Cohesion Between Edu and Okugo Leads to Strong Performance

Players like Maurice Edu and Amobi Okugo are rare, yet valuable to any club, because they are talented and versatile enough to play in multiple positions. This season, both have started for the Philadelphia Union as center backs, and have also served time in front of the backline. Yet, despite their versatility, before Sunday, Edu and Okugo had never played together as central midfielders. Against the San Jose Earthquakes over the weekend, Union head coach Jim Curtin paired the two together in the center of the field, and the effect was almost immediate. Edu and Okugo helped the Union to a 4-2 win, and their performances often made it seem as though the two had been playing together as central midfielders all season. For Okugo, the natural chemistry with Edu consistently helps him develop as a player. “When he first came in, we naturally bonded,” Okugo said. “We’ve become very close. He’s been sort of like a big brother-type of guy to me…we’re always pushing each other and keeping that competition lively. For us to finally play together, it was good…I feel like we can even raise it to another level.” Edu agreed that the chemistry would develop even more with time: “I think we both have the natural ability to get forward, to be box-to-box players,” he noted. “I think we understand each other well. Obviously it’s a partnership that’s going to grow as we continue to get more games together. But as a starting point, I think it went well.”

Edu and Okugo’s partnership provides a strong example of team cohesion that has been cultivated both on and off the field. Cohesion, or chemistry, between players is built on the field through experience. As you train and play, pay attention to your teammates’ tendencies – work to develop an understanding of their strengths, and even the mental state at which they perform at their best. If you know that a player tends to perform well when he or she is confident and relaxed, provide some encouragement throughout training, warm-ups, or even games. If you notice that the player is getting too worked up and losing control of his or her emotions, consider using a simple cue word or phrase (i.e., “Relax”, “Push through”) to help them regain composure. During training and games, push each other to become better and maintain high expectations for each other. As a player, hold your teammates to high standards, but also let them know that you are there to support them. Expect your teammates to work hard, but allow them to take chances and make mistakes. Finally, motivate and support them by maintaining effective communication through feedback (i.e., “Good effort, but try to switch the point of attack next time”) rather than criticism (i.e., “Stop being selfish with the ball”).

Chemistry between teammates is also built when players like Okugo and Edu spend time together off the field, getting to know one another outside the athletic environment. Recognize that you and your teammates probably share most of the same experiences. As such, provide support for each other through those experiences. When teammates are playing well, let them know and boost their confidence. When they struggle, or go through a period of playing poorly, recognize that you have probably been there before, and offer your support. Encourage them, and let them know that you believe in their ability to bounce back. When talent and effort are equal, teams with strong chemistry or cohesion are often able to produce strong performances even in the face of adversity. Regardless of where Edu and Okugo line up when they play their next MLS game against Toronto, their strong bond and understanding will go a long way in helping them perform well together as the Union fights for a playoff berth.

High Performance Sports provides sport psychology services to athletes for performance enhancement

Murray Battles Through Discomfort in a Strong Mental Performance

While most athletes prefer to feel as physically prepared as possible when they perform, unexpected conditions and uncontrollable circumstances can make that a challenge at times. For eighth-seeded Andy Murray, the first round of the U.S Open on Monday, against unranked Dutchman Robin Haase, was unexpectedly challenging, given Murray’s reportedly strong training period leading up to the tournament. His difficult victory in four sets was anything but routine, after he began to cramp only halfway through. While he has played through discomfort before, the physical challenges Murray faced in this match were far from ordinary, yet no less painful. After winning the first two sets, Murray’s body began to suddenly break down and he started cramping in his quads, both sides of his abdomen, and both arms. Between points, the 27-year-old was seen grimacing while he twisted his torso and stretched his legs, trying to push away the pain. Even in the summer heat, the cramps were unanticipated for the Scot who, in 2013, became the first British male to win the singles title at Wimbledon in 77 years. “For me it was unexpected, and therefore quite difficult mentally to deal with,” he said. “It’s hard because, you want to be able to just focus your energy on trying to win the match. But you need to then have tactics as to how you’re going to deal with how you’re feeling…It becomes tricky. You start to think about the cramps, rather than what you’re trying to do on the court…I managed to get through in the end.”

As an athlete, despite your best preparation, there may be times when injuries or physical discomfort arise unexpectedly and challenge you mentally during competition. For athletes competing at any level, it is neither ideal, nor recommended, to play through significant pain or an injury. Before you make the decision to do so, talk to either a trainer or coach (preferably both), tell them about your pain, and allow them to help you decide if you can, or should, continue to play. Nevertheless, if there is no risk of further injury, there may be times when you do not feel in top physical shape, but you have to push through and keep competing. Under these circumstances (i.e., cramps, bruises, sore muscles, etc.), it is important to develop the ability to mentally cope with the challenge. This mental strength starts with your preparation. Having a routine that consistently allows you to be as physically prepared as possible (including what you eat and drink, and how you stretch) is the first step. If, despite the preparation, you sustain a small injury or knock, but can still play, the next step is to remain composed and focus on the task as you push through the discomfort. As Murray noted, one of the more challenging aspects of playing through physical discomfort involves the natural tendency to focus more on the pain and less on your game. In these moments, the use of refocusing cues (i.e., “Focus on the task” or “One point at a time”) to keep your mind in the present moment can be especially effective. Become comfortable with these tools by using them in training, and gradually developing the natural ability to maintain your focus and composure through minor pain by focusing on what you control in each moment. As Murray turns his focus to the next round, he will undoubtedly take steps to ensure that his body has recovered and is ready to compete again, while also knowing that he has the mental fortitude to perform at a high level if he encounters more physical challenges in the future.

High Performance Sports provides sport psychology services to athletes for performance enhancement

The Whitecaps Look to Strike Balance Complacency and Recklessness

The Vancouver Whitecaps, who have only lost twice in their last 17 games, currently occupy fifth place in the Western Conference table – good enough for an MLS playoff spot if they can hold onto it until the end of October. Despite only four losses this season, Vancouver have largely struggled to collect points, as they are tied with two other clubs for the second most draws in the league thus far. With only a third of the season remaining to solidify a postseason spot, the coaches’ and players’ focus is largely on finding a way to get three points, instead of one, out of each of the remaining games. As a result of the late-season push, players are bringing a noticeably higher level of effort and intensity to training, and the shift in focus was not lost on midfielder Russell Teibert. “I think if you’re content, you’re not pushing for the top,” Teibert noted on Wednesday. “Today was an intense training session. It’s competitive but once we leave the field, everyone forgets about it and we go back to being a family in the locker room… We haven’t plateaued and we’re going to keep going forward and we’re going to keep pushing.” In fact, this ‘pushing’ has, at times, gone overboard. The intensity of recent training sessions has been so high that head coach Carl Robinson had to speak with the players after training one day about the difference between training hard or pushing each other, and being reckless and overly-aggressive in their approach. “We’ve got to stick together as a team and sticking together means getting the best out of each other but in a respectable way,” Robinson said to the media.

These statements shed light on two important mental topics for younger players. First, complacency and contentment are often significant obstacles to continued growth and development as a player. In other words, becoming too satisfied in your achievement and failing to set new goals and new challenges for yourself will often eventually result in a drop in form, if effective habits and preparation are not maintained. This is not to say that you should not take time to value your triumphs. A goal should be celebrated. A win should be enjoyed. A long run of success should make you feel proud. However, the best competitors in the world know that resting on these achievements and failing to continue to exercise good habits will often result in a lack of further progress. As a player, continue to raise the bar higher for yourself. Continue to set new standards so that your improvement and growth do not plateau or become stagnant. Ask yourself on a regular basis if you are engaging in the effective habits that have earned you success in the past. Are you bringing a high level of effort and focus to each training session? Are you taking care of your body through proper stretching, sleep, and nutrition?

Second, while it is important to push yourself and set new challenges for yourself on a daily basis, it is equally important to avoid letting this intensity boil over and result in an injury – to yourself or a teammate. Cohesion can play a significant role in a team’s success, and this chemistry can occasionally be fragile; however, it can be maintained while you are simultaneously pushing players around you to perform to the best of their abilities. There is often a fine line between pushing yourself and your teammates to constantly get better on the field, and letting your effort and intensity get out of control. On the other side of this, if you feel that a teammate was reckless with a challenge during training (on you or another player), it is okay to address it with him or her. However, have the composure and awareness to recognize the appropriate timing in doing so, and the tone you take in communicating. Immediately yelling at another player after he or she goes in late on a tackle will likely not help the situation, as adrenaline levels and intensity are exceptionally high in the moment. Instead, allow for some time to pass, or even wait until after training to address the incident and acknowledge your appreciation for your teammate’s hard work, while also noting the importance of keeping players safe. As Vancouver goes into its final 11 games, a roster full of players eager to prove themselves must continue to avoid complacency through their intensity and effort, while also maintaining a respectful training environment and sticking together.

High Performance Sports provides sport psychology services to athletes for performance enhancement

For Luis Suarez and His Fresh Start, Words Are Not Enough

It is no secret that Luis Suarez is among the most talented, yet controversial, players in modern football. Recently sold to Barcelona from Liverpool for a staggering 80 million euros, the striker arrives at Camp Nou with a tarnished reputation attached to his talents and price tag. In the immediate future (until October), Suarez’s services will be unavailable to his new club, as a result of a four-month ban handed down by FIFA, after the Uruguayan bit the shoulder of Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini during a World Cup group stage match this summer in Brazil. The severity of his punishment comes largely as a result of two similar incidents at the club level for Suarez at both Liverpool and Ajax, for which he was given 10- and seven-match bans respectively. Historically, Suarez has struggled to manage his emotions during pivotal moments in the game, and as a result, his behavior has damaged his reputation and overshadowed his talent. Despite record-breaking scoring abilities, his clubs have been forced to play for weeks and even months without his contributions on the field. Yet, Barcelona’s new number 9 has recently tried to assure media, coaches, teammates, and fans that such behavior is behind him: “…I won’t do that anymore,” Suarez said. “I spoke to my psychologist, and he said I had to face it and say sorry. I did – now I would rather focus on the present, which is Barcelona…everything from before is forgotten.” While Suarez is right to focus on the present and on what he can do to contribute to his team’s success, his ultimate contributions and his legacy in the game will come down to his future actions.

Emotional management plays a massive role in athletic competition. During the World Cup, teams like Portugal, Uruguay, and Brazil were forced to play without some of their top players (i.e., Pepe, Suarez, and Thiago Silva) because of the inability of these individuals to manage their emotions during the heat of competition. As a player, emotional management starts with your self-awareness, and the recognition that there will be times in a game when your focus and composure are tested. Reflect on your experiences, and the times when you have, and have not, managed to stay composed. Knowing yourself and possible triggers that can cause you to lose focus during competition is an essential step in maintaining this composure. For example, knowing that you are the type of player who becomes easily frustrated and reactive over a referee’s call allows you to, perhaps, develop a cue (i.e., “Let it go”) or physical response (i.e., a centering breath) that can help you stay in the present moment. As a teammate, you also play an important role in helping others manage their emotions, by knowing and understanding the player next to you, and taking the initiative to step in when you notice that he or she may be losing control. Demonstrate leadership in these moments by bringing your teammate’s focus back to the present moment – possibly through encouragement or a reminder of accountability (i.e., “We need you in this game!”).

Despite likely skepticism from media, fans, and even possibly coaches or teammates, Luis Suarez has already turned his attention back to the task ahead of him: “That is something from the past and to be forgotten. I have already tried to erase it and move on… My mind now is focused on training until October.” For the sake of his new club, and the legacy of a very talented footballer, one can only hope that Suarez has, in fact, learned from his mistakes, and that the fresh start available to him at Camp Nou will provide him with a door back into the spotlight for the right reasons.

High Performance Sports provides sport psychology services to athletes for performance enhancement

Denver Broncos Leaders Stress the Importance of Tough and Smart Play

Few teams in the NFL manage to escape training camp without having a single fight break out on the field. Many people in the league, both players and coaches, consider this to be a natural part of training, and an indication of effort and toughness. However, when several fights occurred during a Denver Broncos practice on Tuesday, August 12, team leader Peyton Manning had a very different attitude. The quarterback stated that, “you don’t do it in a game. If you do it in a game, it usually costs you something important, it costs you a drive, costs you field position… I’m into treating practice like a game.” The Denver Broncos have been publicly criticized since their Super Bowl loss for displaying a lack of toughness in that game, but head coach John Fox agreed with Manning, and explained to the team the difference between playing tough and playing unwisely. He stressed to the team the necessity of “keeping control of your emotions.”

It is important to treat practice just like a game because that is your chance to train yourself for competitive situations. A team that is prone to fighting in practice is also prone to fighting in games, which leads to penalties and is detrimental to the team’s chances of winning. When athletes on a team are being overly aggressive in practice, it is not a display of grit, but rather, an indication of lack of self-regulation. It is hugely important for athletes to be able to keep their composure and manage their emotions, especially when they feel angry or frustrated, to avoid excessively aggressive behavior on the field.

There are several techniques that you, as an athlete, can use to manage your emotions. When you are feeling so angry that all you can think about is lashing out at another athlete, try to train yourself to be able to take a moment to compose yourself to take a deep, centering breath. This involves taking a breath in through your nose all the way to your stomach, before exhaling out of your mouth. A single centering breath can help you refocus on the present moment and what you need to do to help the team. If you can manage your anger or frustration, you can learn to channel that emotional energy into your play.

Having composure and emotional management can be a very valuable asset in any sport. Rather than letting your anger get the best of you and costing your team a penalty, that emotional energy could be hustling for every ball, increasing intensity within the rules of the game, or asserting yourself into a larger role for the team. One strategy that can help to achieve this is self-talk. A simple word or phrase that can be easily recalled and repeated such as “control” or “channel my aggression” is most effective in the heat of competition. This can be a quick reminder that anger does not have to interfere with your play, but rather, it can be used to your advantage. The more you use this word or phrase in both training and in competition, the more effective it will be in helping you manage your emotions.

While John Fox and Peyton Manning want the Denver Broncos to be a tough, hard-playing football team, each of them wants the players to be smart as well. This means possessing self-regulation and harnessing their aggression in a way that benefits the team in both practices and games.

High Performance Sports provides sport psychology services to athletes for performance enhancement

Hammon’s Latest Success Yet Another Display of Perseverance

At 5’6”, Becky Hammon enjoyed an impressive college career as a point guard at Colorado State, being named an All-American while setting an array of CSU all-time records, including most career points, highest points-per-game, most free throws made, and most career assists. However, after college, she was not immediately drafted into the WNBA, and instead, later signed with the New York Liberty and was forced to play several seasons as a backup point guard. After becoming a starter and a team co-captain in 2003, Hammon immediately began to cement her place in WNBA history, earning six league All-Star selections over the next nine seasons, and became only the seventh player in history to score at least 5,000 points. She was also named one of the 15 greatest WNBA players ever in 2011, and with her dual citizenship, earned a bronze medal with Russia in the 2008 Olympics, after failing to make the U.S. roster. After an ACL tear sidelined her in 2013, she began interning as a volunteer coach with the San Antonio Spurs of the NBA, attending practices and team meetings, building rapport with the players, and impressing Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich with her coaching ability and knowledge of the game. Hammon’s impression ultimately earned her an assistant coaching position with the Spurs – the first full-time coaching role for a female in NBA history. After stepping past this barrier, Hammon recently reflected on the adversity she has faced and overcome throughout her career. “It builds perseverance,” she said. “You can either let it totally discourage you or you can dig in and let it make you better.”

Whether through injuries, failing to make a team, enduring time on the bench, or struggling with a string of poor performances, many athletes fail to fully recognize the choice they have in responding to an obstacle. Allowing adversity to “make you better” as an athlete means that you make the choice to treat each experience, regardless of the outcome, as an opportunity to grow and develop into a stronger competitor and a more resilient person. After enduring a setback, take an honest and objective attitude toward your circumstances. Acknowledge whatever obstacle is in your way and come to terms with the fact that it is probably not going anywhere. Dwelling on something that you cannot change or control will not help you develop the perseverance to ultimately overcome it. Instead, focus on what you can control. For many athletes, learning from and overcoming setbacks often depends largely on their self-talk. Evaluate what you are saying to yourself after facing adversity, and decide whether this is, in fact, helping or hurting your chances for future success. If you find that, after a setback, you fall into the habit of saying/thinking things like “This isn’t fair, I’ll never make this team,” decide whether this is actually an effective way of talking to yourself. Is it serving any purpose in helping you to become a better athlete and learn from the experience? If not, make the choice to make this self-talk more effective (i.e., “I have overcome something like this in the past, and I will do so again.”). “Digging in” as Hammon puts it, refers to an athlete’s decision to accept the challenge in front of him or her, and commit to finding a way through it. Despite earning the status as one of the greatest ever players in the WNBA, Hammon has not been given an easy path there. In her newest role, as the Spurs assistant coach, and the first female in such a role, she will inevitably face further challenges in the future. Her perseverance and willingness to grow from each new experience will undoubtedly earn her further success and recognition on and off the court.

High Performance Sports provides sport psychology services to athletes for performance enhancement

Newest Additions Fill Roles to Give Houston a Much Needed Boost

The Houston Dynamo have appeared in four of the last eight MLS Cup finals, and lifted the trophy on two of those occasions. The 2014 season, however, has provided a different script for The Men in Orange, as they currently sit in 8th in the Eastern Conference standings, with the second-lowest points total in the entire league. Prior to last weekend, the Dynamo had endured a streak of eight regular season games without a win and had surrendered 21 goals across that stretch. Badly in need of more reliable defending, the Dynamo recently acquired two new players to fill significant roles. USMNT player DaMarcus Beasley, fresh off his fourth World Cup, was added as a left back, while Honduran international Luis Garrido, also having appeared in Brazil for his country, arrived in Houston to play in front of the backline. The payoff against DC United on Sunday was immediately evident. While Beasley was expected to provide, and delivered, a massive boost to Houston’s defensive unit, Garrido’s play was equally notable. At 5’7”, the 23-year-old is small for a defensive center midfielder; yet, in his debut, the Honduran was outstanding in the role. Garrido impressed with his ability to maintain possession, and on the defensive side, lived up to the nickname earned in his home country: La Fiera (“The Beast”).

I make my name off the work,” Garrido told reporters through a translator on Tuesday. “That’s what my job is, what my identity is…I’m always trying to do things on the ball…because I’m always trying to improve in that area. But my identity is the work.” Garrido’s teammate and Dynamo captain Brad Davis welcomed the contributions of the Honduran. “You need those types of enforcers, guys that look for those tackles, guys that look to be scrappy and look to break up plays,” said Davis. “Those are all parts of the puzzle that you have to have fit together.”

A player’s ability to fulfill his or her role on a team depends on the extent to which role clarity, role acceptance, and role performance are achieved. As a player, role clarity refers to your understanding of your specific role on the team, as well as the strengths of your game that allow you to have success. It involves knowing your responsibilities on the field, and the contributions your coach and teammates expect you to bring to each game. If, as a player, you are unsure of your role, it is important to talk with your coach and ask specific questions to improve your understanding. Once you are aware of the expectations surrounding your part on the team, role acceptance refers to your willingness as a player to fully embrace that role, and to bring your best effort to the field in whatever capacity you are expected to fulfill. Whether as the starting center midfielder or the last player off the bench, it is important to bring your highest level of focus and effort to the field whenever you perform. Depending on your team’s needs, there may certainly be times when you are unhappy with the position you are playing or the role you serve. Rather than complaining about these circumstances, make the most out of them through a positive attitude and a commitment to helping your team find success. Lastly, role performance involves how well you perform in a given role, and your willingness to evaluate your strengths and areas for improvement in that position through your own objective evaluation and talking with your coach. After reflecting, and receiving feedback, on your performance, develop specific adjustments or process goals that can help you become a more effective player in that role. While the Dynamo currently sit in 8th place, only five points separate them from a playoff berth. With 13 regular season games remaining to make up this gap, Houston will be looking to both Garrido and Beasley to fill much-needed roles, in the hopes that these two players are the missing pieces to the “puzzle”.

High Performance Sports provides sport psychology services to athletes for performance enhancement

Newcomers Bring Maturity and Experience to the Union’s Playoff Push

With 12 games remaining in the MLS regular season, the Philadelphia Union hover three points behind a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, battling six other clubs separated by only seven points. With the pressure of a late postseason push building, the Union recently received a needed boost in the arrival of two high-profile players – both of whom dressed for their respective countries in last month’s World Cup in Brazil. Algerian goalkeeper Rais Mbolhi and Colombian defender Carlos Valdes join the Union shortly after their World Cup stints, and bring a wealth of experience to Philadelphia. Mbolhi, a 28-year-old veteran of two World Cups (2010 and 2014), started all four of Algeria’s games in Brazil, helping the country advance out of its group for the first time. While Algeria ultimately lost its knockout round debut against Germany, Mbolhi registered an impressive 11 saves, helping to push the eventual World Champions into overtime. 29-year-old Valdes returns to the Union, having joined the team in 2011, before being loaned out to clubs in Colombia and Argentina in the hopes of making his country’s World Cup roster. The defender succeeded in doing so, and played the full 90 minutes at center back in Colombia’s group stage win over Japan, helping his team secure its third straight win and earn its first appearance in the knockout round since 1990. Both players, in the prime of their careers, have played at some of the highest levels in the world, and join a club in need of such experience as it strives to climb up the Eastern Conference standings in the next two months.

Having enjoyed success, faced adversity, and overcome setbacks on prior occasions, experienced players can be relied on to lift the level of a team’s training environment and bring a sense of composure and confidence to a team during competition. First, experienced players often know what it takes to bring a high level of performance on a consistent basis. They are familiar with the rigors of a long season, and as such, they know how to manage themselves physically and mentally over the long term to get the most out of each time they step onto the field. These individuals can be relied upon to maintain a consistent level of focus regardless of any one result – not becoming overly confident after a win, or too discouraged following a loss. Second, in high-pressure situations, experienced players are often described as “knowing how to win”. This means that, whether up or down a goal late in a match, players with experience know how to go about finding a result – balancing sheer perseverance and effort with a confident and patient tactical approach. For example, when a team faces a must-win game and goes down a goal with ten minutes remaining, experienced players carry the maturity and wherewithal to stay in the present moment and remain calm and composed in these circumstances. In using their experience, they also make the choice to be confident and rely on their strengths, rather than becoming unsettled and frantic. In a sense, experienced players learn to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations, and can bring a sense of calm to their team’s efforts in times when the pressure is high.

Finally, in training, experienced players also have the ability (and responsibility) to constantly push the players around them to get better. Mbolhi joins a young Union goalkeeping cast brimming with raw talent in Zac MacMath (22) and Andre Blake (23). The Algerian’s ability to set a strong example and provide mentorship for these two players will go a long way in enhancing the training environment and elevating the level of the team’s goalkeeping overall. As Philadelphia enters the final third of the regular season, its ability to earn a second ever playoff berth may depend largely on the qualities that Mbohli and Valdes bring to the table through their experience playing at the highest levels in the world.

High Performance Sports provides sport psychology services to athletes for performance enhancement