Messi and Neymar Meet Daunting Expectations With Excellence

For months, this tournament was billed to be their moment. One player, at the ripe age of 22, carried the pressure of leading Brazil to World Cup glory on its home soil. The other, in his prime at 27, was expected to finally meet the expectations on the international level he has so consistently set with his club. For Brazil’s Neymar and Argentina’s Lionel Messi, the stage has long been set for both stars to cement their places in history, while carrying their respective countries’ hopes and dreams on their shoulders.

At the club level over a decade, Messi has redefined success in the modern football era. With Barcelona’s First Team since 2004, his accomplishments include two Champions League triumphs, four Ballon d’Or trophies as the world’s greatest player, and an unfathomable 243 goals across 277 appearances. However, with each moment of captivating brilliance on the field, Messi seems to set the bar higher for himself. The quality and quantity of his goals are now commonplace and expected – expectations made more daunting by the fact that he has largely fallen short of them on the international stage. Neymar, on the other hand, seems to reserve his greatest moments for when he is wearing the yellow and green of the Seleção. While he plays a reserve role, for the most part, as a teammate of Messi’s with Barcelona, Neymar consistently shines with Brazil and seems to embrace the expectations his nation places on his shoulders. At the conclusion of this tournament’s group stage, however, the two stars lead all 736 players in the World Cup with 4 goals apiece across three games, along with Germany’s Thomas Müller. Each has been largely the catalyst for his nation’s berth into the knockout round, despite the enormity of the expectations in front of them. In a recent interview with FIFA, Neymar commented on his approach to any perceptions of pressure: “I’m now playing in matches that I always dreamed about…I just want to help my fellow players not only by scoring goals but doing whatever it takes on the pitch to help us win.”

Neymar’s statement speaks less to the existence of pressure in these games – because pressure will almost always be there in some form – and more to his mental interpretation of pressure, and the impact that pressure might have on his performance. As a player, there will be times when you may face pressure or expectations in your career. It is important to recognize, however, that while these expectations are out of your control, your response to them is controllable. Players who are able to embrace these moments and the opportunities created by this pressure (“playing in matches that [they] always dreamed about”) are often able to bring their best performance to these occasions. Try to see pressure as a personal challenge for yourself, and know that the significance of the moment will bring out your best game because you have prepared for it. When facing perceptions of pressure, also consider how your focus before and during these competitive moments plays a major role. Focusing on the parts of your game you can control (i.e., your effort) during competition will help to keep your mind in the present moment, rather than dwelling on the expectations you feel you need to meet in the future. Furthermore, as evident in Neymar’s comment, it can help to focus your attention and energy on your team’s goals and success. See these moments as opportunities to use your strengths to contribute as much as possible to your team’s efforts. Above all, excellence in the face of pressure or expectations comes from a determined effort to stick with what you know works for you – whether that be your routine, the skills you use to stay composed and confident during a game, or your strengths as a player. Hopeful murmurs of a World Cup final between Brazil and Argentina – and a highly anticipated matchup between Messi and Neymar – are already being tossed around. However, with increasingly difficult knockout round games ahead of them, both players will need to continue coping with expectations as they inevitably continue to rise. Similarly, the world will have to be content with marveling at the consistent brilliance of Neymar and Messi in meeting, and exceeding, those expectations each time they step onto the field.

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Mexico Carries Newfound Confidence and Fearlessness Through Impressive Group Stage

The World Cup group stage in Brazil has offered nothing short of spellbinding entertainment, with high scoring matches, late dramatic finishes, and impressive underdog performances. However, perhaps no team has surprised and delighted its fans more than the Mexican National team, under recently appointed head coach Miguel Herrera. Mexico turned in a shockingly poor WC qualifying journey prior to this tournament, and was a late addition to the final 32-team pool for the tournament, thanks to some assistance from the United States, and a playoff win over New Zealand. However, those struggles have long since passed. Last night, El Tri secured passage to the knockout round of the World Cup, having beaten both Cameroon and Croatia, battled to an exhilarating scoreless tie against Brazil, and allowed only two goals in three games to finish second in the group of four. Mexico’s performances have been a testament to the team’s newfound confidence under a passionate coach, and impressive psychological strength. Following the impressive tie against Brazil, midfielder Andrés Guardado commented on the important impact of a strong mental approach to his team’s World Cup campaign: “Honestly, it’s the mentality that we have…We know that if we play as we can, if we have that intensity and trust in our abilities, we can compete with anyone.”

Mexico’s first true display of mental strength came in the second group match against tournament host and favorite – Brazil. As a player, competing against a team or opposing player supposedly more talented than you may seem initially daunting. Dwelling on any potential outcome of the game may leave you feeling intimidated, fearful, and hesitant in your performance. On the other hand, those teams and players who are able to set these distractions aside and focus on the process ahead of them are often able to match up against any opponent, because they stay in the present moment. As a player in these moments, see such games as an opportunity or a challenge – a chance to prove your own quality and prove outside assumptions wrong. As the underdog, take stock of your own strengths individually and as a team, “trust your abilities”, and consider how these can be used to bring out your best performance. Leaving your best effort on the field in these circumstances is all you can ever do as a player. Taking care of the things you can control – your preparation for the game, your confidence going into the competition, your willingness to battle for a full 90 minutes for your teammates – will allow you to perform at your best. For Mexico, who opens the knockout round against another tournament favorite – the Netherlands – embracing the underdog role, approaching the game confidently and fearlessly, and relying on their strengths will allow them to continue to turn heads.

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Regardless of Altidore’s Status, He Must Play a Role

While the US Men’s national team earned a hard-fought win in their first 2014 World Cup match on Monday night over Ghana, American fans around the world collectively held their breath in the game’s 21st minute, when Jozy Altidore went down with an injury. The 24-year old striker pulled up short while sprinting down the sideline for a Michael Bradley pass, grabbing the back of his leg. The obvious pain, subsequent tears, and later reports of a strained hamstring seemed to confirm the fears of those watching around the world. “I was sprinting and I felt something, and we’ll see what happens,” Altidore stated, following the Ghana game. “Of course it was tough for me, I was crushed. I knew right away I couldn’t continue, so that was probably the worst feeling.” With three days until their next game, everyone now waits to see if Altidore will return for the second match on Sunday against Portugal, or even see the field again in Brazil at all. The striker has been a consistent feature in the US starting lineup for several years, boosted by an unprecedented scoring streak throughout World Cup qualifying, and an additional two goals in the USMNT’s final tune-up game before Brazil.

Altidore’s time on the field at the 2014 World Cup may or may not be over. However, his role as a member of the 23-man roster is just beginning this month. At 24 years old, he is already a leader on the USMNT. He has more international experience than many of the younger, and even older, players on the team. As such, he is needed, and expected, to remain a contributor in some form on or off the field through his communication and guidance of less-experienced players. As a player, there will be times when you are forced to the sideline – whether due to injury, sickness, or fulfilling the role of a substitute. When coping with limited playing time, it’s important to continue to find ways of fulfilling a role and making some impact in your team’s efforts. During longer spells away from the game due to injury, make the road back a process of reconditioning, rather than simply recovery. In other words, take time to focus on areas of your game or physical training that you can improve while also rehabbing your injury. Do everything you can to take care of your body and listen to doctors or team trainers in an effort to get back to 100% fitness as quickly as possible. However, also focus on areas of your game – mental or physical – that need improvement. With an ankle injury, this may mean that you spend extra time building upper body strength. Similarly, watch game film and talk with your coach on tactical adjustments you can make when you make it back to the field.

Communication also plays a significant role in these moments. As with any sort of adversity, it’s important to focus on everything that you can control during the reconditioning process. Communicate with your teammates before, during, and after trainings and games, providing encouragement after they do something well, and motivation or specific feedback or instruction when needed. If you are an older player, take the opportunity to support less experienced teammates, and those who earn playing time in your absence. As a leader on the team, Altidore must also play a role in guiding the younger teammates on the US roster. If players like DeAndre Yedlin or Julian Green are called upon to step onto the field in the next several games, Altidore can potentially play an important role in helping them cope with the pressure of this stage. Similarly, if you face a similar experience, take the opportunity to lead through your communication and by example. Maintain a positive attitude and a belief in your teammates and their efforts. While your dedication and performance may not require wearing shin guards and boots, it is no less important. Altidore undoubtedly played a major role in head coach Jürgen Klinsmann’s plans heading into the tournament. However, even though these plans may need to change, the striker will be called upon to fulfill an equally important role as a leader and role model for the other 22 players. With a daunting task ahead of them in Portugal and Germany, the United States will need a belief, energy, and commitment from those on and off the playing field.

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America Believes After USMNT’s Inspiring Display of Grit and Resilience

I believe that we will win.” The latest chant and mantra of the United States National team and its supporters brings chills to many who watch, when the stadium starts to reverberate with the sound of thousands of voices singing in unison. In its first World Cup game, the USMNT didn’t disappoint fans chanting these words, bringing belief, grit, and resilience to its performance, and earning a hard-fought win over Ghana. This game held added significance for the U.S., as the west Africans were responsible for the last two times the Americans were knocked out of the World Cup. And on Monday, amidst soaring Brazilian humidity, several first half injury blows to U.S. starters, and a game largely dominated by Ghanaian possession, the United States fought through adversity of all forms. Clint Dempsey’s goal 34 seconds into the match made an immediate statement for the Americans. However, it was arguably his resilience in continuing to play after a broken nose in the game’s 30th minute that helped galvanize his teammates to fight to the very end.

Dempsey’s determination through the pain and discomfort seemed to inspire further resilience and grit from his teammates last night. After his early goal, the game’s momentum gradually shifted in Ghana’s favor, as the Americans were forced back on their heels, defending for a majority of the 90 minutes. When Ghana finally broke through, deservedly, with a goal with eight minutes remaining, things looked bleak for the U.S. players, who were exhausted and battered. However, an 86th minute header from John Brooks, playing in his very first World Cup game, earned a priceless three points for the Americans with a 2-1 win. “It was a dream come true,” Dempsey said. “We showed a lot of character…This win will give us confidence going into the next game. The boys showed a lot of heart. Our fitness showed.” Head coach Jürgen Klinsmann echoed his captain’s thoughts on his team’s inspiring performance: “We fight to the last second. It was a grind but a wonderful win at the end of the day. There are undoubtedly things that we need to improve on. The U.S. team always has a great spirit.”

The “never say die” display by the American players on Monday night served as an inspiring example for soccer players and other athletes around the world. As a player, there have likely been times in your career when you faced adversity and your back, or your team’s back, was against the wall. Injuries, weather, or a more talented opponent – these obstacles can, at times, seem insurmountable. Resilience and grit refers to your ability to persevere under these circumstances and to continue putting forth the effort and focus necessary to overcome the challenge in front of you. As a team in these moments, effective communication between you and your teammates in motivating each other and staying disciplined and organized becomes essential. The USMNT was able to limit the damage from the Ghanaian attacking prowess last night by staying organized as a unit. When facing similar circumstances, providing a teammate with encouragement (i.e., “Well done!” or “Keep pushing!”) after a strong tackle or an intelligent pass gives him or her the boost to continue putting forth effort. Giving clear and specific instructional feedback (i.e., “Force that player to his left” or “Connect the simple pass”) can help a teammate recover quickly from a mistake and stay focused on his or her role in the game. Finally, as Dempsey noted after the game, use past experiences to boost your resilience as a team by remembering times when you have overcome challenges as a group in the past.

As an individual player, self-talk can be an especially useful mental skill in maintaining your own resilience and grit in the face of adversity. Rather than being either positive or negative, this internal dialogue should be effective for you as an individual. It is important to, first, have an awareness of yourself as a player and know what helps you feel motivated and energized to play. Use this to develop cue words or phrases (i.e., “Keep pushing!” or “I have more in me!”) that can help you maintain your energy and work rate when you are feeling fatigued or discouraged. Above all, it is important to use self-talk that works for you. Applying this skill in training when you are struggling to overcome a challenge will make you more comfortable using it during games.

In addition to self-talk or communication from your teammates, resilience and grit ultimately comes down to the belief you have in yourself, your abilities, and your preparation and readiness for a challenge. Knowing that you have overcome adversity in the past and that you can do so again can go a long way in helping you bring more out of yourself when it may seem like you have nothing left. Players who refuse to relinquish this belief in themselves and their team often rise to the occasion in the biggest moments and often deliver purely through their determination to never give up. It’s undeniable that the American task becomes even more difficult moving forward, as the next two opponents include Portugal and the reigning World Player of the Year in Cristiano Ronaldo, followed by world power Germany who thrashed the Portuguese 4-0 in their first game. However, resilience and grit can carry players and a team far in these moments, and the degree to which America continues to believe in itself could determine whether it continues to shock the world.

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Brazil, the Host of the 2014 World Cup Must Handle the Home Field Pressure

The home team has the advantage, right?

Playing at home arguably has several benefits for teams. It typically mean more fans in favor of the home team in the stands, and the players themselves don’t have to worry about the stress of traveling because they get to play on their own, home turf. They are used to the lockers rooms, the field, and the feeling of playing in that arena.

But, could the home team have a disadvantage? The hosts of the highly anticipated 2014 World Cup, Brazil, kick off today to play their opening match against Croatia. Many Brazilians seem to embrace their beloved sport of soccer (or futbol) almost religiously. And while this surely means that fans will pour into the stadiums and fan zones and tune in in their own homes to cheer for their country, that overwhelming support could lead the Brazilian players to experience immense pressure as they prepare to play and represent their country. Still, many Brazilian National Team players play for notable clubs in Europe and therefore have experience playing in front of big crowds – often crowds at their home stadiums. This could give them experience to draw from to feel confident going into the game.

Although you’re likely not competing at such a high level of competition, you will likely still experience pressure to perform – maybe especially in front of your home crowd who comes to support you and cheer for you to win. The first step in dealing with it is to acknowledge that you’ll feel it. Instead of trying to ignore it, recognize that the situation might be stressful, and make a plan to embrace it, rather than fear it. To embrace this kind of pressure, focus on the process of performing and on your typical routine rather than the outcome of the upcoming game. For example, focus on the small tasks you complete before competition that help you get physically and mentally ready. What do you eat and drink? How do you like to stretch? What do you say to yourself and focus on? Make those process-oriented tasks your focus and stay in the present moment. Worrying about the outcome of the game and whether or not you will triumph on your home turf in front of your home crowd will only make the pressure feel more overwhelming. Instead, by focusing on the process, you allow yourself to focus on what you need to accomplish each moment to prepare and to perform your best. During competition, if you notice your focus wandering to the outcome of the game, use cue words like “here and now” or “stay in the game” to bring yourself back to the present.

As Brazil prepares to kick off, it’s not just their country, but the whole world that will be tuning in to see how they fair against Croatia. In order to handle that kind of pressure, the players should remind themselves of their experience abroad playing under pressure and remain focused on the process of accomplishing each player’s individual role to help the team perform as a whole.

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This Month, All 32 Teams Embrace Adversity

It’s no secret that the US men’s national team players face significant challenges ahead of them this month in Brazil. The difficulty of their World Cup journey started with a daunting draw last December, when the US was matched against Ghana, Portugal, and Germany. These opponents, combined with a grueling travel schedule, make this World Cup campaign an extremely challenging one for the U.S. Yet, the United States is not the only team facing adversity in this summer’s tournament. 32 teams will have to cope with heat and humidity over each 90 minute game, made worse for those playing at least one group match in the regions of the Amazon rainforest. Other nations have recently lost players who have gone down with injuries that will keep them out of the World Cup altogether. The Netherlands will attempt a trip back to the final without star midfielder Kevin Strootman. France ventures forward without the contributions of the irreplaceable Franck Ribéry. Columbia will play without Radamel Falcao, and Uruguay and Portugal fly to the World Cup this week still waiting to learn if their two top players – Luis Suarez and Cristiano Ronaldo respectively – will be forced to miss out on early games due to recent injuries. Furthermore, each player stepping onto the field over the next several weeks is tasked with bringing his best performance to the world’s highest stage, all while facing incredible pressure and expectations.

With every team facing some level of adversity in this World Cup, those who are able to cope with these challenges will place themselves in a better position to have success. Midfielder for USMNT, Michael Bradley, recently noted: “Jurgen [Klinsmann] said it best. It’s going to be a World Cup of patience, of knowing how to deal with the elements, of being able to suffer at times…When you talk about playing in the heat and the travel, it doesn’t bother us…it excites us to see now that the other teams are so worried about it because it’s not something that comes into our thinking.”

As a player, having the understanding that you will face challenges in your career allows you to expect and anticipate them, and feel prepared for them when they arise. Feeling prepared and confident in your preparation starts with putting in the work leading up to competition that allows you to perform at a high level. For many teams heading to Brazil, this involved focusing on increasing player fitness to allow them to perform for 90 minutes in extreme heat. Similarly, the ability to overcome adversity starts with focusing on what you control as a player. During the game, this involves your role and responsibilities on the field, as well as your effort, your focus, your attitude, and your communication. Before the game, this involves your preparation. Practicing your ability to maintain a high level of effort and focus when you are fatigued or encounter a challenging scenario in training allows you to build your confidence in your ability to overcome adversity in the future. Before competition, reflect and rely on times when you have faced and conquered adversity in the past, and use these experiences to build your confidence in your adaptability to challenging circumstances. Finally, when anticipating increased adversity, stick to your routine as a player. Don’t let the pressure of a big competition make you feel like you need to change things as you prepare for a game. Stick to what has worked to effectively prepare you physically and mentally to perform at a high level. As the clock ticks down to the first game in Brazil, the teams that ultimately make it to the knockout rounds will be those who, in the words of Bradley, “deal with the elements” and are “able to suffer at times.”

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The Spurs Look Forward: Learning From (Not Dwelling On) The Past

Tonight, the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs meet in Game 1 of the 2014 NBA finals – a rematch of last year’s dramatic 7-game championship, in which the Heat bounced back three times to tie the series, before winning it all on their home court. The 2013 NBA finals gave Miami their second consecutive Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy; however, it also served up bitter disappointment for the Spurs, who held a 3-2 series lead heading into Game 6, and after leading for most of the game, were 28 seconds away from being crowned NBA Champions. A few missed free throws, several late-game errors, and an improbable comeback by the Heat erased a five-point deficit, sent Game 6 into overtime, and ultimately tied the series, before it was won in Miami several days later. For the Spurs, the disappointment of that loss – an outcome so close to ending differently – inevitably extended into this season’s training camp. However, before the start of camp, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich had the team re-watch the final two games of the 2013 finals, in a final attempt to, as a team, collectively learn from the experience, and put it behind them. Facing tonight’s new opportunity, Spurs guard Manu Ginobli and his teammates recognize the importance of learning and letting go: “It stays in your head for a while,” Ginobli said. “But then you get away from it, you grow up, you have a new challenge, a new season, and you work to be in that position again, and we are in that position again, so hopefully we do better.”

As an athlete or a team, letting go of the past and refocusing on the present moment and the next opportunity is not necessarily an easy feat. Frustration and disappointment after a major setback – especially one that was agonizingly close to a triumph – is a natural response for those committed to, and passionate about, their sport. And such disappointment can be painful, especially after you’ve physically and mentally pushed yourself on a daily basis for success. However, your ability to move on can be developed through objective evaluation, short-term memory, and a process-oriented approach to your game by focusing on what you can control. As an athlete, an objective evaluation makes the most of past experience, by allowing you to identify both strengths and weaknesses of your performance. After the disappointment has subsided, it is important to draw out some positives from the experience, by recognizing what you did well – what worked. Similarly, take time to acknowledge specific areas of your game that can be improved. Learn from the experience in such a way that fuels your mental or physical approach in the future and allows you to set new training goals for yourself moving forward. For example, if you felt fatigued late in the competition, it may mean that you increase your commitment to building your fitness by running an extra day each week.

Finally, moving on from disappointment means that, as an athlete, you have a short-term memory, and that your focus is not on the outcome, but on the process: the aspects of your performance that you control in the present moment of competition. These aspects include your effort, your attitude, and your commitment to fulfilling your roles and responsibilities on the field or court. Use the lessons of past setbacks to guide your training and preparation for the next competitive opportunity; but, when the time comes to compete, set the past aside and concentrate on what you control in the now. For both the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs, the slate is wiped clean when tonight’s game begins. The only thing that matters now is which team can consistently bring their best to the court for this year’s best-of-7 series.

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