training, you will be well prepared for the game, and that the game will provide an opportunity to showcase your talents and test your ability against a worthy opponent. Before and during the game, it may be tempting to focus solely on the outcome – whether or not your team is victorious. However, take time to balance this desire to win with an understanding, and application, of a process-oriented approach. Know that these games typically bring out the best in the participants, and that by focusing on the process and what you can control (your individual role in the game, your effort, and your attitude), you will rise to this occasion. Above all, it is important to view these games as a challenge or opportunity. As the two Spanish sides take the field this Saturday to try and earn their first silverware of the season, the players’ ability to appreciate and thrive in this challenge will, in Xavi’s words, determine who comes up as champion in this historic game.

Man City and Pellegrini Rewarded for Consistency With Title

On Sunday, Manchester City put a stamp of emphasis on its recent arrival among the top clubs in European football by claiming its second Premier League championship in three years. City’s 2-0 win over West Ham brought a quiet end to a dramatic season for the English league as a whole, which saw the club name at the top of the table change 25 times. In total, City spent only 15 days in that top spot, but ultimately finished with a two-point edge over Liverpool to earn the trophy. Seven months ago and about a third of the way through the season, City had already lost four of its first 11 games – all by a single goal – and slipped to 8th place in the standings. However, the team soon found its rhythm, went on a 12-match unbeaten streak throughout the winter, and ended the season with only two losses out of its final 27 games. City was the only club to go unbeaten in its final six games, and was superior to other clubs both offensively and defensively, finishing the year with the most goals scored (102) and the second fewest goals allowed (37). In a year when the three other clubs contending for the title – Arsenal, Chelsea, and Liverpool – struggled over the final few months, City manager Manuel Pelligrini commended his players’ consistent belief in the team’s tactical approach and style of play over the entire season: “It was a very special season for us, we didn’t start very well but …[the players] always believed what I told them about how I wanted to play and how I think football should be.”

Players or teams who demonstrate consistency over the long run are able to do so because they maintain a firm commitment to their approach to training and competition. Each time they step onto the field, consistent players know what their individual strengths are, and they play to those strengths to help the team. As a player, you can bring consistency to the field by knowing and understanding your role and unique contributions to your team’s success, and by focusing on playing to your strengths and fulfilling your responsibilities on a daily basis. While tactical adjustments and adaptability in your game are valuable and necessary whenever you play, your strengths as a player can provide a consistent foundation for your performance. To identify your strengths, reflect on your past successful performances and try to recognize the skills or qualities that helped you achieve that success. To understand your role within the team, ask the coach what is expected of you if it is unclear. Use this information to help you decide the skills and qualities you want to focus on during training to continue to contribute to the team. Consistently training this way can help you believe in your own – and your team’s – approach to training and preparation for competition.

Consistency also plays an important role in helping you manage new experiences. Many players become overwhelmed when they join a new team, or their coach puts them in a new position or selects them as a captain for the first time – and these challenges can seem daunting and uncomfortable at first. However, with a clear understanding of your strengths as a player, you can bring the same focused training mentality and approach to these opportunities that you have brought to your game thus far, and demonstrate the same level of performance. After enjoying its most recent success, Man City will next turn its attention to a new season starting in August, and the manager’s and players’ ability to continue relying on what has worked for them thus far will determine whether or not they are able to defend their title next season.

Roger Bannister: A Testament to Overcoming Fatigue

The anniversary of a milestone in human achievement passed this week, as Tuesday marked sixty years since British runner Roger Bannister ran the first ever sub-four minute mile. To put this achievement in perspective, more human beings have climbed Mount Everest than have run a mile in under four minutes. However, on May 6, 1954 in Oxford, England, this bar in athleticism was set when Bannister accomplished what no individual before him had ever accomplished, running a mile in 3 minutes and 59.4 seconds. On the morning of his historic run, Bannister woke up to strong winds and rain, and his attempt at the sub-four minute mile was almost abandoned. However, with clearer weather, he decided to go for the attempt, knowing that his main competitor – an Australian runner named John Michael Landy – would attempt to break the record soon as well. While Bannister’s pacers on the day, Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher, ran the first two laps on pace, the third lap was slower, and Bannister knew that he would have to make up the time on his own in the final lap. Reflecting on his push over the final 300 yards, Bannister remembers the difficulty of the task vividly: “I felt the tape was receding over the last few yards. I knew I could not run any faster and I gave it everything…the final bit is mental. I am sure of that. The successful runner is the one who can take more out of himself than he has.”

When players face physical and mental exhaustion in the latter stages of competition, the difficulty of overcoming such adversity can seem daunting. However, unlike weather, a referee’s calls, or the performance of your teammates or competitors, mental and physical effort are aspects of your training and performance that are under your control. All players face days when their touch or technique may be off or they may not feel well. However, as a competitor, find ways to demand more from yourself by maintaining a focus on what you can control in the moment. When facing exhaustion, rely on your strengths as a player by focusing on what you do well on the field, and how you have achieved success in the face of adversity in the past. Your strengths may be communicating, maintaining a positive attitude, or quick decision-making during the run of play. Besides your own strengths, you can think of your competitors’ strengths as a source of motivation to overcome the mental and physical challenge of fatigue during training and competition. For some, like Bannister, motivation can come through knowing that your competitors are also training hard, and to gain that edge, you have to find it in yourself to push through fatigue. During training and competition, the use of effective self-talk (“I can do this” or “I’ve trained for this moment”) can be the mental boost you need to help you push through physically at the end of the game – pushing you to make that final sprint at the end of practice or make that final run back in the 90th minute. As Bannister noted, the individuals who find success in these moments are those who are able to use their mental strength to give them a physical boost when they might initially think they have nothing left.