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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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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USMNT Looks to Benefit From Demanding Environment

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

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

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Dempsey Brings Intensity and Competitiveness to Leadership Role with USMNT

When the U.S. Men’s National team travels to Brazil in a few weeks to begin a difficult World Cup campaign, the players will walk out onto the field under new leadership. Head coach Jürgen Klinsmann recently handed the armband to 31-year old Clint Dempsey during the team’s qualifying run for Brazil. Playing in his third, and probably final, World Cup this summer, Dempsey is tasked with leading the U.S. into arguably the most difficult group stage in its World Cup history, as the team takes on Ghana, Portugal, and Germany in its first three games. The Seattle Sounders striker has been in outstanding form recently in the MLS, with 8 goals and 3 assists across only 9 games this season. However, according to his coach and teammates, Dempsey has earned the captain’s armband for more than what appears on a stat sheet. Klinsmann commented on his selection: “Is he highly talented? Does he have all the tools that you need to have to play at the highest level? Yes. But what is far more important, he has the drive. He has the hunger. He’s not satisfied … He always looks for the next game.” Dempsey’s teammate and USMNT midfielder, Michael Bradley, added: “He’s a competitor. He gives everything he has every time he steps on the field.

Many players perceive additional pressure and expectations after receiving opportunities such as earning a starting role or the captain’s armband. After acquiring a leadership role, some players might start to focus less on what they do well and on what they control as a player, and more on trying to prove that they deserve to be captain. Instead, facing these perceived expectations, recognize that your coach has placed you in a leadership position because he or she believes that you have demonstrated the ability to fulfill that role. In other words, recognize the habits and characteristics that have earned you the opportunity, as well as the potential you show to fulfill the responsibilities of that role, and continue to rely on them moving forward. The responsibilities of a captain, for example, include leading by example and being a vocal leader. So, for some players, taking on the captain position will require them to start being more vocal. While Dempsey is not necessarily known as a vocal leader, his new role with the national team requires more consistent and effective communication on and off the field. But, he is still expected to bring the same hard work and intensity that earned him this role.

Similarly, when you take on more leadership as a player, use it as an opportunity to improve your effective communication skills – by providing encouragement and effective feedback to your teammates. Before training sessions or games, huddle up to identify the team’s goals and each player’s role in achieving them. While playing, support your teammates and give them specific instructions for how to make changes to help them perform better. At the same time, lead by example by being physically and mentally prepared for training, working hard, and staying focused on the task. Dempsey’s ability to adjust to this role through a more vocal presence, while continuing to inspire the players around him through his drive, hunger, and competitiveness, will largely determine the effectiveness of his leadership this summer.

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This Year’s La Liga Title: What Every Competitor Desires

On Saturday, the La Liga title will be decided in the final game of the season – a tantalizing matchup between the top two teams in the table, currently separated by only three points. Atlético Madrid holds the narrow lead over FC Barcelona, and will attempt to add silverware to an already-impressive campaign, by earning at least a draw at Camp Nou, while a Barcelona win at home would earn the Catalans the trophy on their head-to-head record this season. Until recently, many would have deemed this an uneven matchup. Barcelona have won a total of 22 league titles, and four in the last five years, while Atlético have only won 9 and are nearly two decades removed from their last trophy. Yet, the club from Madrid has recently arrived among Europe’s elite, and has held the edge for most of this year, despite Barcelona trying to defend its title. While the two teams are arguably comparable in talent, they are markedly dissimilar in tactical approach. In the five previous meetings between these two teams this season, Atlético has held a slight edge with four draws and a win in the Champions League quarterfinal second leg. However, Barcelona has owned a dominating margin in possession, averaging 71.2% of the ball across the five games, and completing three times as many of its passes in these games. Atlético is more direct in its style of play, while the Catalans have, historically, awed the football world with their mesmerizing tiki taka, through short passes and constant interchanging movement around the ball. “They are the best in defence, they pressurise you, support each other and have different options up front,” Barcelona midfielder Xavi says of Atlético. “It’s a historic opportunity…It’s a great final, a fantastic match. It would be the icing on the cake for this generation, playing such an important match as this.”

In any athletic context, the greatest competitors are often defined by an appreciation for the fiercely competitive, pressure-filled, high-profile environment of a game like this. Competitive players thrive in these opportunities and don’t back down from the prospect of testing their talents against the very best. This is not to say nerves are not a factor. As a player, it is normal to feel nervous or anxious for this type of game. However, your interpretation of these nerves, your mental approach to the competition, and your preparation will influence your performance. Know that nerves are your body’s signs of preparing to perform well, and find pride and confidence in your training up until this point. Compete with the knowledge that if you put in deliberate effort and focus in training, you will be well prepared for the game, and that the game will provide an opportunity to showcase your talents and test your ability against a worthy opponent. Before and during the game, it may be tempting to focus solely on the outcome – whether or not your team is victorious. However, take time to balance this desire to win with an understanding, and application, of a process-oriented approach. Know that these games typically bring out the best in the participants, and that by focusing on the process and what you can control (your individual role in the game, your effort, and your attitude), you will rise to this occasion. Above all, it is important to view these games as a challenge or opportunity. As the two Spanish sides take the field this Saturday to try and earn their first silverware of the season, the players’ ability to appreciate and thrive in this challenge will, in Xavi’s words, determine who comes up as champion in this historic game.

March Madness: Time to Compete

March Madness has arrived. The 2014 NCAA men’s basketball tournament will begin on March 18th with the 68 best teams in the country battling it out for the national championship. Every team has been working the entire year trying to earn their chance to compete in this tournament. With a single-elimination format in the postseason, teams must bring their best or go home. As University of Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said, “You can look at it in a lot of ways but at the end of the day you have to play games, everybody is a good team or they wouldn’t be in. You have got to win games.” So, what does it take to perform well in such a high-pressure situation? Among other things, it takes the desire and ability to compete in every game. Good competitors take pride in their effort and are not deterred by setbacks or adversity during a game and can bounce back.

True competitors are relentless in their effort and never give up, no matter what the score is or how much time is left in the game. They look forward to challenges and take them on willingly. They are the players who want to have the ball in their hands for the last-second shot. Competitors also demand a great deal from themselves and their teammates. They put in quality preparation, and they set a high standard in every training session and competition by demonstrating hard work and encouraging it in their teammates. As a result, they are often leaders and are able to raise the level of play for everyone on the team. When a team is able to commit themselves fully and make their opponents earn every point and every rebound, that team will be difficult to beat, no matter who the opponent is on any given day.

In order to improve your competitiveness, there are two skills you can work on: commitment and confidence. To improve your commitment to your sport, make your training and preparation a priority. This means knowing what you want to work on and working hard to achieve it. When you are fully committed to your sport, you will take great pride in your performance, which could motivate you to go the extra mile and compete with intensity in training and games. In order to be a good competitor you also need to have a steady level of confidence. To keep your confidence up, before you play, acknowledge your strengths, picture yourself succeeding, and recognize the time and effort you have put into your training and preparation. Consistently bringing confidence and intensity into every training session and game will help you to become the type of competitor who doesn’t back down from adversity, and through example, lifts the competitive edge of those playing around you.

The ‘Group of Death’ is a Group of Opportunity

On Friday afternoon, another step was taken toward what will surely be an unforgettable month in Brazil, as FIFA announced the draw for the 2014 World Cup. With an admirable run through qualifying, the U.S. Men’s National Team, under Head Coach Jurgen Klinsmann, has recently enjoyed unprecedented success on the international stage. However, as the selection process unfolded on Friday, national team players, coaches, and millions of fans grew wary of the possibility that the draw would not end favorably. In the end, the United States was drawn into the infamous “Group of Death”, with Ghana – who knocked the US out of the last two tournaments; Portugal – led by Cristiano Ronaldo who is arguably the best player in the world at the moment; and Germany – three-time World Champion and one of the favorites to lift the trophy in Rio on July 13. On top of the grueling match schedule, the United States will endure one of the longest total travel distances to and from games.

The entire country seemed to groan collectively as Group G was announced. Yet, there was at least one individual who publicly brushed off the pessimism and doubt. Though he described the draw as “the worst of the worst,” Klinsmann’s demeanor was far from intimidated: “We are looking forward to the challenge and we don’t see ourselves as any kind of outsiders. If you want to get into the top 10 or 12 teams in the world you have to beat these guys.” The United States has long yearned to establish itself as a world soccer power. To do so – to be compared with the very best – one must compete against the very best.

One of the psychological characteristics many elite athletes share is an insatiable desire to compete against, and beat, the best competitors their sport has to offer. Along with this desire, these athletes typically exhibit a process-oriented approach to performance. Rather than focusing on the possible outcomes of a game, taking a process-oriented approach allows you to attend to your specific responsibilities as a player, enjoy the experience of competing against other talented players and teams, and ignore distracting thoughts or emotions. Process-oriented players are also better equipped to respond well after a loss. While performing, you can focus on smaller individual process goals you set for yourself, or even your enjoyment of the game, in order to maintain a sense of composure and avoid becoming hung up on a game’s result. When preparing to go up against a formidable opponent, remind yourself to focus on the process, rather than the outcome, in order to help yourself maintain confidence and the understanding of what you must bring to the playing field. Above all, enjoy the opportunity to test your skills against the very best. Often, when a player focuses on this process, the outcome seems to take care of itself. Legendary US Olympic ice hockey coach Herb Brooks once stated that “Great moments are born from great opportunity.” The US Men’s National Team has been presented with such an opportunity next summer in Brazil.