Wambach Brings Confidence and Leadership to the “Big Moments”

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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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.


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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.



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After Great Start to Career, Jamieson Must Remain Process-Focused and Patient

On Sunday, LA Galaxy fans got their second glimpse of Bradford Jamieson IV this season, in the 18-year-old striker’s second ever MLS start, and for the second week in a row, he didn’t disappoint. Last week against Sporting KC, Jamieson impressed coaches, teammates, and fans in his first MLS start, but was unable to score. On Sunday afternoon against the New York Red Bulls, however, the young forward scored the Galaxy’s only goal on a brilliant individual effort only nine minutes into the game. Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena has been pleased with Jamieson’s first two starts, but pointed out the importance of being patient when it comes to young players. “He’s doing well,” Arena said. “Let’s wait awhile. Let’s not get crazy like everybody does every time a young player does something right. It’s a long haul in becoming a player. He’s many years away from being where we would like him to be and where he’s going to be. So let’s just be patient and see what happens down the road.” Jamieson was quick to agree, and recognized that there will be ups and downs ahead of him. “Obviously, the next game is going to be even harder, because you’ve got expectations now,” he said. “And every game after that is going to be the same kind of battle, where you’re trying to impress fans and impress coaches and keep your confidence up…And there’s going to be games maybe where it’s not as good as the other ones have been. The best thing to do there is bounce back and play like I played before.”

Arena’s response to Jamieson’s early success at the professional level shows the importance of focusing on the process of training and competing as a player and remaining patient throughout your development. Young players can often get caught up in allowing success or failure (outcomes) to dictate their mentality on a day-to-day basis. Some players can make a mistake in thinking that the road becomes smooth after you’ve been selected for an academy team, called into national camp, or earned a professional opportunity. Likewise, others can see a single setback as a sign that they won’t make it as a soccer player. Instead, as is the case with any sort of success or failure, it is important to remain patient and focused on the process in order to manage these ups and downs. First, recognize that, like always, you will continue to have good days and bad ones. There will be times when your touch isn’t quite right, or you’re not feeling 100% physically, or as a striker, you’re struggling through a goalless streak. Likewise, there will be very successful periods, when things are going very well. Regardless, it is important to keep a level head and remain patient during these times, while also managing the emotions (highs or lows) that come with accomplishments and setbacks. Second, recognize that the process does not change, no matter what the outcome is. For example, just because you’ve reached one achievement, it doesn’t mean that the work stops or that your focus can drop. Likewise, a single setback does not mean that your career is doomed. In either case, continue doing the things that have brought you success in the past, by focusing on what you can control. Pay attention to the details, and prepare yourself physically and mentally on a regular basis so that you are ready to perform at your best in any game. Finally, when it comes to evaluating your performance, avoid evaluating yourself based on outcomes. Instead, do so based on the process of your development, by focusing on your strengths and working on your weaknesses. At 18 years old, Jamieson potentially has a long professional career ahead of him, and it will be important for him to stay patient and process-focused in order to manage the highs and lows and get the most out of his potential.


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Union’s Ayuk Provides Contagious Smile On and Off the Field

In the Philadelphia Union’s first win of the season on Saturday over New York City F.C., several players performed well, including rookie midfielder Eric Ayuk. The 18-year-old Cameroonian, who joined the club during preseason as a trialist, was involved in the Union’s first goal and celebrated with several backflips even though the ball had last touched teammate Zach Pfeffer before crossing the line. In addition to his athleticism and skill, this type of enthusiasm and enjoyment has already earned Ayuk the respect and admiration of his teammates. “He brings that innocence and joy back into the fold,” said teammate Michael Lahoud. “He’s always smiling. You saw how excited he was to celebrate a goal that wasn’t even his. He reminds a lot of us older guys to have fun and play with a smile on our face, because not everyone gets to do this.” Head coach Jim Curtin has also recognized Ayuk’s impact on and off the field. “He’s become a guy now that all the guys love in the locker room,” Curtin said. “He’s won them over…He puts a smile on everybody’s face, because he brings a smile to the field every day.” This attitude has also helped Ayuk transition into his first MLS season with confidence, something teammates noticed before the midfielder’s first start earlier this month against Sporting KC when, at the end of the pre-game huddle, he said calmly, “Give me the ball.” Lahoud remembers the moment vividly: “Those were his first words…He’s a very confident kid. He’s got fantastic determination.”

All players enjoy themselves when they perform well, and most even find that the opposite is also true: that they perform well when they are enjoying the game. Nevertheless, with all of the pressures and expectations surrounding high-level sports, it can be easy to lose sight of how enjoyable the game can be. As a player, your love and passion for the sport can be one of the most useful mental tools you possess, because it can help you manage the emotions, stress, or pressure you may feel at times surrounding competition. If you are finding it difficult to enjoy the game, take time to reflect on why you started playing in the first place. Think back to times when you were a younger player, and how the simple things (i.e., the excitement you felt the morning of a game, the joy of lacing up your shoes, the time you spend with teammates on and off the field, etc.) made the sport fun and made it so that you never wanted to quit playing. Rediscovering this joy and passion can also be contagious. Seeing another player smile in the locker room before a game or on the field during competition can help you take a mental step away from whatever might be bothering you in the moment, and remember how fun it can be to play the game you love.

Still, having fun and enjoying yourself doesn’t mean that you don’t take it seriously or that you are completely carefree during training sessions or games. It is possible (and important) to enjoy yourself while also working hard and taking your role on the field seriously. Furthermore, it’s important to also recognize that enjoyment comes through preparation. The more effort you put into physically and mentally preparing yourself in training sessions, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to relax and rely on that preparation during games. Lastly, like Ayuk, athletes who enjoy their sport are also less likely to be afraid to fail when it comes time to perform. Instead, they embrace the moment, and they look forward to another opportunity to play the sport they love. As the Union prepare for a rematch tonight against NYCFC, players and coaches will continue looking to Ayuk to provide a smile both on and off the field, because it reminds them of how their love for the game is the reason they are there in the first place.


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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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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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