Union Newcomers Look to Impress by Focusing on Patience and Process

The Philadelphia Union opened up its 2015 season with its first training session on Monday, held at YSC Sports. The session provided the coaching staff with its first glimpse at many of the players who will make up the first team roster this year. Joining the returning Union players on Monday were some youth academy players, trialists, and the four players selected by Philadelphia in the 2015 MLS SuperDraft last week: forward Dzenan Catic (Davenport University), midfielder Eric Bird (University of Virginia), and defenders Aaron Simmons (UCLA) and Raymond Lee (Saint Louis University). The club begins 2015 looking to add talent into roles recently vacated by players like Amobi Okugo, Zac MacMath, Pedro Ribeiro, and Brian Brown. Facing his first full season in charge of the club, head coach Jim Curtin offered up some words of wisdom for the new players looking to earn a spot. “I told all of the young guys that they’re not going to impress us in the first four minutes of a training session,” Curtin said. “So you’re not going to make a team by doing a trick or a step-over. It’s about guys putting together a good day, then a good week, then a good two weeks and then a good month. … I think that’s a good message for any young player.”

Facing a trial or tryout scenario can be a psychologically challenging experience for young players looking to make the jump from college to the professional ranks. However, Curtin’s message is valuable for nearly any player hoping to be selected to a team, recruited, or even trying to make the starting lineup. Learning how to mentally approach these experiences can play a key role in helping you perform well. First, it is important to view them as opportunities to show your strengths. Avoid dwelling on any possible outcome (i.e., making the team or not), and focus on the whole process. Second, many players become overwhelmed with the idea that they are being evaluated or tested in these situations, and they feel the need to drastically change their game to impress coaches or scouts. Instead, focus on what you do consistently well as a player. Be patient, because coaches are not making decisions based on any one spectacular play or any one mistake. In these situations, resist the temptation to try to do too much. Use your routine to help you remain consistent and focus on what you control by demonstrating good habits (i.e., effort, a positive attitude, and effective communication). Third, while you may feel nervous leading up to these opportunities, focus on how you are interpreting these nerves. View them as a sign that your body is preparing to compete. Some athletes like to think of this as getting their butterflies to “fly in formation.” It’s all about how you interpret and manage your emotions. Finally, in these situations, coaches want to see how you respond to adversity as a player. If you make a mistake, stay in the present moment and get back to focusing on what you know you do well. And above all, enjoy the opportunity you have in front of you. With more than a month of preseason before the Union’s first game against the Colorado Rapids, the new players have time to focus on, and enjoy, the process in front of them, and demonstrate to the coaching staff that they can contribute to the club’s goals this year.


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Bradford City Sets Fear Aside and Earns a Massive Win

The fourth round of the FA Cup offered plenty of drama over the weekend, as the top two Premier League clubs – Chelsea and Manchester City – fell to opponents from lower leagues. Bradford City, a club currently 7th in League One (the third flight of English football), traveled to Chelsea and earned a historic victory over the team currently sitting atop the Premier League. More importantly, Bradford earned the upset after going down 2-0 in the first half and scoring four unanswered goals. Phil Parkinson, Bradford’s coach, was pleased with the courage his team showed against the best club in England. “It’s really just about giving the lads the belief to go out there and put on their best performance,” Parkinson said. “We respected Chelsea but we certainly didn’t fear them…we didn’t give them any time on the ball…when we had the ball ourselves we played with real calmness and I’m really pleased because it’s so important. These days don’t come along very often and when they do it’s great we made the most of it and the lads really did themselves credit.”

In some ways, there is a fine line – though a huge difference – between respecting your opponent and fearing them. Respect involves recognizing an opponent’s talent, and figuring out a way to give your team the best chance to win. It’s okay to acknowledge that another team or player is talented, and maybe even more talented than you. However, fear can emerge when you allow yourself to become intimidated by that talent. Players most frequently experience fear when they fail to stay in the present moment, and start focusing on the possible outcome of a match, rather than the process. Instead, in these circumstances, recognize that you will perform your best by focusing on what you can control. Focusing on the process means that you prepare yourself physically and mentally as best as you can, as you would for any performance, and that you recognize the roles and responsibilities you will have on the field. Consider your strengths, and how you might exploit any of your opponent’s weaknesses (e.g., Bradford’s commitment to not giving Chelsea time on the ball). Finally, when preparing to compete against more talented opponents, it is important to see these games as opportunities. Make the most of these moments by embracing the chance you get to test yourself against the best. Setting fear aside as a player does not mean that you will not be tested or uncomfortable when it comes time to perform. It means choosing to be confident in your abilities even when your back is against the wall. This belief can play a big role in determining whether or not you rise to the occasion in these moments. While Bradford’s opponent in the fifth round of the FA Cup is still to be determined, the courage shown by the players in earning a 4-2 win against the best England has to offer will continue to play a huge role in the club’s success moving forward.



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Sterling Gradually Adapting to New Role

After changing positions from a midfielder to a target striker in mid-December against Manchester United, Liverpool’s Raheem Sterling initially struggled to adjust, and encountered criticism over his inability to score in his first game, despite several easy chances. Since then, the 20-year-old has shown increased comfort as a center forward, and has scored four goals in eight matches. “It is a role I am learning and adapting to, but that is something if you want to be a good player you have to adapt to different positions, and that is something I am keen on doing,” Sterling said. “When I get in front of goal sometimes I get a bit excited thinking I’ve done it all, but now I am keeping focused and trying to get my game to the next level and chip in with more goals and assists.”

Adjusting to a new position can be an uncomfortable process. Many players become accustomed to the skills and responsibilities of one role, and can feel overwhelmed or nervous about the prospect of stepping into a new one. However, the adaptability it takes to play in multiple positions is an important quality for any player. Adaptable players are often capable of solving problems on the field in creative ways, because they can draw from the experience and perspectives they’ve gained from playing in multiple spots. And, on many teams, adaptable players often earn the most playing time, because they are able to fill into various roles when teammates are injured or under-performing. Finally, these players demonstrate how to put the team first. Setting aside individual interests or preferences for the good of the team is a strong show of commitment and leadership.

Part of being an adaptable player, as Sterling notes, is being able to recognize your strengths on the field and figure out how to apply those strengths to your new position. Rather than feeling the need to completely change your game to perform well in your new role, reflect on your strengths and how those strengths can help you be effective in a different way. For example, if you are a center midfielder with excellent vision on the field, and you are asked to play as an outside back, think about how you will use that vision to help you make quick and effective decisions as a defender and how it can help you organize your backline. This is not to say that adapting to a new position is as simple as applying the way you are accustomed to playing to your role moving forward. There will be a learning curve, and it is important to seek out ways to develop the skills and learn the responsibilities necessary for your new position (e.g., asking your coach for advice, or watching and learning from other players who play in the role). Ultimately, recognize that you have been put in a new position because your coach has confidence that you can perform well there, and see it as a challenge or opportunity, while drawing on your past experience to approach your new role with confidence. As Liverpool attempts to climb the Premier League table in the second half of the season, the coach and players will continue relying on Sterling to learn and adapt.



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Arsenal Looks to Build Confidence From Big Performance

On Sunday, Arsenal took a massive step in its attempt to qualify for next season’s Champions League, with a 2-0 away win over Manchester City. After handing City its first loss since October, the Gunners are currently fifth in the Premier League, only one point behind Manchester United. Arsenal was an underdog heading into the game, having not beaten a top-four team in an away league game in over three years. For manager Arsene Wenger, the win was important for his team’s confidence moving forward. “We were well-disciplined, well-organized, had a good solidarity and overall we kept a good control of the game,” Wenger said. “What is pleasing is that [it] reinforces the belief of the team. To feel that you can do well is very important.” Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey agreed with his manager. “We have got a lot to play for this year so hopefully now we can build on this performance and that will give us even more confidence going into the business end of the season,” Ramsey said. “We will just have to concentrate on our own game and hopefully go on a big run and see where that takes us at the end…We are a team that can always create opportunities to score so the important thing is to defend as a team and stop them from scoring because we are always going to get opportunities to score…So if we can keep a clean sheet like we did yesterday, we are always going to have a chance to win.”

As a player, you are probably aware that your confidence can often play a huge role in whether you actually perform well on a given day. As Wenger noted, “To feel that you can do well is very important.” When you do feel confident, it might be the case that you take more chances, you play well, and you tend to enjoy yourself more. However, when your confidence is low, things can often become more challenging. You may feel hesitant, unsure, or fearful, and this can often lead to shaky performances and mistakes. Ultimately however, confidence is a choice. This is why it is so important to rely on your past success as a player. Whenever you step onto the field to perform, make the choice to be confident in what you are capable of doing, by recognizing what you have done well in the past. If you are a striker, remember a game when you scored, or a time when almost every shot you hit was on target. If you are a goalkeeper, think about the time you made the save that won your team the game. Look for small achievements in your past performances – a win, a goal, a strong tackle, or a great cross – and allow each one to reinforce your belief in what you know you do well. Allow each success to help you build confidence in your strengths and your ability to perform well when it matters. By acknowledging these strengths, you can also begin to focus more on what you can control whenever you play (i.e., Arsenal’s ability to create scoring opportunities). Ultimately, confidence is about doing the things you know how to do so that you can give yourself “a chance” to be successful. Heading into the second half of the league season, it will be important for Arsenal’s players to rely on their own past success (including their most recent win) to maintain their individual and collective confidence in each game.


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Idina Menzel: “I’m more than the notes I hit.”

On New Years Eve in Manhattan, Idina Menzel performed her hit song “Let It Go” from the Disney movie Frozen, as part of the Times Square celebrations to ring in 2015. Her live performance was beautiful, up until a point at which she failed to hit a high note near the end of the rendition. The mistake went viral immediately and the Oscar-winning singer was subjected to a barrage of criticism from news outlets and online social media. The next day, in response to the public’s negative reaction, Menzel posted the following quote online (from a recent interview she had given when she was asked how she defines success): “There are about 
3 million notes in a two-and-a-half-hour musical; being a perfectionist, it took me a long time
 to realize that if I’m hitting 75 percent of them, I’m succeeding. Performing isn’t only about the acrobatics and the high notes: It’s staying in the moment, connecting with the audience 
in an authentic way, and making yourself
 real to them through the music. I am more than the notes I hit, and that’s how I try to approach my life. You can’t get it all right all the time, but 
you can try your best. If you’ve done that, all
 that’s left is to accept your shortcomings and have 
the courage to try to overcome them.

Even though her words refer specifically to her singing, Menzel’s response to this situation can provide several important messages for athletes in any sport. First, as a performer, it is important to recognize that success does not mean, nor does it require, perfection. Recognizing and accepting that you will make mistakes during a performance is a huge part of being able to cope with them and respond effectively. This also means that you are focused on the process rather than the outcome. Process-focused performers do everything they can to ensure that they are prepared physically and mentally to perform at their best when called upon to do so. And during the performance, they are constantly focused on the details of what they are trying to do. Second, Menzel’s quote sheds light on the importance of staying in the present moment. This mentality means that you are not focused on the future outcome, nor are you dwelling on something that happened in the past (e.g., a mistake). Instead, you are fully in the “here and now”. Third, by saying that she is “more than the notes [she] hits,” Menzel is defining herself as a performer by more than any one note or song. Instead, she defines herself by the “authentic” way in which she engages with the audience each time she is on stage. Similarly, as an athlete, you are not defined by a win, a loss, a great performance, or a mistake. You are defined by how you approach your sport on a daily basis. This includes your values, your character, and the effort and commitment you consistently bring to training and competition. Finally, Menzel’s point regarding her shortcomings is a vital one for any performer. Acknowledging and accepting your imperfections or your weaknesses will help you remain grounded and constantly driven to improve.

Performance environments (i.e., the athletic field, the stage, or even the workplace) can, at times, be unforgiving and cruel. Ultimately, the individuals who are able to cope with the pressure of these environments are the ones who remain focused on the process, stay in the present moment, accept their imperfections, and constantly put forth their best, while recognizing that they “can’t get it all right all the time.”


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Ronaldo’s Third Ballon d’Or a Further Testament to Consistency and Dedication

After leading Real Madrid to its tenth Champions League title in 2014, and breaking countless individual records along the way, Cristiano Ronaldo was awarded the 2014 Ballon d’Or trophy in Zurich on Monday. The Portuguese striker has now earned the title of world’s greatest footballer for the second consecutive year and third time overall. Last year, Ronaldo scored a combined total of 61 goals for Real Madrid and Portugal, and set a new Champions League record by scoring 17 goals in one campaign. “It has been an incredible year. I would like to continue the work that I have done so far. I want to try to improve, to become better as each day goes by…Every season is a new challenge for me,” Ronaldo said. “That’s how I have to look at things if I’m going to be successful. This Ballon d’Or caps a great season for me and it also gives me the motivation to start 2015 with the same ambition.” Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti also saw the trophy as a fitting reward for Ronaldo’s dedication to his game: “[He] is one of the players I most enjoy watching on the pitch. He’s a perfectionist and he has an awful lot of talent, but he works very hard to polish that talent and improve the many attributes that he possesses.”

There often seems to be a misconception among fans that players like Ronaldo are naturally gifted with their talent. While this may be partly true, Ronaldo’s dedication to improving his game through training and preparation is unmatched. For example, his free kicks are deadly, but very few know that Ronaldo remains on the field after almost every training session to work endlessly on perfecting them. On top of this, teammates, coaches, and trainers have commented in the past on how the 29-year-old devotes attention to every aspect of his preparation, including off-the-field workouts and nutrition, in an effort to gain an edge over his opponents. As a player, consistency in your game comes from your willingness and ability to prepare yourself physically and mentally to perform on a daily basis. Preparing your body and mind to be at their best day in and day out means that you are diligent in training, but also that you take care of the details off the field. Pay attention to the amount of sleep you are getting, and the types of food you are putting into your body. Instead of watching several hours of TV on the weekend, consider whether you can devote that time to getting in an extra run, or increasing your strength or flexibility. For many players, one obstacle to performing consistently well is the complacency that can arise after you achieve success. It can be tempting in these moments to let your guard down – content with the accomplishments or goals you have already reached. However, the best players in the world enjoy success, but are never satisfied with their talent. Instead of resting on your laurels, raise the bar for yourself. Set a new goal, and come up with an actionable plan that allows you to pursue it. Breaking an outcome goal (e.g., “I want to make the national team”) down into performance goals (e.g., “I want to improve my finishing ability”) and process goals (e.g., “I will strike 30 shots on goal after training three times per week”) can help you create a plan for yourself to continue lifting your game to the next level. Ronaldo epitomizes the dedication of a player never truly satisfied with his achievements. As he turns to 2015 in an effort to remain at the top of world football, his consistency in preparing and drive to improve will go a long way in keeping him there.




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Following Kentucky’s First Big Test, Calipari Says “We Need These Kind of Games”

After opening up the first half of the season in dominant fashion, the University of Kentucky men’s basketball team faced a surprising test in its first conference game of the year against the University of Mississippi. Ranked first in the country, Kentucky (14-0) was outscored by unranked Ole Miss (9-5) in the first half, and ultimately pushed into overtime, before winning 89-86. In its previous 13 games, the Wildcats had not allowed an opponent to score more than 70 points. However, Mississippi was impressive throughout, scoring 100% of their free throws during regulation, and leading several times throughout the game. For Kentucky head coach John Calipari, the game provided a glimpse into the kind of mental challenges his team will face this season, and agreed that the test was good for his players. “Every game is going to be this way. Every team is going to come after us,” Calipari said after the game. “We didn’t play great, but you have to give it to Mississippi, they played…The bigger picture for us…we need to be in overtime games, and I need to see who can do what…I like the fact that we fought. We need these kind of games…We need to get down 10, down 12, and figure out who is who, so we can learn.”

Calipari’s objective evaluation of Kentucky’s performance helped to shed light on his team’s strengths and areas for improvement after a significant test. However, his response also suggested how this type of challenge can be beneficial for any athlete. This is because, as an athlete, games like this will determine how you respond when you are outside your comfort zone or your back is against the wall. For athletes striving to make it to higher levels of their sport, it is important to recognize that your greatest development will occur when you are placed in performance situations that make you uncomfortable. Competing ‘on the edge’ like this will test your ability to find solutions to a problem and figure out a way to use your strengths effectively and find a way to win. For athletes in nearly any sport, your ability to rise to the occasion in these moments is often determined by two important competitive qualities: your resilience and your creativity. Resilience refers to your ability to withstand and overcome adversity. As an athlete, you build resilience by coping with challenges you face in training and competition throughout your career, and bouncing back from setbacks. Whether these setbacks come in the form of a loss, a mistake, failing to make a team, or an injury, they will challenge you to adapt to discomfort and overcome it, and you will often learn things about yourself that you did not previously know. Furthermore, by pushing yourself in training to take risks and try new things, you can develop your creativity, or your ability to solve problems in innovative ways. Building creativity as an athlete involves having a willingness to make mistakes, and the recognition that these mistakes provide opportunities for you to learn and improve. With a young team, comprising mostly freshmen and sophomores seeking Kentucky’s next national title, Calipari will continue to watch for the players who can rise to the occasion and manage competitive tests as they arise throughout this season.


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Real Sociedad and Valencia Earn Impressive Wins Over La Liga’s Best

There were two surprising results over the weekend in La Liga action, as the top two teams were beaten on the road by smaller clubs. League leaders Real Madrid gave up a one-goal lead and fell 2-1 to Valencia (4th place), while Barcelona (2nd place) were beaten 1-0 by Real Sociedad, a club currently in 13th. Sociedad’s win over Barcelona was particularly impressive, as the club has now earned wins over the top three teams in Spain this season, after previously beating both Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid at home. In Sunday’s win over Barcelona, an early own goal by Barca defender Jordi Alba gave Sociedad a 1-0 lead, which the club protected for 88 minutes to earn a massive three points. David Moyes, who took over as Sociedad’s manager in November, was full of praise for his team’s ability to match up against the league’s best. “It is the happiest night since I arrived in San Sebastian. We worked very hard. The players showed courage and defended incredibly,” said Moyes. “This team has shown it is capable in the big games against the best teams in the league.”

As a player, part of pushing yourself to become better involves testing your abilities against the very best competition you can find. These games can often cause many players to feel more nervous than usual, and fearful of the likelihood of losing against a more talented opponent. Many coaches and players recommend seeing these matchups just like any other game. While it is true that your physical and mental preparation should remain consistent regardless of your competition, it is okay to acknowledge that one opponent may be more challenging than another. Instead of fearing this challenge, accept it, and view each of these games as an opportunity, rather than something to shy away from. If you want to become a top team or a top player, you must be able to compete with, and beat, the very best. Your preparation for doing so starts with focusing on what you can control. Rather than dwelling on possible outcomes of the game, focus your attention on the process. This is where a pre-performance routine can be especially helpful. If you have an effective pre-performance routine, refine it to focus on what you need to specifically do to beat a talented opponent, but resist the temptation to make significant changes, just because you are facing tough competition. Identify, and rely on, what has worked for you in the past – and draw confidence from this past success. Heading into Sunday’s match against Barcelona, Real Sociedad had not lost against the Catalans at home in six previous meetings. Recognizing that you’ve had success like this on prior occasions can boost your belief that you can do so again. As Sociedad attempt to climb further up the league table, Moyes’s men can continue to draw courage and confidence from their ability to match up against the best Spain has to offer.



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