At 35 years old, Abby Wambach is the all-time leading goal scorer for the U.S. Women’s National Team and is currently competing in her fourth World Cup, but has not yet won a title. In the USWNT’s final group match against Nigeria on Tuesday, Wambach scored her first goal of the tournament with a powerful volley just before halftime. With the 1-0 win, the United States finished atop Group D, and earned a Round-of-16 match-up against Columbia. Having competed in three World Cups and two Olympics, Wambach recognizes that the stakes are higher heading into the knockout round. “Now it’s do or die, win to move on. That changes the way, not necessarily the way we’ll play, but maybe the way the games will feel,” Wambach said. “Having confidence going into those games is big.” According to head coach Jill Ellis, this mentality is part of what makes Wambach an effective leader. “She embodies a lot of the spirit of this team and our program,” Ellis said. “Her leadership is tremendous, her spirit is fantastic…I just know Abby. I know big moments, I know she’ll deliver.” Teammate and fellow veteran Christie Rampone has also come to rely on Wambach’s ability to deliver when the stakes are high. “Abby always has it,” Rampone said. “When it comes to big-time games and big moments, she always comes out on top. She’s that leader, that voice that everybody needs out there, as well. She’s out there dictating and giving everybody the confidence.”
Many players and coaches assume that being a “big game” player is a quality that some are just naturally born with, while others simply don’t have “it”. However, being this type of player – one who is able to step up and deliver your best performance when the stakes are high – is, in many ways, under your control. These moments, like any other, call for players who choose to be confident in their ability, regardless of any obstacles or challenges they might face. The USWNT has come under some criticism throughout this tournament because some of the players, including Wambach, have not performed at their best at times. Regardless of past performances, however, “big game” players recognize that confidence is always a choice. Choosing to be confident does not mean thinking you’ll play the perfect game. Instead, it means acknowledging that, while you will make some mistakes, you’ll bounce back quickly and stay in the present moment throughout competition. Like any skill, however, consistently choosing to be confident does not happen overnight. It takes practice and repetition, and the same holds true for leadership, another quality that helps players rise to the occasion. While some players lead vocally by encouraging and giving feedback to the players around them, others may lead by example, by consistently preparing to perform at their best before every game, and focusing on things they can control, such as effort and attitude, during competition.
Finally, as a player in these games, identify your strengths and play to them. “Big moments” don’t require you to make drastic changes to the way you play. Instead, the players who rise to the challenge of these games are those who play without fear of failure, those who choose to be confident in their ability, and those who do the simple things that make them effective in their role. Now that each game moving forward is a must-win for the U.S., Wambach’s ability to rise to the “big moments” will need to be matched by other players who choose to do the same.
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