Johnson Brings Humility, Coachability and Team-First Approach to Chicago

Entering second-half stoppage time down 2-1 against the Columbus Crew over the weekend, players on the Chicago Fire were desperately searching for an equalizer. When late substitute Jason Johnson’s header found the net in the 94th minute, it secured a priceless point for Chicago before the final whistle blew 30 seconds later. Johnson was drafted by the Houston Dynamo in 2013, but didn’t see much playing time in his first two seasons in MLS, before he was traded to the Fire this season. Despite a massive first goal in only his third appearance with his new club, Johnson was quick to turn his attention to the next game. “It’s a goal, but I’ve put it behind right now,” Johnson told reporters on Tuesday. “I’m focused on Saturday’s game, so that’s the main thing for me: Try to get a victory at home Saturday.” Johnson also noted how much he is learning from Chicago’s veteran players on a daily basis. “I’ve been watching Mike Magee over the years in the league, and he’s a fantastic goal-scorer. Shaun Maloney…he’s a really good player. It’s an honor to be playing with these guys and to learn each day in training.” According to head coach Frank Yallop, this mentality has allowed the 24-year-old striker’s transition to Chicago to go smoothly. “He’s a great kid; he just wants to come in and do his part for the team,” Yallop said. “Any time we’ve put him on, or talked to him in training, he’s very coachable, he’s got a great demeanor with the group, and it showed on the weekend. Everyone was very happy when he scored, and he was very pleased and, like you say, he was humbled that he got a goal for the team … which is very refreshing.”

Johnson’s mentality in his third MLS season with his second club shows the importance of remaining humble and coachable even as a 24-year-old professional. By getting caught up in personal success and focusing solely on achieving individual outcome goals, many players lose sight of this mentality, and as a result, they stop working hard on a daily basis to get better. Being a coachable player means that you are committed to learn each time you step onto the field. It means that you are focused and attentive during training sessions, and that you listen closely to your coaches when they provide feedback. It also means that you are receptive to this feedback, knowing that it will make a better player, rather than taking it personally. Coachability also involves prioritizing your team’s goals and the team’s performance above your own individual success. Whether you’ve scored a goal, or you’ve been playing really well for several games, it can be tempting to get caught up in the confidence and pride you may feel for your individual accomplishments. However, while enjoying your success, it’s also important to keep a level head in these moments, and to avoid using it as an excuse to become complacent in any way. One way to do this is to objectively evaluate your performance (i.e., identifying strengths and areas for improvement) on a regular basis. Continue to set process goals for yourself that will allow you to build on each training session or game and continue to improve as a player. On the other side of things, it can be equally tempting to wallow in the frustration or bitterness you may feel if you are playing a position you don’t like, or you’re spending time on the bench. However, having a team-first mentality in these situations means accepting your role on the team no matter what it looks like, and committing yourself to fulfilling that role to the best of your abilities. Having already contributed in a big way to Chicago’s season, Johnson’s time with his new club is off to a great start. His commitment to staying humble, coachable, and putting the team first will help to ensure that things stay that way.

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

Rodriguez Maintains Professionalism With Vancouver’s Reserve Team

Soon after joining the Vancouver Whitecaps on a one-year loan in January, Uruguayan defender Diego Rodríguez quickly earned a starting position with the MLS club at center back. His bright start to the season was interrupted, however, when he suffered a quad strain last month against the Columbus Crew. Having finally regained fitness, Rodríguez appeared in his first competitive game since April 8th on Sunday, with Vancouver’s United Soccer League (USL) side, Whitecaps FC 2. And despite being relatively young, at 24 years old, the 6’3” center back wore the captain’s armband and led the reserves to a 2-1 win over Real Monarchs SLC. According to head coach Alan Koch, Rodriguez’s time with WFC2 was a testament to his professionalism. “Diego is a class act,” Koch said. “He’s a true professional. He came and trained with us for the first time and he jumped in right away. He embraced everybody…he was asking guys names, he got to know them. And you could see that he wanted to play the full 90 minutes but we were told to play him for 60 and he put in a quality performance.” For Rodriguez, this professionalism is just part of focusing on what he controls and getting more games with the MLS side. “When the [first-team] coach needs me, I’ll be ready,” Rodriguez said. “I work every day…I feel very healthy, very good, and ready to play.”

Part of having a professional mentality means bringing your best effort and focus to the field, regardless of the environment or the players you are playing with or against. For Rodriguez, spending time with the reserves probably isn’t ideal, given that he came to Vancouver to pursue a career in MLS. However, the young center back displayed remarkable leadership over the weekend, by maintaining a positive attitude, and treating his time with the USL side no differently than if he were playing with the first team. There’s no denying the fact that situations like this can be frustrating for players who want to play at the highest level at all times. However, many players in these circumstances allow their focus and intensity to drop off, either feeling sorry for themselves, bitter about playing with less talented players, or feeling like they don’t need to work hard to be effective at a lower level. In this situation, it’s important to view the experience as an opportunity to improve as a player, by working on your weaknesses and continuing to refine your strengths. Even if you’re not typically a leader on the field, take the opportunity to be a role model in this situation, by holding yourself to high standards and maintaining your best effort and focus during training sessions and games. If, like Rodriguez, you are around new teammates, introduce yourself and do everything you can to get to know them and demonstrate that you are committed. Part of being a professional also means communicating effectively on the field, encouraging other players when they work hard, and providing useful feedback on what they can improve. When it comes to your individual performance in this situation, consider setting new goals, challenging yourself to lift your game to the next level. Above all, recognize that every moment you are on the field, regardless of the players you are competing with or against, is an opportunity to put forth your very best, focus on your role and responsibilities, and improve your game. Rodríguez’s talent and work ethic will greatly contribute to earning him a spot back on Vancouver’s first team. In the meantime, his professional mentality will help him make the most out of his time with the reserves, help the team be successful, and continue to get better on an individual level.

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

Together, Sporting KC Cope With Small Roster and Focus on One Game at a Time

Heading into Wednesday night’s game against the New England Revolution, Sporting KC faced arguably its most difficult test this season. With a slew of injuries and several players called into duty with their national teams, the club had to bring in rookie defender Saad Abdul-Salaam from his loan club in San Antonio just to have 17 eligible players on its roster for game day. Despite the roster limitations, Sporting KC earned a massive 4-2 win over the Revolution, currently in second place in Eastern Conference. For goal scorer Dom Dwyer, the result came down to the team’s ability to push through adversity together. “You can see that this side is a hungry team…We were down to bare bones tonight, had to call a guy back from on loan…so that shows the character of the team.” Dwyer said. “We’ll deal with what we get and fight for it. We’re all working through injuries and nagging hurt bodies, and we just keep pushing and keep going.” For head coach Peter Vermes, it was also his players’ ability to focus on one game at a time that helped the team overcome adversity. “I really think the reason why we were able to get a result tonight was because of this one thing, and one thing only: We take every game that’s coming up as our most important, and we’re focused on that game, and we’re not thinking about the next.” Playing with such a depleted roster was made even more challenging after Sporting KC conceded a goal 11 minutes into the game, after Benny Feilhaber turned the ball over in midfield. “We go down a goal, mistake on my part, and then every single guy picks me up, picks the team up and we deserved the game from then on out,” Feilhaber said. “It says a lot about the mentality, the ability of the guys.”

Sporting KC’s ability to win under these conditions speaks volumes about the mentality of the players and the team as a whole in coping with adversity as a group. Part of overcoming these types of challenges is recognizing that things may not always go as planned, and that you and your team need to be ready to adapt to uncomfortable circumstances. There will be days when your team is missing one or more key players. There will be days when you are forced to play down a man after a red card. And there will be many days when your team goes down by a goal or more, and you must find a way back. In these situations, how do you individually, and collectively, “keep pushing and keep going” when it seems like the odds are stacked against you? Effective communication among players can play a big role in these moments. When players are placed outside their comfort zone, they can often start criticizing and yelling at teammates, especially when another player makes a mistake (e.g., Feilhaber). Communicating effectively, however, means that you provide specific, useful information (feedback) to other players in a way that encourages them, or gives them instructions to improve their performance, rather than attacking them generally and personally. Furthermore, as Vermes pointed out, part of a group’s ability to overcome adversity also has to do with keeping the focus only on what is happening now, whether it’s this game or this single play. When you notice that you or your teammates are starting to worry about, or dwell on, a future outcome, or what may seem like impossible challenges in the future, find a way to bring the focus back to the present moment, perhaps through a team refocusing cue or mantra (e.g., “Here and now” or “One play at a time”). As players eventually return and Sporting KC regains its full roster, a big part of the club’s continued success will come down to the players’ collective ability to cope with whatever cards they are dealt, and to, as a team, take things one game at a time.

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

Pfeffer Responds to Latest Disappointment With Strong Performance

This season has been full of highs and lows for Philadelphia Union midfielder Zach Pfeffer. The 20-year-old is currently enjoying the most playing time of his professional career, having appeared in nine out of the club’s 12 games thus far, and started five of them. He also scored the second goal of his career last month in the Union’s first win of the season over New York City FC. With that success has also come disappointment though, as Pfeffer was red carded last month against FC Dallas, and forced to sit out for two games. And last week, he learned that he was the final player to be left off the U.S. roster for the U-20 World Cup next month in New Zealand. Despite this setback, on Sunday, against Eastern Conference leaders D.C. United, Pfeffer scored the game winner in the 93rd minute after being subbed on for Andrew Wenger 22 minutes earlier, giving the Union its second win of the season. For the Union’s first ever Homegrown Player, his second goal this season showed he could bounce back from the mental challenges of a personal setback in a big way. “I was very excited, very happy, and relieved. It was a great moment…I was definitely disappointed not to have made the final [U-20 World Cup] roster, but that’s going to happen in this profession,” Pfeffer said after Sunday’s game. “There’s going to be ups, there’s going to be downs. I have to use moments like this as momentum. I did that tonight and want to keep moving forward. It’s a bump in the road, but I believe I’m in a pretty good spot with the team here.”

Whether it’s losing a game, making a single mistake, or failing to be selected to a team, you are guaranteed to encounter disappointment during your career. Like most players, you will have many highs and lows, and strings of good days followed by some bad ones. The first step in coping with the setbacks that come with being a competitive athlete is recognizing that you will encounter these ups and downs so that you are prepared to manage the emotions that come with both extremes. As a player, it’s normal to feel upset, bitter, or frustrated after a setback like the one Pfeffer encountered last week. Ultimately, however, it’s important to turn your attention and focus back toward what you can control. Accept whatever has happened, because, in all likelihood, you can’t do anything to change it. Also, recognize that one setback does not mean that your talent or skillset has disappeared, nor has it been taken from you. You are still the same player, and like always, you have the opportunity to choose to be confident in your abilities in these moments. Start by focusing on the next training session or game on your schedule. Consider setting new outcome, performance, and process goals that will help you address elements of your game that you feel will make you a better player. At the same time, reflect on your strengths and the parts of your game that you can rely on to bring you success. Finally, recognize that, just like success, disappointment is temporary. Focus on your next performance, and gain confidence from your achievements, no matter how big or small. As a 20-year-old already in his fifth year as a professional, Pfeffer has a long career ahead of him. By focusing on improving each day and continuing to view setbacks as mere “bumps in the road,” it probably won’t be the last time he is in consideration for a national team spot.

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

Hall Focused on Returning a “Better Goalkeeper” Than Before

After suffering a torn ACL in his right knee last August while playing for the Houston Dynamo, goalkeeper Tally Hall knew he was in for a long recovery process. During that time, he was traded to Orlando City, an MLS expansion club preparing for its inaugural season. Now, nine months after his injury, the two-time MLS All-Star is preparing to make his return to the field at a time when his new club might very much need him, having started the season with only two wins out of its first ten games. Hall, who helped lead Houston to two consecutive MLS Cup Finals in 2011 and 2012, recognizes that it’s ultimately his coach’s decision on when he returns to the field, but feels confident that he has controlled what he could throughout the process. “I feel very comfortable in practice. I feel like I can explode going both ways… my movement isn’t hindered at all,” Hall said. “My job is to work hard and try to be the best goalkeeper on this team. When coach deems that to be the case, then I’ll be playing.” Throughout his recovery, Hall has focused his energy not on getting back to his old self, but on returning better than he was before. “For me, it’s been an opportunity to refocus, reenergize, get a different mindset on how I approach the game,” he said. “I think what I’m doing now is going to prepare me to be a better goalkeeper than what I was doing a year ago.”

No matter how severe, being injured is never easy. As a player, it’s normal to feel frustrated and even helpless dealing with something that can, at times, seem fundamentally out of your control. It’s common to hear things like “be patient” and “stay positive” throughout an injury, but this is certainly never easy, and the mental challenges can at times be more difficult than the physical ones. With any injury, accept the fact that your body will heal at its own speed, and recognize that your doctor, athletic trainer, and coach will make many of the decisions regarding whether or not you are fit to play again. In the meantime, acknowledge what is out of your control, and choose to focus on what is within your control. Communicate frequently with your trainer and coach to set realistic goals for yourself. Commit yourself fully to the physical therapy, and ask about other ways that can possibly help accelerate the physical recovery process, such as changing your nutrition or sleep habits. Hall’s approach to his own injury demonstrates the importance of viewing recovery as an opportunity for reconditioning, as opposed to rehabilitation. In other words, injuries, as frustrating as they might be, open the door for you to work on different parts of your game (e.g., leadership, tactical understanding of your position, other forms of fitness, etc.) that could help you return to the field a better player – physically and mentally – than you were before you left. Also, recognize that, despite your absence from the field, you can still fill an important role within the team. Use your time away from the field to be a leader, both vocally and by example. When you’re watching training or games from the sideline, offer encouragement and feedback to players on the field. Take seriously the physical exercises you’re able to do, while remaining as patient as possible, because while you understandably want to play as soon as possible, your teammates and coaches are relying on you to be at your best when you do return. Even after nine months, Hall’s job isn’t done, as he must earn his spot back in the lineup. Nevertheless, having navigated many of the physical and mental challenges of a long reconditioning process, he is well prepared to cope with any further challenges or lingering frustrations that he might face.

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

Choosing Confidence: James Hits Big Shot Despite Poor Performance

This year’s NBA Eastern Conference semifinal matchup between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls was expected to be entertaining, given that two of the league’s top players, LeBron James and Derrick Rose, were going head-to-head. In Game 3, Rose hit the game-winning shot with less than 3 seconds left to give Chicago a 2-1 series lead. On Sunday in Game 4, however, it was James’ turn to do the same, when he hit a 21-foot jumper at the buzzer with the score tied to seal an 86-84 Cleveland win, and even up the series. Despite 25 points, 14 rebounds, and 8 assists in Game 4, James’ performance was well below his usual standards, as he only made 10 out of his 30 shots, and turned the ball over eight times. However, when the time came to take the final shot on Sunday, the 30-year-old never hesitated, and told reporters after the game that he wanted the opportunity to make up for earlier mistakes. “I told coach, just give me the ball,” James said. “And it’s either going to go into overtime or I’m going to win it for us. It was that simple…I’m going to get open, give me the ball and I’m going to win this game for us.” Sunday’s game-winning shot marked the third time in James’ career that he has won a postseason game at the buzzer. The fact that he was able to do so after performing poorly for most of the game speaks volumes about the confidence and mentality of a player who was once quoted saying, “You can’t be afraid to fail. It’s the only way you succeed. You’re not gonna succeed all the time.”

As an athlete, it’s always easier to feel confident in yourself when you are performing well. It can be much more challenging to maintain your confidence when you are playing poorly. Whether you’ve made several mistakes, you aren’t feeling physically at 100%, or you haven’t gotten much playing time recently, believing in your abilities can, at times, be difficult when your best isn’t on display. Many athletes falsely assume that confidence in general is innate – that it is something that some individuals are simply born with. While it may be the case that some athletes are naturally more confident than others, the truth is that confidence is a choice. As an athlete, in any given moment, you have the option to choose to be confident in yourself and your abilities. More importantly, your confidence should not be dependent upon whether or not you are performing well on any given day. There will always be highs and lows in your career, and as an athlete, it’s important to develop a plan and strategies for yourself that will allow you to maintain belief in yourself when the lows inevitably arise. This can involve self-talk (e.g., “I’m better than this, and I’m going to show it”), or simplifying your approach to focus on what you can control, such as the parts of your game that consistently bring you success (e.g., hard work, communication, awareness, etc.).

As James’ earlier quote suggests, choosing to be confident as an athlete also means attacking your opportunities without a fear of failure. There will always be a chance that you make a mistake or that you fail to perform well. The only guaranteed way to avoid failing is to simply avoid trying and stop competing altogether. Instead, recognize that you will fail at times during your career. Choosing to be confident means that you decide that you will not let the small ups and downs of one performance, or even several performances, dictate or determine the belief you have in yourself. As the Cavaliers prepare for Game 5 at home in Cleveland, James’ teammates will continue to rely on him to maintain his confidence regardless of how he is performing on any given day, so that he is not afraid to fail when the game is on the line and the ball is in his hands.

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

The Mentality of Penalty Kicks for Goalkeepers: Bingham and Rimando Come Up Big

Two different MLS goalkeepers faced the daunting task of saving a second-half penalty kick this week, and with two saves, both played a big part in helping their teams preserve shutouts. David Bingham of the San Jose Earthquakes was the first to be tested in Tuesday night’s game against the Houston Dynamo. Four minutes after the Earthquakes took the lead in the second half, Houston was awarded a penalty. Giles Barnes sent a low hard shot to Bingham’s left corner, but the goalkeeper dove and made the save. In his postgame interview, Bingham noted that he stuck to the same strategy he has used throughout his career: standing still and staring straight at the shooter. “I’m just focusing on him. [Barnes is] a great player. He probably finishes his PK’s nine times out of 10, but it was my job to get that one save,” Bingham said. “During the build up to the kick, I was looking right at him. For me, that’s something I like to do. I like to look at them and just stand still instead of bouncing around.” A day later, Real Salt Lake’s Nick Rimando saved the 24th penalty kick of his professional career to preserve a tie against the LA Galaxy. With the game tied at zero in the 90th minute, the Galaxy earned a penalty and a chance to claim all three points. However, Rimando was up to the task, saving a well-hit shot by Juninho. After the game, Rimando was asked about his first thought when the referee blew the whistle. “Save it,” Rimando said. “Try to save it. Try to stall a little bit. Try to ask the referee what’s going on. Try to figure out what the foul was about and then just focus on the ball. I was lucky to guess the right way.”

There is no denying that luck can play a part in moments like these. However, it is also true that, for any penalty kick, both the shooter and the goalkeeper must overcome the challenge of staying mentally composed under pressure. For goalkeepers, it’s important to recognize, as Bingham noted following his save against Houston, that it is your job to save this one shot. It doesn’t matter how many penalties the opposing player has scored in the past, or how difficult it is for a goalkeeper to save a penalty kick in general. Your job involves focusing on doing everything you can to save this one. From a mental standpoint, saving a penalty comes down to having a well-rehearsed routine that helps you stay confident, focused, and composed in the present moment so that you can make the shooter’s job as difficult as possible. When you’re practicing penalty kicks outside of a game environment, whether in training or on your own, work on developing a routine that you’ll use on a consistent basis. Taking a deep centering breath (drawing air slowly into the stomach, holding it for a second or two, and releasing slowly) can help you calm some of the nerves or tension you may be feeling. The use of self-talk (e.g., “This shot’s not getting past me”) or a short focusing cue (e.g., “Calm and solid”) might be good strategies for helping you consistently build the confidence and focus necessary to perform at your best in this moment. As both Bingham and Rimando demonstrate, gamesmanship is also a strategy some goalkeepers use in this situation, in an effort to win the mental game played between a shooter and keeper. Within the rules of the game and limits of sportsmanship, taking your time walking over to the line or staring directly at the shooter could make him or her hesitate for a second, and that might be all you need. Above all, recognize that, as a goalkeeper, you will not save every single penalty. But developing a routine, like Bingham’s or Rimando’s, that you use consistently to help you face the shot with confidence, focus, and composure will give you the best chances to come up big.

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