For Jones, Most Recent Loss Provides Fuel and Lessons for Postseason

The New England Revolution is riding a hot streak at the right time, as it prepares for its MLS playoff matchup with the Columbus Crew. The club is unbeaten in 10 of its last 11 matches, and the impressive string of results has been partly due to the contributions of Jermaine Jones, who was added as a Designated Player in August, after a career with top-level German clubs such as Eintracht Frankfurt, Bayer, Leverkusen, and Schalke 04. However, despite his contributions and his club’s strong performance recently, the 32-year-old defensive midfielder feels that the most important game in the last 11 was the only loss during that time: a 1-0 setback against the Crew on September 20th. While the Revolution bounced back against the Crew with a win a few weeks later, Jones hopes that the loss will serve as motivation and a learning experience for his team, as it prepares to face Columbus again on Saturday. “[That] one game showed us that when we don’t play 100-percent focused on the game that we can lose it…[The] second game at home, everybody was focused that we can beat them and we can give them a lot of trouble…We have to be focused, the same like when we were playing Columbus here at home. I think when we are 100-percent concentrated we can take something.”

Coming from someone with a wealth of experience playing at the game’s highest levels, Jones’s comments can provide some useful mental insight for young players. While it is important to draw confidence from success and build on momentum, it is equally important to constantly challenge yourself as a player to remember, and learn from, your setbacks. While New England’s players can certainly take pride in their recent form, failing to adjust and improve on mistakes they’ve made in the past will likely hurt them under the pressure of postseason play.

Furthermore, what can Jones’s comments offer players who may struggle to maintain focus during competition? While every player may desire to be “100-percent focused” at all times throughout a game, this can be difficult to maintain, with the many distractions that can arise during competition (i.e., mistakes, parents or coaches on the sideline, a referee’s decisions). As such, it is important to (1) be aware when you lose your focus during a game, and (2) develop the ability to quickly and effectively regain your focus when it gets pulled away. Refocusing cues (i.e., “Here and now” or “Zone in”) can be useful and simple tools to recover your attention when you become distracted. Reflect on your playing experiences and acknowledge situations in which you have lost focus during a game in the past. Begin using a refocusing cue or two during your training sessions to become comfortable with them, until they become more automatic while you play. As the Revs prepare to face the Crew for the fourth time this season, it will be up to each player to learn from individual mistakes and team setbacks in the past, and bring a high level of focus to the field for each playoff game.

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Madrid Triumphs in Clásico With Professionalism and Team Mentality

The latest Clásico between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona did not fail to provide another spectacular chapter in the rivalry between the two Spanish clubs. It featured the debut of Luis Suarez, as Barcelona entered the game at the top of the La Liga table, having neither been beaten nor scored upon in its first 8 matches to open the season. Ultimately, however, Madrid put forth an outstanding performance in the Bernabéu, coming from behind to earn a well-deserved 3-1 win, with goals from Cristiano Ronaldo, Pepe, and Karim Benzema, after Neymar had put Barcelona ahead early. Despite the three goals, it was Madrid’s effort on the defensive side of the ball that went a long way in earning the three points. While Barcelona, as expected, held the edge in possession, Madrid’s players remained collectively disciplined and patient defensively, and took advantage of their chances going forward. Following the match, Madrid’s head coach Carlo Ancelotti was overflowing with praise for his players. “I always said that our defensive level wasn’t about quality but about sacrifice, desire to run, to work together and to help out team-mates,” Ancelotti said. “I have a very, very serious team who understand what it means to play for Real Madrid and sacrifice themselves for the team. I’m proud of these players. They have a seriousness and professionalism which is unique in my experience as a coach.”

As a player, what steps do you take on a daily basis to embody professionalism and a “team first” mentality? As Ancelotti noted, a team-first approach requires effort, sacrifice, and selflessness. It means that you are willing to set personal interests aside, such as your playing time, your statistics, and your desire for recognition, in favor of your team’s goals and agenda. It means that, as a team, you and your teammates work together and help each other when things are going well, and more importantly, that you do the same when you are facing adversity. Being a team-oriented player does not mean that you do not care about your own individual performance. Players who “understand what it means” to play and sacrifice themselves for a team are still committed to their individual development, and bring a high level of effort and focus each day. However, their approach to training and games is one in which they do whatever it takes to help their team have success. Having a team-first mentality also means that you are a leader in times of adversity, whether through your effective communication, or through your effort and performance (leading by example). Finally, professionalism and a team-first approach also means that you understand and accept your role on the team. Many of Real Madrid’s players are among the best players in the world, and some have had to adjust to roles as a substitute, as part of “what it means to play for Real Madrid.” Whether you are a starter or a key reserve on your club team, think about what you can do to better understand and demonstrate acceptance of your role on the field, and contribute to your team’s success. As Madrid attempts to defend its Champions League title and reclaim La Liga this year, a continued commitment to professionalism and a team-first approach will go a long way in helping this group of “Galácticos” consistently perform at its highest level.

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Achieving ‘Relaxed Alertness’

At some point in your athletic career, you have probably been told to ‘relax’. But, this is not necessarily as straightforward as it sounds, and two problems could arise. First, though you’ve probably been told to relax, you may not know specific strategies you can use to do so. Second, relaxation may seem to contradict what most deem an essential part of performance: getting physically and psychologically ‘pumped up’. Many athletes may find it difficult to get relaxed before or during intense competition. Some individuals may feel that relaxing actually hurts their performance. Others may struggle to achieve a good balance between relaxation and game-readiness. However, learning how to relax can be a beneficial part of your competitive mentality. Former Olympic swimmer and swimming coach at the University of Arizona, Rick DeMont, noted that “It’s the paradox of athletics…Tension is slow, tension is inefficient. You need to be relaxed.” But, to avoid becoming too relaxed to perform at a high level, try to get yourself to a state of ‘relaxed alertness’ – when your body is free of tension, yet prepared, and your mind is focused on the game.

To achieve a state of relaxed alertness before and during competition, many athletes use ‘centering breaths’. A ‘centering breath’ is different from the breathing you engage in during a normal day. Rather than inhaling shallow breaths that fill your chest (bringing tension into your shoulders), inhale and try to bring the breath down to your stomach, filling it slowly with air, holding for a second or two, and letting the air out, simultaneously releasing any tension in your muscles. Use this strategy on the way to the game, in the locker room before your warm-up, at half-time, or even on the field during a stoppage in play. It might help to place your hand on your stomach to feel the air fill your belly like a balloon.

Athletes may also use a form of visualization prior to, or during, competition to focus on the task at hand, rather than the tension or anxiety they might be experiencing. DeMont explains that recalling a time when you performed very well in a game or training can help you release pre-performance tension from your mind and body, while simultaneously remaining ‘pumped up’ and motivated to perform. Develop a vivid image in your mind of successful performance, attend to the mental and emotional elements of that positive experience, and try to duplicate them. You should first try these strategies in training sessions, before using them in games, to determine which ones work best for you. When you find one that is effective, it can then be transferred to a more competitive setting to help you consistently find your optimal level of game-readiness, while not hindering your enjoyment of competition. Using relaxation strategies to manage ineffective tension can be an invaluable strategy for achieving peak performance while enjoying the intrinsic benefits of competition.

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In Union’s Final Home Game, Curtin Impressed With Players Who “Stuck With It”

For the players, coaches, and fans of the Philadelphia Union, the 2014 season will unfortunately be coming to a premature end in the club’s final regular season game at Columbus this weekend. However, despite missing out on the playoffs for the third consecutive year, the Union earned a 2-1 victory in its final home game on Saturday against Sporting KC, the defending MLS champion. While it wasn’t a perfect performance, interim head coach Jim Curtin expressed pride in his players’ ability to get the job done, singling out the role of Brian Brown, one of the club’s newer players, on loan from Jamaican club Harbour View. “[He] is a kid now who, 21 years old, doesn’t have a great first half, but at least sticks with it and gets the goal in the 44th minute. So, again, those are the messages where when things get hard, who are the guys who roll their sleeves up, and who are the guys that bail out? I thought tonight we had a lot of guys that stuck with it. Was it perfect? No. We didn’t play a perfect game…But from the young players to the old players the mentality [was] to stick to the task and get a result…

Players who “roll their sleeves up” are those who maintain their effort and commitment to a task, even when their backs are against the wall. These are the individuals who choose to demonstrate leadership when their team faces adversity. At times, this can be difficult to do. When a team is playing poorly or even losing, many players often shy away from the spotlight, and fade to the background. Their confidence wavers, their communication can become less effective, and their performance can become hesitant. In many cases, this mentality and body language can become contagious and spread throughout the team. Instead, as a player, “rolling your sleeves up” when your team is facing adversity is a sign of leadership. It means that you choose to rise to a challenge, commit to your role, and do the work necessary to help your team find a result. When faced with adversity, focus on the details of your game – the things you control as an individual. Increase your communication on the field, offering encouragement when teammates do something well, and clear, specific feedback when they can adjust or improve. Take ownership and help the players around you stay organized and disciplined in their collective efforts. Effective communication during these times in a game can also often help you stay engaged in the play and focused on your own role. As a player “sticking to the task” means knowing your role on the field and maintaining your focus on filling that role. It can help to use self-talk in these moments (e.g., “I can do this” or “I’ve trained and worked hard for this moment”) to maintain your own motivation and your concentration level. When the game becomes difficult, don’t be the type of player who “bails out.” Instead, choose to be the type of player who digs deep, commits to your role and responsibilities on the field, and takes a leadership role through your verbal communication and body language. Jim Curtin embodied this mentality as a player and now as a coach, and as Philadelphia turns its attention to its final game and the 2015 season, he and his staff will continue looking for more players who lead by rising to a challenge when their backs are against the wall.

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Dwyer Brushes Off Mistakes, But Still Wants More

In only his third season in the MLS, Sporting Kansas City’s Dom Dwyer has already broken several records, but remains unsatisfied. The English striker has 21 goals in 31 MLS games this season, which set a new club record and is currently the second most in the league. However, after the most recent goal against the Chicago Fire, Dwyer noted that he still wants more, and even half-jokingly told reporters that he was aiming to add another 10 goals to his club record, with only two regular season games remaining. In fact, his goal total would have been higher had he not missed his first penalty of the year in the 13th minute of the game against the Fire. “I know, throughout my career, I’m going to miss,” Dwyer said. “I’m going to miss another PK. There’s going to be a time I miss an open goal. It’s going to happen to everyone. You see Messi. You see Ronaldo. You see the best players in the world missing. That’s something you have to deal with in the game, and I’ve matured and learned to deal with it…you brush it off and move on and make sure you put away the next one…I’m still out to prove I’m getting better each game,” he said. “That’s all I want to do. I’m not satisfied. I want more.

As a player, it can be very difficult to strike a balance between holding yourself to high standards (always wanting more out of your performance), and also recognizing that mistakes will happen and accepting them. Dwyer provides an example of a player who has demonstrated a remarkable ability to strike this balance. In each game, he acknowledges that he will not be perfect, but he also continues to raise the bar for himself each time he steps onto the field. For players who want to continue developing and moving up to higher levels of the game, Dwyer’s mentality provides an excellent example of what is often needed for that continued growth: a refusal to be satisfied with achievement, along with an acceptance of imperfection. Goal setting can be an important element to this process, because goals provide milestones to help you maintain your focus and motivation over time. However, they also allow you to continue lifting the bar for yourself. Thus, if you achieve an objective you previously set, pick a new one. Along with goal setting however, on a day-to-day basis, it is important to allow yourself to make mistakes on the field. Goals should help guide your motivation and your focus, but they should also be realistic and allow for mistakes and growth. As a player, coping with mistakes during a training session or game involves your ability to stay in the present moment or the “here and now”. Consider using a refocusing cue (i.e., “Flush it” or “Let it go”) to maintain your composure and regain your focus after a mistake has happened. Dwyer’s professional career is still young, but the striker will likely continue to improve and will be around for some time, based on his ability to let go of mistakes in the moment, while challenging himself to prove that he is “getting better each game.”

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Froese Overcomes Nerves in MLS Debut

While the 2014 MLS season may be nearing an end, the careers of some players are just beginning. Vancouver Whitecaps Homegrown player Kianz Froese made his debut over the weekend in front of more than 55,000 fans in a pivotal away game against the Seattle Sounders. The 18-year-old earned his first MLS action as a halftime substitute, and played a strong 45 minutes to help the Whitecaps earn a 1-0 win. After the game, Froese acknowledged feeling nervous early on. “When [coach Carl Robinson] told me I was going in, my heart dropped. I was quite nervous for a bit, but the game settled down and then you slowly get into it…I’m just happy being part of the group and helping the guys win.” Froese’s coach and teammates were quick to praise the midfielder’s first MLS performance. “Sometimes it’s best learning in the toughest environments and [Friday] was the toughest environment for him to learn,” Robinson stated. “[He was] excellent. Hard work, determination, the kid can play.” Kekuta Manneh, the game’s lone goal scorer and the player Froese replaced, agreed with his coach. “He was exceptional when he came in,” Manneh said. “He did his job well and that’s what we can hope for. He’s a really good player and he just needs a little more minutes and you will see what he can do.

Froese’s performance provides an excellent example for young players on how to cope with nerves at any level of the game. While feelings of nervousness or anxiety are not a bad thing, they can negatively impact performance if you interpret them to be harmful. Whether you encounter them before or during a game, nerves and any related mental or physical sensations (i.e., worries or racing thoughts, shallow breathing, sweating, or upset stomach, etc.) are often indications that your body is getting ready to perform. Rather than interpreting nerves as a sign that you are not prepared to perform well, see them as a sign from your body that it is ready. Players who effectively cope with nerves or anxiety also maintain a focus on their strengths and what they can control leading up to, and throughout, the performance. Know your role on the field, reflect on your strengths as a player that allow you to perform that role well, and commit yourself to paying attention to details (e.g., hard work, communication, etc.) that can help you stay engaged in the present moment throughout the game. Recognize that you will probably make mistakes, and stay focused on how you will quickly recover in those situations, perhaps through the use of a refocusing cue (i.e., “Back to the moment” or “Here and now”). You can also help teammates cope with nervousness by providing communication on the field, encouraging them when they do something well, or providing effective feedback or guidance when they can improve. It is often the case that your efforts to help them stay composed will help you deal with your own nerves as well. Finally, as part of the reframing process in coping with nerves, enjoy the opportunity to test your abilities against other talented players. Whenever Froese sees the field again, either during the regular season or playoffs, he can draw confidence from his ability to cope with the pressure in his MLS debut, and continue to contribute to his team’s success.

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Timbers Focus on Accountability in Performance and Learn From Mistakes

With a second consecutive victory over the San Jose Earthquakes on Thursday night, the Portland Timbers secured three more points in their final push to make the MLS playoffs next month. More importantly for head coach Caleb Porter, the two games have demonstrated his team’s ability to learn and grow this year. Throughout this season, the inability to manage a game when leading has arguably been the club’s biggest weakness. “It’s been a tough year…maybe it’s unfair, maybe it’s fair, but at the end of the day there have been a lot of times where we’ve had to look at ourselves in the mirror and realize and acknowledge, myself included, that it’s not been good enough,” Porter said following his team’s latest win. “If we want to be a team that is consistently up there at the top, a team that is always in the playoffs, we have to do better at that…we can’t unravel when we’re up 2-0.” Diego Valeri, the club’s leader in both goals and assists, appreciates the emphasis his coach places on becoming a mentally stronger team. “[Coach Porter] always wants us to talk because he believes that the mental thing is the most important in soccer, and I agree with him,” Valeri said. “We made some mistakes because we were not focused. And this time of year you need to stay in every moment really focused because every team needs points, they are playing for something.”

As a player, there will be times in your career when you may feel as though you have been treated unfairly. There may be times when you feel as though the odds are stacked against you and some outside influence is to be blamed for a poor performance or outcome. Perhaps the weather conditions were undesirable, the field was bumpy, or the referee was blatantly favoring the opponent. Given all of the work you have put into your training, when things don’t go favorably for you as an athlete, it may be tempting to place the blame on something or someone else. However, the world’s best competitors choose to ignore this temptation and focus on what they can control. They take accountability for their performance, no matter the outcome, by objectively identifying one or two things they can work on or continue to do in the future. As a player, objective evaluations allow you to identify strengths or areas for improvement in any performance – good or bad. They allow you to take control over your play and recognize successes and mistakes that you can learn from. For example, as a striker, it may be the case that you are frustrated after a game because the ref failed to call a penalty when you were pulled down from behind on a breakaway. Dwelling on this – and only this – after the game is a missed opportunity to learn from what you did well and what needs improvement for your future training sessions or performances. Instead, think about what you could have done in other moments during the game to capitalize on another chance, or to create more chances for yourself. Blaming your misfortune on the referee is equivalent to taking the easy way out. It also fails to challenge you to lift the bar for yourself. Instead, reflect on ways to improve your game and take responsibility for your performance. With only two regular season games remaining to clinch a postseason spot, it becomes even more important for Portland’s players to stay focused on what they can control.

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