Sidelined ‘Indefinitely’: Decision Will Test Mignolet’s Mental Strength

After an impressive season last year, Liverpool has struggled over the first four months of this season. The club was recently knocked out of the Champions League and, in the Premier League, is currently six spots outside of Champions League qualification for next season. Over the weekend, Goalkeeper Simon Mignolet was benched as a combined result of the club’s and his own poor performance, in a move that manager Brendan Rogers called ‘indefinite’. While this is undoubtedly a frustrating time for the Belgian, Queens Park Rangers goalkeeper Rob Green, who has endured his own share of struggles, including an infamous mistake that cost England a win over the United States in the 2010 World Cup, noted the likelihood that Mignolet returns a stronger player. “At some point keepers need a time out…that’s the manager’s decision. Simon will work hard and come back stronger,” Green said. “Clearly he’s got the ability and clearly the manager believes in him – he signed him – but when times are tough the manager may take stock behind the scenes and say ‘now’s the time to give him a rest’. It’s happened to me, it’s happened to every goalkeeper.”

Whether due to your poor performance, or simply the better performance of another player, there will be times in your career when you must deal with limited playing time. Whether or not you agree with the decision will not change things, so accept the responsibility and role you play in earning a return to the field. Granted, this can be a challenging and frustrating experience for players who are working hard in training and want to see rewards for their efforts. However, in response to these circumstances, recognize the things you can control, and those that you cannot. Your coach’s decision to ‘give you a rest’ is not under your control. Your response to this decision is. These times should be treated as an opportunity to, in some way, push the ‘reset’ button and recover both physically and mentally to eventually return to the field stronger than you were before. In these situations, it is tempting to blame something or someone else for your limited playing time. However, the players who are able to objectively evaluate themselves are often able to identify something that they can improve, take action in addressing that part of their game, and ultimately return a more complete player than before. Communicate with your coach to better understand what you can do specifically to see more time on the field. For example, perhaps he or she says that you struggled to start games well, and that it took several minutes after kickoff for you to physically and mentally adjust to the speed of play before you began to perform well. This could be due to insufficient preparation on your part. Under these circumstances, consider ways to boost your physical and mental readiness for a performance by taking the opportunity to fine-tune your routine (i.e., through improved nutrition and sleep, longer warm-ups, mental imagery, etc.). Regardless of your personal opinion concerning whether or not you should to be on the field, it is your job to remove any doubt from your coach’s mind about whether you deserve playing time. This ‘time out’ could prove to be a pivotal point in Mignolet’s professional career, and the outcome rests on his ability to respond effectively and seize the opportunity to become better.

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United Closes Premier League Gap With Killer Instinct

With its sixth consecutive Premier League win, Manchester United suddenly seems poised to challenge for a Premier League title. After a rocky start to the season with only 3 wins in 10 matches, United has now climbed to 3rd place, after a convincing 3-0 win over Liverpool at home on Sunday. While Liverpool had the majority of chances throughout the game, United’s strikers were clinical in their execution, and took advantage of their chances. The game was, perhaps, best characterized by two back-to-back opportunities in the first half – squandered by one player and seized by the other. About 11 minutes into the match, Liverpool striker Raheem Sterling had a golden opportunity to score from close range, but was unable to finish, partly due to the heroics of opposing goalkeeper David de Gea. United was on the attack only 25 seconds later, and after Antonio Valencia beat his defender on the right side and slid a pass across the top of the box, Wayne Rooney ruthlessly scored to give his team a 1-0 lead. De Gea’s ability to preserve the shutout with several outstanding saves, combined with the finishing ability of his teammates, was enough to guide Manchester to a comfortable win over one of its main rivals. After the game, despite his team’s impressive performance, United manager Louis van Gaal pointed out that his players could have still done more in the second half to see the game out.

While Liverpool earned the majority of chances in the match, United’s win was a testament to the value of a killer instinct. While it is commonly used to describe a striker, the term ‘killer instinct’ does not only apply to a team’s attacking players, but also refers to the mentality of any player, playing any position on the field. Player’s with a killer instinct are constantly looking for ways to improve their performance, compete, and to have success. As such, they recognize the importance of focusing on the process of improving as a player, but they also put emphasis on the outcome: trying to win. As a player, it is important to recognize that this outcome is not always under your control, and your killer instinct has a lot to do with your mentality when it comes to preparing yourself for competition. Are you putting your full effort and focus into training every day and getting the most out of your preparation? Are you seeking out feedback from coaches and teammates on what you can do to improve some part of your game? If you are a defender, developing your killer instinct may involve improving your ability to win 50-50 balls in the box off of corners or free kicks. A killer instinct also means that you are confident and assertive when you step onto the field for competition. You recognize that you have done the work to prepare for this moment, and you are ready to take advantage of the opportunity when it arises. While United’s recent performance has the club steadily moving up the Premier League table, Van Gaal’s call for further improvement shows the need for his players to continue bringing a killer instinct to their preparation and competition.

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Donovan’s Experiences Shed Light on Athlete Mental Health

On Sunday, Landon Donovan played his final competitive match as a professional soccer player, and in helping the LA Galaxy clinch its record fifth MLS Cup, he ended his career on a winning note. While he has enjoyed unprecedented success as an MLS player, one part of Donovan’s career is discussed less often: his battle with mental health as a professional athlete. In recent years, Donovan has openly expressed mental exhaustion with the game, has reportedly struggled with depression, and meets with a therapist on a regular basis. In early-2013, when he took a four-month break from soccer to address some of these issues, MLS’s all-time leader in goals and assists said that, “We have a sort of stigma that being in a difficult mental place is not acceptable. We should ‘pull ourselves up by the bootstraps’ and ‘fight through it’.” In the postgame press conference on Sunday, a reporter asked him whether he could see himself as an advocate for athlete mental health in the future. “Obviously I’ve been very open about some of my struggles,” Donovan said in response. “I think it’s probably the last untapped part of sports. It’s pretty fascinating because your mental state and your emotional state can dramatically impact your performance. And so it’s actually mindboggling to see sports spend hundreds of millions of dollars on things, but not focus on that. Perhaps that will change in the future…perhaps I will be a part of it. But for me, the more meaningful way is to help individuals.”

Mental health is often seen as a taboo or uncomfortable topic and the world of sports is no exception. Athletes are often thought of as strong and invulnerable, and if they reveal that they are struggling mentally or emotionally, can be perceived as weak. However, like any other human being, athletes at any level encounter a range of emotions and challenging mental experiences that are often amplified by the pressure that comes with high-level performance and competition. While these experiences are normal, mental and emotional struggles can affect some individuals more than others. As an athlete, it is first and foremost important to recognize that you will encounter various emotions on and off the field, and while these emotions are not necessarily controllable, they are manageable. You can use tools such as a refocusing cue (i.e., “Let it go”) or centered breathing to manage the everyday emotions (i.e., anger, frustration, etc.) you experience during competition. However, at times, these emotions may seem too powerful to cope with on your own. In these circumstances, it is essential that you find someone you can talk to about these experiences, such as a parent, a teammate, a coach, or a sport psychology professional. It may be the case that you know or feel that something is wrong, but may not know what that is, or even how to go about handling it. It is acceptable and encouraged for you to seek out assistance with these issues. Donovan’s experiences as a professional demonstrate that regardless of competitive level, athletes are, first and foremost, human beings. Especially within the context of competitive youth sports, an individual’s wellbeing should always be the top priority. As this message continues to grow, athletes everywhere have better chances to combat the negative stigma associated with mental health.

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Keane Recovers from Early Mistakes to Score Late in MLS Cup

For the third time in four seasons, on Sunday afternoon the LA Galaxy won the MLS Cup, beating the New England Revolution 2-1 in extra time at the StubHub Center. The game was surprisingly sloppy throughout, as neither team put forth its best performance, and the Galaxy had to rely on a goal in the 111th minute from MLS regular season MVP Robbie Keane to claim the title. The Irish international recorded 19 goals and 14 assists during the regular season to earn league MVP honors. However, he was far from his best in Sunday’s game, and failed to convert on several early opportunities. In his postgame interview, Keane was asked about several of the chances he had missed early in the game. “I’ve been playing for 15 years…you miss chances and you score chances…I don’t worry about missing chances,” Keane said. “For me, I always tell young strikers that as long as you’re getting into the right areas, and you keep getting in there, you’ll score goals…I knew if I got another chance, I would put it away.” This belief paid off, and after Keane scored the winner with 9 minutes remaining in extra time, commentator Taylor Twellman said, “It doesn’t matter when you’ve had the kind of game that Robbie Keane has had…all it takes is one.”

Despite a slow start, Keane ultimately showed why he is LA’s captain and the league MVP, partly through his ability to cope with mistakes. As a player, it is important to recognize that mistakes will happen and accept them as moments to cope with and overcome throughout a game. Before competing, rather than dwelling on mistakes that will happen, focus your energy on how you will respond to those mistakes. Failing to let go of a mistake can often cause effort and focus to drop off, because you disengage from the game by remaining preoccupied with the past. Dwelling on a mistake that has just happened only pulls your focus away from the present moment. Instead, work to keep your mind in the ‘here and now’, and focus on the parts of your game that you can control. Keane notes the importance of strikers putting themselves “in the right areas.” This awareness of effective movement and positioning, along with effort, communication, and a positive attitude, are great examples of the “controllables” that you can focus on immediately after making a mistake. The use of refocusing cues can also help you let go of mistakes and keep your focus in the present. Imagine, as a striker, that you’ve missed an easy tap-in in front of goal. You may feel frustrated, disappointed in yourself, and embarrassed at your inability to capitalize. Using a refocusing cue (i.e., “Let it go” or “Flush it”) can help you turn your attention back to where it needs to be, and focus on what you can control. Twellman’s comment following the winning goal on Sunday – “all it takes is one” – is a powerful message for young players watching Keane manage an “off-day” and ultimately deliver for the Galaxy when it mattered most.

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Loic Remy: Opportunistic and Hungry to Prove More

With Diego Costa suspended for Chelsea’s Wednesday night match against Tottenham due to yellow card accumulation, head coach Jose Mourinho turned to Didier Drogba and Loic Remy to fill in for the Premier League’s second highest scorer. While there were concerns that Chelsea would struggle in Costa’s absence, both Drogba and Remy scored and guided the club to a 3-0 win. Remy’s response to this opportunity was particularly impressive, as the 27-year-old has only played 160 minutes this season, due to a groin injury and Costa’s goal-scoring form. While Drogba started the game, Remy took his place in the 67th minute and scored Chelsea’s third goal to secure the win. “For me it’s important. I took my chance and scored this goal,” Remy said. “I feel really proud to be on the bench but of course I want to play, that is why I work hard during training sessions…I try to increase my level and improve and it is really good to work with them, and every time the manager wants to use me, I try to do my best. The opportunity was there because Diego wasn’t involved…it was good for the confidence for me to come in and score.

Remy’s ability to deliver when he was called upon provides an excellent example of a player who has remained patient, opportunistic, and hungry, even though he has struggled for playing time. As a player, it is not easy to continue working hard in training, only to have to watch from the sidelines during games. This experience can be frustrating and, in some cases, may even seem unfair. However, the opportunistic players are the ones who remain patient in the face of this challenge. They continue working hard in training and wait for the chance to prove they belong on the field. Opportunities for playing time can arise at any time and for any number of reasons, and as a reserve, it is important to be ready when this happens. Above all, focus on what you can control throughout this process. Arrive early to practices, mentally and physically prepared to put in the work and improve your game. Identify ways to dedicate yourself even further to your development, by improving your nutrition, your sleep habits, or your fitness outside of training. It can also help to ask your coach about things you can do to earn more opportunities in games. When he or she gives you information, receive it as feedback and make a specific plan for yourself concerning how you will use the information to your advantage. Whether in training or on the sideline in games, provide effective communication and support to your teammates to help them perform to their best. Finally, when you do get the opportunity to contribute, focus on playing to your strengths. Often, the players who are given more opportunities in the future are the ones who step onto the field and do the simple things consistently well, demonstrating to the coach that he or she can rely on them. Chelsea faces a full schedule of upcoming games this winter, because the club remains in the running to win several trophies. With his continued patience, hunger, and hard work, Remy will likely play an important role in his team’s attempts to claim these titles.

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Henry Leaves Behind Legacy of Professionalism and Excellence

On Monday, Thierry Henry announced that he would be leaving Major League Soccer after five seasons with the New York Red Bulls. Whether or not this announcement has signaled the end of a masterful career, the 37-year-old’s status as a world-class striker has already been established. Since he first made his professional debut 20 years ago, Henry has scored 360 goals for various top-level clubs, including Monaco, Juventus, Arsenal, and Barcelona. He has also scored 51 times for his country, and was the top scorer on France’s 1998 World Cup winning squad. Since Henry’s arrival in New York in 2010, the Red Bulls have made the MLS playoffs all five years and won the MLS Supporters’ Shield last season. And while his many achievements speak for themselves, the praise Henry has received from current and former teammates and coaches provides a true testament to his quality.

“I don’t think there will ever be a player in this league – there never has been – that has what Thierry has in all aspects…It’s just been a phenomenal two years as a head coach to have a mind like that and a person like that.” – New York Red Bulls manager Mike Petke

“I have to say I haven’t seen a player like him. He’s an athlete with great technical ability and a tremendous desire to be the best.” – Former Arsenal striker Alan Smith

For any athlete, this sort of respect and admiration is not earned overnight. It comes from years of excellence and professionalism, both on and off the field. Henry’s career has been nothing short of legendary, and he serves as a wonderful role model for young players striving to advance to higher levels of the game. As a player, professionalism starts with the recognition that you are in control of your development. It means that you take responsibility for your game, and that you are committed to taking care of the details off the field (i.e., nutrition, proper sleep, etc.) so that you are at your best whenever you play. Treat every training session or game as an opportunity to improve. Use routines to ensure that you are physically and mentally prepared each time you step onto the field, whether for training or competition. Show respect to other players, referees, coaches, and parents, while also competing relentlessly on the field. Above all, professionalism means that you bring your competitive edge and commitment to the game by holding yourself to high standards whenever you play. When you train, recognize that each drill, each pass, and each touch on the ball is an opportunity for you to become a better player. For any young player, this kind of mentality also means that you are able to acknowledge weaknesses in your game and work to turn them into strengths by identifying areas you want to improve upon and setting up specific plans to go about doing so. Lastly, professionalism also means that you are committed to raising the bar for yourself, rather than becoming satisfied with your development. Henry’s legacy has been defined by an insatiable desire to always be the best, no matter what environment he is in: “I’m obsessed by the idea of making my mark on history.” Even as a 37-year-old, playing well beyond the time most players retire, he has continued to make this mark, and is a model of professionalism and excellence over a wonderful career.

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