Andy Murray and Consistency in Play

On Monday, famed Scottish tennis player Andy Murray faced Kevin Anderson, a South African player with nine years of professional experience, for a spot in the US Open quarterfinals. After an incredibly long match (over four hours), Murray lost to Anderson, ending his streak of making it through to the quarterfinals in all of the 18 Grand Slam tournaments in which he’s competed. After the match, Murray explained how disappointing it was to lose, particularly breaking his streak of making it to the quarterfinals, stating that, “Obviously that’s many years’ work that’s gone into building that sort of consistency.” He was questioned about whether or not his grueling competitive schedule throughout the year might have contributed to his loss that night, and Murray responded, “It was more playing against Kevin on the court of that speed, and with him serving as well as he does, it’s a tricky match. It comes down to a few points in each set. He managed to get them today.”

Murray’s comments touch on an important factor that influences performance: consistency. This includes consistency in training and in competition. Consistency is part of what separates good athletes from great athletes, and it starts with preparation. As he stated, Murray’s overwhelming success is a product of “many years’ work” and dedication to developing his game. Use this as a lesson. Take advantage of the time you have to train. Before you practice, set one or two goals to try to achieve during the session. This will help you stay focused and driven. After the session, take a minute to reflect on what you did well, what you want to work on, and how you plan to improve it next time. Make an effort to repeat the things that work for you while also continuing to improve your weakness. Consistency in training transfers to competition.

You have to be able to consistently manage emotions and recover from mistakes and setbacks in order to be successful. Murray explained that the match came “down to a few points in each set,” so, there is often little room for error. Training is the time to develop effective habits and reactions to both the highs and lows during competition. In training, deliberately practice your composure by using cues like “here and now” or “next point” to help you refocus on the present moment after a mistake or a good play. Get used to using centered breathing or self-talk, for example, to help you stay clam if you feel overly excited or nervous. Find what works for you and use it over and over in training until it becomes automatic. That will help you be able to rely on those habits to consistently come into play during every point. Of course, Murray’s loss demonstrates that even if you prepare well, you still have to compete with an opponent. He recognizes that it was Anderson’s serve that made the difference. By recognizing the strong points and how well his opponent played, he is better able to manage the loss. He can continue to train consistently and with purpose in order to be as prepared as possible to compete.

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Wenger Ends Nine-Month Scoring Drought

When the Philadelphia Union took on the Portland Timbers at PPL Park on Saturday, it had been exactly nine months to the day since Andrew Wenger last scored a goal. That streak came to an end in the 69th minute when he scored from outside the box to give Philadelphia its first goal in an eventual 3-0 win. Speaking to reporters after the game, Wenger admitted that his inability to score this season has, at times, been mentally challenging. “There’s been good days and there’s been bad days,” he said. “And there’s probably been a few more bad days than good. But that’s the life of a soccer player or an athlete… you just try to move forward.” Wenger also credited head coach Jim Curtin for showing confidence in him throughout his scoreless streak. “[He told me] ‘you’re a good player, just keep going. Just keep after it. Keep moving forward.’ And that’s all you really can do…some of the best players out there, that’s all they’ve ever done.” After the game, Curtin acknowledged the importance of Wenger’s goal, but also pointed to other ways in which he has contributed this season, even if they weren’t readily visible on a stat sheet. “He’s gotten good looks this year; nothing has seemed to go in for him,” Curtin said. “But I still see the guy from preseason…the little things that he does…he won probably ten head balls tonight off goal kicks, he fights defensively…he protects [left back] Fabinho, he does a good job making Fabi’s job a lot easier…he’s doing a lot of the dirty running…Every good pro goes through moments of dips in form, and how you respond to it is how you’re judged. It’s easy to quit and bail out, but the good ones, the ones who belong and stick in this league and have great careers are the ones that can deal with that.”

Wenger’s ability to overcome his scoreless streak is a testament to his accountability, his patience, and his commitment to focusing on the controllables. While a “slump” like this can certainly be frustrating and even overwhelming as a player, there are steps you can take to help you manage, and ultimately overcome, any rough patch. First, it’s important to take ownership over the part of your game that is giving you trouble. Facing a “slump”, many players fall into the habit of blaming anyone but themselves for their substandard performance. While it may be true that a teammate’s performance, a coach’s decisions, or even blind luck can play a role in whether or not, as an attacking player, you’re scoring goals, blaming your performance on any one of these factors will do you no good. Instead, being accountable for your struggles allows you to take steps to overcome them. Second, having taken ownership, identify specific ways to work on whatever part of your game needs improvement. Set process goals, or daily objectives, that determine how you will specifically go about bettering this aspect of your performance. Third, whether you’re working to rediscover your scoring touch or improve your 1v1 defending, also take time to identify other areas of your game that can make you effective on the field. Wenger received praise from his coach for his effort in winning defensive headers, his discipline in making a teammate’s job easier, and his commitment to doing the “dirty running”. Likewise, pinpoint small ways in which you can make a positive impact on or off the field. Ultimately, overcoming a “slump” comes down to recognizing that “how you respond to it is how you’re judged.” Wenger may not score in every game moving forward, but his accountability, his patience, and his commitment to focusing on the controllables will help him cope with whatever adversity he may face.

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Despite Frustration With Referee, Dynamo Could Have Done More

Players and coaches on the Houston Dynamo were quick to express their frustration after Saturday night’s 2-0 loss to the Portland Timbers. In the game’s 15th minute, the Dynamo appeared to take the lead when Raúl Rodríguez struck off a corner kick. However, Rodríguez’s goal was called back after the referee whistled another Houston player for obstruction. After the Timbers went up 1-0 just before halftime, Houston center back David Horst was called for a foul in the 59th minute for pulling down a Portland player in the box while defending a corner. Gastón Fernández stepped up and converted the subsequent penalty to give the Timbers a 2-0 lead and ultimately all three points. After the match, several members of the Dynamo, including head coach Owen Coyle and captain DaMarcus Beasley voiced displeasure at the two decisions that influenced the outcome of the game. “The referee was very inconsistent…” Beasley said. “…But we can’t rely on the referee to bail us out.” After what he described as a “very disappointing” performance by his team, Beasley pointed out the things he and other players could have done to prevent the result. “I felt that we didn’t play well the whole game, not just the two mistakes we made. From back to front we were soft. We gave the ball away in bad areas. Just all-in-all a bad game. I’m not pointing fingers at anybody. Collectively, as a whole team, we weren’t good enough tonight. They punished us and they got the win.

In situations like this, it’s often easy and even understandable for players and coaches to be frustrated or angry with the referee. It may even be tempting to blame a loss entirely on a referee’s decision. However, before doing so, reflect back on your performance as a team and as an individual. Were there things you could have done differently (or better) at any point during the game that would have influenced the outcome? Were there areas of your performance that were not as strong as they could have been? If mistakes had not been made earlier in the game, could this have swung the result the other way? It’s very easy to blame a loss or tie on a referee’s decisions, a poor playing surface, or the weather conditions because it means that, as a player, you are letting go of accountability, and choosing to blame the result on something outside your control. And while it may have been the case that one or more of these factors (i.e., referee, field, weather, etc.) influenced a game, it is never the case that they were the only reason your team did not win. Part of what it means to “objectively evaluate” a game involves identifying things you can improve on that are under your control – specific things that you can work on in training the following week so that you can improve your performance and increase your chances of success in the next game. Having accountability as a player means finding a way to take responsibility for results, good or bad, regardless of how tempting it might be to blame anyone but yourself.

As Houston’s captain, Beasley’s leadership is also important to note here. As a veteran, he sets a strong example for other players by acknowledging the Dynamo’s collective accountability in the loss. He doesn’t cast blame on any one player or single out a teammate for a crucial mistake. Instead, he identifies several specific ways in which the team’s performance simply wasn’t “good enough” on the day. With a match scheduled this Friday against in-state rival FC Dallas, all Dynamo players will need to focus on what they can control so that they don’t risk leaving future results in the hands of anyone but themselves.

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Red Bulls Implement New Approach to Leadership for 2015

When Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill left the New York Red Bulls at the end of last season, after retiring and moving to a new club, respectively, there were questions surrounding the team’s future, specifically concerning the void of leadership. Yet, five weeks into the 2015 season, the Red Bulls are one of only two clubs who are still unbeaten, and have taken a new approach to leadership roles. While veteran midfielder Dax McCarty took over the captain’s armband, head coach Jesse Marsch has also implemented a “leadership council”, composed of McCarty, midfielder Lloyd Sam, goalkeeper Luis Robles and five or six other veterans, charged with sharing the leadership responsibilities. “When you have Thierry in the team, there’s always a bigger personality no matter what,” McCarty said. “But now that he’s gone and some other players are gone, it’s more of a case of this is a team of seven, eight, nine, 10 really experienced, veteran guys. All of us see ourselves on the same level in terms of our leadership and our abilities and our roles.” McCarty also recognized the contributions of non-veterans. “I love that our young guys aren’t afraid to talk and give us their opinions and speak their mind. This is an environment where every player’s opinion is valued and every player’s opinion matters. You’re never going to win a championship with five or six guys.” Thirty-year-old Robles also sees the new approach as a way of promoting ownership. “It’s built accountability,” Robles said. “Guys have to make sure that guys are doing what’s supposed to be done, whether it’s on the field, off the field, in the locker room, in the community, whatever we’re called upon to do…The one thing that’s really good about this collaborative effort is that it allows people to feel ownership…ownership in what they’re doing, in what the team is trying to achieve.”

While a “leadership council” may not be the answer for every team, it shows the value of spreading these responsibilities among players, rather than having a single captain who is seen as a team’s only leader. Many players make the mistake of thinking that leadership is a natural ability – that you are either born to lead or you’re not. Many of them also assume that leadership is entirely vocal – that you need to be a loud, outspoken player in order to have an effective influence on your teammates. Both of these are misconceptions. First, leadership can be developed and improved over time. You can build your vocal presence on or off the field by focusing on the simple elements of effective communication: sending and receiving messages in a way that helps you or the players around you perform at a higher level. Offer clear and specific feedback that helps other players, but doesn’t come across as personal criticism. Find opportunities to encourage or motivate other players to continue working hard, or to increase their effort. Second, recognize that leadership is not always about verbal communication. You can be an effective leader through your behavior, by consistently working hard in training sessions or games, by focusing on performing your role to the best of your abilities, and by staying emotionally and mentally composed when your team faces adversity during competition. Ultimately, your own form of leadership comes from knowing yourself and the strengths you bring to a team, and how to use those strengths to positively influence the players around you. Despite a noticeably different roster heading into this season, the Red Bulls look primed to have a successful campaign. The extent to which each player on the roster (veteran or not) continues to be accountable for leadership in his own way will likely play a big part in helping them accomplish just that.

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Dwyer: Accountable and Objective After Missed Chances

A rematch of last year’s first round playoff game between the New York Red Bulls and Sporting KC was part of the opening weekend of action for the 2015 MLS season. A 1-1 tie left both teams satisfied with their opening performance, while also providing glimpses into what could be improved moving forward. Sporting KC, for example, took 18 shots during the game, despite going down a man for the last 20 minutes. However, all of those chances missed the mark, with the exception of Ike Opara’s goal in the 50th minute. Speaking to reporters after the game, Dom Dwyer, Sporting KC’s leading scorer last year, was quick to accept some of the responsibility, having missed two close-range opportunities to win the game in the second half. “I didn’t do my job tonight,” he said. “We missed out on two points. It’s frustrating, but I’ll learn from it and improve. This one’s on me tonight. We’re a good side, and we should have won the game.” After taking responsibility for his missed chances, Dwyer was also quick to acknowledge the positives in his team’s ability to create so many opportunities on the offensive end. “The amount of chances I got tonight really shows what kind of team we have,” he said. “It’s like I always said: I’m going to get chances in this team – a lot more than last year, I can see. So once I find my feet a little bit and get back into it, I’ll put those ones away. It was a little bit frustrating, but I’m looking at it as a positive. I’ll put them away next time.”

As a player, when things don’t go well for you on any given day, it’s easy to blame your performance on something or someone other than yourself. It’s easy to shift the focus from the things you could have done better to things that are outside your control (i.e., the referee, the field conditions, mistakes by teammates, etc.). Doing so, however, shows a lack of accountability for your performance. Taking responsibility for the things you did well, and especially for the things that you could have done better, plays a big role in any player’s ability to improve on each training session or game.

Dwyer’s response to this game also shows the value of objectively evaluating your game as a player. An objective evaluation is a strategy players use to pull useful information – both positive and negative – from any game or training session. Identifying what you or your team did well in a game allows you to build confidence and better understand your strengths. In Dwyer’s case, for example, recognizing that his teammates were able to create so many chances during the game gives him the knowledge that he can rely on this in the future, as the club’s main goal scorer. Knowing that your team has the ability to create chances can motivate you to continue working when you are down a goal or two late in a game. Additionally, recognizing how you can improve on any performance is an important aspect of viewing each game as a learning opportunity. One of the mistakes players often make when evaluating their performance is that they fail to do so objectively. They judge themselves on their weaknesses (e.g., “I’m not a good 1v1 defender”) rather than simply focusing on the useful information they can pull from them (e.g., “I could do a better job of staying patient and not stabbing in when I defend 1v1”). With a long season ahead, Dwyer has plenty of time to improve on Sunday’s match. Accomplishing this should not be an issue, as long as he remains accountable and objective about his performances.

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Lahoud Overcomes Mistake to Earn Union a Spot in IMG Pro Classic Final

In Wednesday’s IMG Suncoast Pro Classic match against the Columbus Crew, Philadelphia Union’s Michael Lahoud had his first experience playing as a center back when he entered the game in the second half. Throughout the game, both teams found it challenging at times to play in the difficult weather conditions, as fog, rain, and wind battered the field. Philadelphia was able to take the lead with a 27th minute goal by newly acquired striker, Fernando Aristeguieta. However, halfway through the second half, Lahoud slipped moving toward a ball, allowing Crew midfielder Justin Meram to equalize on a breakaway, and send the game to penalties. After Union goalkeeper Rais Mbohli saved Meram’s penalty in the third round, Lahoud converted the Union’s fifth shot to earn the club a place in Saturday’s championship game against the New York Red Bulls. Following the game, Lahoud was quick to take ownership of his earlier mistake, and point out the importance of bouncing back. “I was directly involved,” Lahoud said. “I should have done better. It’s just part of the game. Mistakes are going to happen. Critical mistakes are going to happen. It’s not the final exam, and your mistake isn’t the final exam. It’s how you react to it. I’ve been playing for awhile and kind of knew that there’d be an opportunity to atone for it.”

Recognizing that “mistakes are going to happen” is an important part of being able to cope with them during your performance. Nevertheless, these moments are not easy to bounce back from without practice. Following a mistake, players may feel frustrated or embarrassed, or may wonder what coaches, teammates, and fans are thinking. They may suddenly become worried that they’re going to mess up again. While these reactions are common, it means that your mind is either stuck in the past, or worried about the future, rather than staying the present moment where it should be.
The first step to responding effectively to a mistake is recognizing the times when these ineffective thoughts or emotions are taking you away from the game. After you become aware of these distractions, there are several mental strategies you can use to bring yourself back. During a stoppage in play, take 3-5 seconds to perform a centering breath, drawing air deeply into your stomach, holding it for a brief moment, and releasing it slowly. You can pair this technique with a refocusing cue (e.g., “Flush it” or “Let it go”), so that your exhaled breath corresponds with a mental release of any ineffective thoughts or emotions attached to the mistake. Some players use a physical trigger (e.g., snapping their fingers, or clapping their hands once) to help them bounce back as quickly as possible to the present moment. There will always be time after a game has ended to reflect on your mistakes, and to learn from them through an objective evaluation process. During the game, however, using any of these strategies to practice “temporary amnesia” will allow you to keep your mind in the here and now. While Lahoud’s experience has certainly helped him manage mistakes at the professional level, younger players can learn a lot from the poise he showed in bouncing back in Wednesday’s game, and begin to develop this response in their own performance.

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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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