Lallana Stresses Importance of “Sticking Together”

With a 3-1 setback at Crystal Palace over the weekend, Liverpool suffered its sixth league loss of a very young season. In four months, the Reds have lost as many games as they did all of last year. With its latest loss, the club is winless in its last four Premier League games, and has struggled offensively and defensively. Out of 12 league matches, Liverpool has won only four games and currently sits in 12th in the English Premier League table, four points above the relegation zone. Having recently made it back to the Champions League after last year’s strong campaign, Liverpool are in danger of being knocked out of the European competition with a loss or a tie against Bulgarian club Ludogorets Razgrad on Wednesday. Over recent weeks, players, coaches, and fans have become increasingly frustrated with the club’s lack of success, and head coach Brendan Rodgers knows that his job could be in jeopardy if Liverpool fail to turn things around. In response to the recent struggles, 26-year-old midfielder Adam Lallana noted the importance of maintaining belief and commitment to the team’s objectives as a group. “We need to stick together. It’s as simple as that. When you’re having a tough time as a team, you all need to stay together – you can’t start becoming individuals. We win and lose as a team; we need to stay together, keep fighting and keep working for each other. We have got a tough game on Wednesday so we all need to be together for that one.”

“Sticking together” through adversity can be a significant mental challenge for any team at any level. When things are not going your way and losses begin to pile up, many players can struggle to maintain their effort and remain committed to the team’s goals. They can become increasingly upset and instead of focusing on the team, begin to dwell inwardly on their own frustrations. As a player in these situations, focus on being part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Instead of arguing with teammates or choosing to blame other players when your team loses, take ownership of your actions. Identify ways that you can improve your own role on the field. Pick out small aspects of your game that you can work on so that you are doing whatever you can to give your team the best opportunity to win. Furthermore, pay special attention to your communication on the field, and make sure it is effective. When a teammate makes a mistake, rather than jumping into criticism and angrily pointing out his or her error, provide feedback in a way that will help the player learn from that mistake and improve (i.e., “I see what you were trying to do there, but try doing this instead.”). Bring your team together before training or on a day when you are not training and discuss ways to improve performances as a group. It is not easy to take a leadership role in these circumstances and help your team stick together. However, the players who are able to do so often find that these “slumps” do not last as long. As Liverpool’s players and coaches turn their attention to the Champions League game on Wednesday, the fate of their season could ultimately depend on whether they are able to stick together and work for each other in the face of adversity.

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James Focuses on Process and Progress Despite Loss

After reaching four straight NBA Finals with the Miami Heat and winning two titles in the process, LeBron James has grown accustomed to winning. When he made the decision this past summer to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers for his 12th NBA season, many thought that would not change, as the 29-year-old was moving from one talented team to another. However, since the start of this season, winning has not come easily for the Cavaliers, despite their unquestionable talent. On Monday night, Cleveland performed poorly and lost at home against the Denver Nuggets, and followed it up on Wednesday with a 92-90 home loss to the San Antonio Spurs, the defending NBA Champions. However, while the losses dropped the Cavaliers to a mediocre 5-5 record to start the season, James was satisfied with his team’s performance against the Spurs. “This is a game that I’m happy about,” he said. “I’m never happy about a loss, I hate to lose, but I’m happy about the progress we made tonight. It’s totally different than what we did on Monday. We came to play, we competed for 48 minutes and when you give yourself an opportunity to win, that’s all you can ask for.”

As an athlete, “giving yourself an opportunity to win,” means controlling the controllables, and doing everything in your power to help your team have success each time you step onto the field or court. While all competitive athletes want to win, and most “hate to lose”, the outcome of a competition can, in many ways, be outside your control as a competitor. Factors such as the opponent’s performance, a referee’s decisions, or even the weather conditions can all impact the final outcome. Rather than focusing on this outcome (thereby taking your mind out of the present moment), focus instead on the process, and the parts of your game that you do control, such as effort, a positive attitude, and your commitment to your role. Putting your best into every performance, maintaining positivity in the face of challenges or obstacles, and doing what you can to fulfill your responsibilities during competition are all important ways of giving yourself and your team an opportunity to be successful. In committing to these and other controllables, you do everything in your power to help your team win, and as James notes, “that’s all you can ask for.” This process-focused mentality extends to the post-game response as well. After competing, take time to objectively evaluate your performance, recognizing what you can improve and also acknowledging things you did well. An objective evaluation allows you to pull valuable information from every performance and put this information to good use moving forward. As James further shows, the ability to detach from the result and acknowledge progress can also be a great display of leadership when a team is struggling to find consistency. With a long season ahead, the Cavaliers have time to make adjustments and improve, and James’s ability to lead through a process-focused mentality will go a long way in helping the team do just that.

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USMNT Looks to Benefit From Demanding Environment

Four months removed from the last World Cup, the U.S. Men’s National Team already has its eyes set on preparing for the next step. For head coach Jürgen Klinsmann and his players, that next step is the Gold Cup, hosted by the United States next summer. On Friday in London, the USMNT lost a hard-fought 2-1 friendly game to Colombia, ranked third in the latest FIFA rankings. On Tuesday, the U.S. faces Ireland – a team working to earn its berth into the 2016 European Championship. For Klinsmann, these games provide an ideal test for his players. “The earlier that we can throw the players into a stress environment, into a very demanding environment, the better it is,” Klinsmann said. “And that is why we try to get games here [in Europe] and going down in the future to South America…And to keep learning and keep losing to get that experience. That’s what these guys need. They need to understand what it really takes to master the game at a higher level and hopefully get the results down the road.” U.S. midfielder Mix Diskerud agreed. “It helps a lot when you play against a top three team [Colombia] in the world and you learn a lot,” Diskerud noted. “For me, it definitely was an experience and I know where the bar is set right now and where the best players are at…Going forward, and playing this game against Ireland, I know and the rest of the players as well, where the highest tempo is and how it should be played.

There are many young players in this country who, like you, want to make it to the highest levels of the game. As a player, what steps are you taking to prepare yourself for these goals? Part of preparation involves exposing yourself to high-level environments, where you are outside your comfort zone and challenged on a weekly basis. As a player, it is important to constantly seek out ways to push yourself physically and mentally to become better. One way of doing so is by competing against older, bigger players. If training with older players is not an option, think about how you respond when you find yourself competing against an opponent who is faster or maybe more talented than you. Preparing yourself for the higher levels of the game means that you are willing to be uncomfortable by testing yourself against better competition and testing your limits in pressure situations. When you know that you are going to be competing against more talented players, set short-term process goals for yourself concerning what you want to accomplish, and maintain your focus on the parts of your game that you can control. For example, aim to win 75% of your tackles or to beat your defender down the line. No matter the outcome of the game, you can still focus on these goals that you control and measure your success based on your performance with them. As Klinsmann notes, this mentality means that losing should be viewed as a way of learning and gaining experience as a player. This certainly does not mean that you should want to lose. Instead, it means that you do your best to win, and recognize the lessons you learn from both wins and losses, including the fact that merely competing against more talented players is an opportunity to make yourself better. Exposing yourself to these high-level environments, and embracing the moments when you get to compete against the best, will also help you test your character when facing adversity. How will you respond when your back, or your team’s back, is against the wall? As the United States prepares for its next friendly against Ireland, Klinsmann will be watching for those players who embrace these tests, and enjoy challenging themselves against the best the world has to offer.

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After Impressive Start to Season, Berahino “Soaks In” Pressure

After scoring only five goals in 32 games last year with West Bromwich Albion, Saido Berahino is currently enjoying an impressive start to this season with the club, and is starting to see the rewards. In West Brom’s first 11 matches, the 21-year-old striker has already scored seven times, and has added another three goals for the England Under-21 national team this year. As a result, he was recently called up to the country’s senior national team to make his debut in its upcoming qualifiers for the European championships. After moving to England as a 10-year old seeking asylum from his home country of Burundi, Berahino has played for nearly all of England’s youth national teams during his young career. In response to his most recent achievement and any possibility of increased pressure, Berahino exhibited some of the same composure he has shown in his finishing ability this season, including three goals from the penalty spot. “I don’t feel under pressure,” he said. “People put it on me but I just soak it in. I try to enjoy it. I am definitely mentally strong after what I have been through in life – I am a stronger person and a stronger character – nothing can be harder than that.”

It is no secret that players can perceive increased pressure as they move up in their competitive careers. Many players falsely assume that composure is only a natural ability – that some players are born able to cope with pressure, while others are not. While it may be the case that some are less influenced by pressure, there are strategies any player can use to cope with perceived pressure under different circumstances. Berahino’s response demonstrates several of these tools. First, one of the most effective means of coping with pressure involves reframing it as a challenge. Embrace whatever situation is in front of you and enjoy the opportunity to test yourself. Recognize that you have prepared well for the moment you are facing, and “soak in” any pressure as fuel to drive your performance. Whether you are preparing for a championship match, thinking about an upcoming tryout, or walking up to take a penalty kick, find some enjoyment in the moment. Viewing these situations as opportunities for yourself can help you manage any nerves or anxiety you may be feeling. Second, Berahino also demonstrates the value of identifying your past experiences as an individual, and recognizing that there have been times in the past when you have overcome challenges in the face of expectations or perceived pressure. Use these experiences as proof for yourself that you have what it takes to confront whatever is in front of you. Furthermore, consider how the opportunity ahead of you can provide a valuable learning experience for you as a player and a person, and focus on the process of that experience, rather than the outcome. Finally, acknowledge the individual strengths or qualities you have built up as a result of overcoming these challenges, and rely on those strengths to take advantage of the upcoming opportunity. Berahino’s continued ability to cope with pressure will go a long way in helping him earn further opportunities with England’s national team, and will help his club as it attempts to build on a solid start to the season.

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Nguyen Responds to Latest Opportunity With Focus and Commitment to Prove Himself

In his third season with the New England Revolution, the 28-year-old midfielder Lee Nguyen has enjoyed a breakout year, registering 20 goals and 6 assists during the regular season and first two playoff games. His performances have led many to group him among the favorites for league MVP this season. However, until recently, Nguyen had not been called up to the senior United States National Team in over seven years. That long wait became worthwhile last week with a phone call from national team head coach Jürgen Klinsmann. After acknowledging the honor of being named to the US roster for the upcoming friendlies against Colombia and Ireland, Nguyen quickly turned his attention to the job ahead of him. “This is hopefully just the first. I’ve still got to keep going and keep pushing, and that’s the main thing,” he said. “Any time you can play for your country and represent your country, that’s the highest honor, the highest privilege you can have as a football player. I’ve got to go up there and focus on the task at hand and try to prove myself.”

While achievements like this can be satisfying for a player, in some cases they can also be overwhelming. Have there been times in your career when you have performed consistently well, earned an opportunity, and suddenly you start to wonder if you will be able to maintain your consistency? Whether it is a call-up to your national team, or earning a spot in the starting lineup, you could feel pressure to reach the expectations of consistently maintaining a high level of performance. Nguyen’s response demonstrates the value of not “resting on one’s laurels,” a phrase that means one should not be satisfied with success and shy away from pursuing greater achievement. Following success, the greatest competitors set their sights on the next milestone ahead of them and continuing challenging themselves to excel.

There are specific strategies you can use as a player to strengthen your commitment and focus after success, and take the first step in chasing that next opportunity. First, take time to objectively evaluate yourself as a player. Identify strengths in your game, and habits in your preparation that have helped you achieve success in the past, and commit to those practices. Additionally, consider ways of continuing to develop by identifying one or two aspects of your game that can be improved. Set short-term process goals concerning the skills or qualities you want to develop. Embrace the mentality of wanting to become a better player tomorrow than you are today. Finally, view achievements as an opportunity to “prove yourself.” Rather than shying away from this mentality, the top players in the world are fueled by it. Having earned his way back into the national team mix at the age of 28, Nguyen’s continued success – both at the club and international level – will depend largely on his ability to see each achievement as a stepping-stone for the next one, rather than an endpoint.

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Complacency Postpones Arsenal’s Round of 16 Berth

After only 60 minutes in Tuesday’s Champions League match against RSC Anderlecht, Arsenal seemed well on its way to securing a place in the Round of 16. The London club had scored twice before halftime and added a third early in the second half. The Gunners held more possession and offensive chances in the first half, and it seemed all-but-certain that the club would win and advance out of a difficult group into the Champions League knockout round. Unfortunately for Arsenal, a lot can happen in 30 minutes, and Anderlecht scored twice quickly, and found the equalizer in the game’s 90th minute to steal a point. Arsenal midfielder Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain summed up the team’s regret from the match: “…Obviously a little bit of complacency crept in because we didn’t finish the game strong at all. At 3-0 a team of our quality should be able to see that out and dominate the remaining 20–30 minutes. We failed to do that and we were punished.” Head coach Arsene Wenger echoed the sentiment and noted several reasons why his players fell short. “At 3-0 there was a combination of switching off and thinking the job was done and also fatigue, you could see we were not competing for the challenges,” Wenger said following the match. “Maybe we underestimated Anderlecht subconsciously. That’s Champions League – you need to be at that mental level and we were not.”

Complacency can be a difficult challenge for players or teams that have enjoyed success – either early in a game, or across several weeks of a season. Complacency can cause players to fall short of putting forth the same level of effort and focus that has earned them success in the past. It can lead individuals to believe that they have worked hard enough, done enough, and achieved enough, to allow a performance to take care of itself. Resisting complacency as a player means that you are committed to maintaining a consistently high level of focus throughout an entire game, and each time you step onto the field. It means that you stick to your roles and responsibilities in the game, regardless of the scoreboard or your performance. As a player, avoid complacency by recognizing what habits have brought you success in the past, and committing to those habits to see a performance all the way through to the end. It also means that you are able to make small improvements or adjustments to your play to ensure that you are continuing to challenge yourself to raise your level of play and become better. Above all, avoid complacency by staying in the present moment and focusing on what you can control. Players who begin to think about the outcome of the game long before the game has ended have removed themselves from the present moment and, therefore, are often putting forth less than their highest level of effort and focus into the task at hand. When your team is leading late in a game, clear and effective communication can also help you stay organized and committed as a group, help players work through fatigue, and ensure that everyone is performing their role to the best of their abilities. With two Champions League group games remaining to earn a place in the next round, Arsenal will need to make adjustments in their mentality late in a match in order to avoid “switching off.”

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United’s Latest Struggles Arise From Lack of Emotional Management

Despite a new coach and the arrival of world-class talent over the summer, Manchester United is still struggling to win big games. The club’s latest setback, against Manchester City on Sunday, came largely as a result of playing a majority of the game with 10 players. Center back Chris Smalling received his first yellow card in the game’s 31st minute, after he interfered when City’s goalkeeper Joe Hart was dropkicking the ball from the top of the penalty area. Only eight minutes later, Smalling earned his second yellow card for a late challenge outside the box. After United was reduced to 10 men, City’s Sergio Agüero scored the game’s only goal midway through the second half to claim three points. Following the game, United head coach Louis van Gaal noted that Smalling should have done a better job managing his emotions in the first half, and made adjustments to his play after receiving his first card. “I didn’t see the first yellow but with the second, you know you already have a yellow, so [you] have to handle it differently,” van Gaal said. “There is also emotion and sometimes you cannot control your emotion but it was not very smart…As a player you have to control your aggression.”

Smalling’s red card provides an example of the consequences that can come from a player’s inability to manage his or her emotions and adapt during a game in response to circumstances. As a player, it is important to recognize that emotions are part of the game. Competitiveness, passion, and a desire to win can cause you and players around you to experience a range of emotions, including excitement, frustration, anger, and disappointment. While you cannot control your automatic emotional response in the moment, you can develop the ability to manage your emotions. As a player, emotional management starts with your awareness. Consider times when you have failed to maintain your focus or composure under emotional circumstances and allowed emotions to negatively affect your game. Recognize that these and other emotions will, at times, challenge your focus and composure during a game, and develop a strategy or plan to respond effectively in these moments. During training, when you notice that your emotions are pulling your attention away, find a stoppage in play and try a centering breath (inhale deeply into your stomach, hold the breath momentarily, and exhale). This can help you release some tension and bring your attention back to the present moment. Refocusing cues (i.e., “My game” or “Let it go”) can also be great tools for helping a player manage his or her emotions while playing. These short words or phrases can help you recover your focus when you feel it slipping away.

Game awareness and decision-making also play a big role in emotional management. When Smalling was issued his first yellow card, it was important to make adjustments in his play (e.g., avoiding late challenges) in order to avoid giving the referee any opportunity to make a difficult call. Recognizing that a second yellow would leave his teammates in a frustrating position with 50 minutes remaining could have helped him avoid a costly decision in a crucial moment in an important match.

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