Johnson Confronts Mental Side of Injury With Determination and Patience

For most MLS players, preseason is about building themselves up so that they are ready to perform at their best when the regular season starts in March. However, for Portland Timbers midfielder Will Johnson, this preseason is about continued patience and determination, after more than four months have passed since his last game. In an away match against Toronto FC in September, Johnson suffered a fractured tibia and fibula in his right leg. For Portland’s captain, the mental challenges of this injury have, at times, been more frustrating than the physical pain he has endured. For 12 weeks following the setback, Johnson was unable to put weight on his right leg, and could not even pick up his newborn son for several days after the injury occurred. For a long period of time, his only option involved sitting on the couch. “Those things really break you down far more than any pain physically,” Johnson said. “Just the mental side of things when I was in the cast.” Looking forward, however, Portland’s captain seems to be confronting this mental challenge head-on. “What happened, happened…You can’t change that, so my mindset from day one post-surgery has always been just to take every day as it comes, and whatever the body allows you to do to push it to that point and use that to just get back fit, 100 percent as quickly as possible…I’m taking it one day at a time…listen to the leg, listen to the body. I want to use this opportunity that I’ve had to rebuild the foundation of my body and strength, and come back in better shape than I was when I left.”

While injuries of this severity can be a nightmare for any player, no injury is easy to cope with, regardless of how long it takes you away from the game. It is natural to feel upset, disappointed, or frustrated following these setbacks, especially when you know that you will be sidelined for a long period of time. However, once you have had the chance to digest your circumstances, recognize what you can control, and what you cannot. While you can’t change the fact that you are injured, you can control your mentality moving forward, to ensure that you make the most of your recovery. It is common for players to want to return to training quickly, and besides your own expectations, you may even feel pressure to do so from teammates, coaches, or parents. However, you have a responsibility to them and yourself to ensure that you are physically and mentally ready to return when you are cleared to do so. One of the important steps players can take to mentally respond to an injury involves focusing on a process of “reconditioning”, rather than rehabilitation or recovery. In other words, rather than striving to get back to where you were prior to the injury, your focus, like Johnson’s, should be on returning to the field both physically and mentally stronger than you were before the setback. In the early stages of a serious injury, when you are unable to do much physically, this may mean that you watch your own game film or study professional players who play in your position, to develop a better understanding of your role. In the later stages, in addition to addressing the injured body part, it may mean using the time to put in extra work on your weaknesses (e.g., your upper body strength). Throughout the reconditioning process, stay informed by communicating with your doctor, trainer, and coach, and rely on these and other forms of social support (e.g., teammates, family, and friends) to help you manage any of the psychological or emotional challenges you may face. While Johnson undoubtedly wants to return to the field as soon as possible, teammates and coaches are relying on him to continue working with determination and patience so that he can come back stronger than he was before.

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In Union’s Final Home Game, Curtin Impressed With Players Who “Stuck With It”

For the players, coaches, and fans of the Philadelphia Union, the 2014 season will unfortunately be coming to a premature end in the club’s final regular season game at Columbus this weekend. However, despite missing out on the playoffs for the third consecutive year, the Union earned a 2-1 victory in its final home game on Saturday against Sporting KC, the defending MLS champion. While it wasn’t a perfect performance, interim head coach Jim Curtin expressed pride in his players’ ability to get the job done, singling out the role of Brian Brown, one of the club’s newer players, on loan from Jamaican club Harbour View. “[He] is a kid now who, 21 years old, doesn’t have a great first half, but at least sticks with it and gets the goal in the 44th minute. So, again, those are the messages where when things get hard, who are the guys who roll their sleeves up, and who are the guys that bail out? I thought tonight we had a lot of guys that stuck with it. Was it perfect? No. We didn’t play a perfect game…But from the young players to the old players the mentality [was] to stick to the task and get a result…

Players who “roll their sleeves up” are those who maintain their effort and commitment to a task, even when their backs are against the wall. These are the individuals who choose to demonstrate leadership when their team faces adversity. At times, this can be difficult to do. When a team is playing poorly or even losing, many players often shy away from the spotlight, and fade to the background. Their confidence wavers, their communication can become less effective, and their performance can become hesitant. In many cases, this mentality and body language can become contagious and spread throughout the team. Instead, as a player, “rolling your sleeves up” when your team is facing adversity is a sign of leadership. It means that you choose to rise to a challenge, commit to your role, and do the work necessary to help your team find a result. When faced with adversity, focus on the details of your game – the things you control as an individual. Increase your communication on the field, offering encouragement when teammates do something well, and clear, specific feedback when they can adjust or improve. Take ownership and help the players around you stay organized and disciplined in their collective efforts. Effective communication during these times in a game can also often help you stay engaged in the play and focused on your own role. As a player “sticking to the task” means knowing your role on the field and maintaining your focus on filling that role. It can help to use self-talk in these moments (e.g., “I can do this” or “I’ve trained and worked hard for this moment”) to maintain your own motivation and your concentration level. When the game becomes difficult, don’t be the type of player who “bails out.” Instead, choose to be the type of player who digs deep, commits to your role and responsibilities on the field, and takes a leadership role through your verbal communication and body language. Jim Curtin embodied this mentality as a player and now as a coach, and as Philadelphia turns its attention to its final game and the 2015 season, he and his staff will continue looking for more players who lead by rising to a challenge when their backs are against the wall.

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Patient and Opportunistic Kléberson Keeps Union’s Playoff Hopes Alive

In his first season with the Philadelphia Union, José Kléberson has struggled to get consistent playing time, with a total of 21 minutes in the last 17 games. The Brazilian midfielder boasts an impressive resume, having played for Manchester United nearly a decade ago, as well as serving an integral role in Brazil’s 2010 World Cup Championship. In spite of this, at the age of 34, Kléberson has had very few opportunities thus far this season. However, in the 79th minute in Saturday’s game against Toronto FC, he was given a chance to play late in the game, with the score tied 0-0. Late in stoppage time, fellow substitute Antoine Hoppenot was brought down outside the penalty area, earning Philadelphia a chance at late-game heroics. Kléberson stepped up and struck a beautiful free kick into the top right corner from 25 yards out. His strike won the game and kept the Union’s playoff hopes alive. On Kléberson’s goal, and his attitude through limited playing time thus far, teammate Danny Cruz noted: “He deserves it. He works so hard every day. He’s the definition of a true professional even when he hasn’t been playing.”

Perseverance and determination are vital contributors to any athlete’s performance – perhaps particularly for players who find themselves coming off the bench. Opportunities can emerge at any moment during games, so continuing to work hard in training and demonstrate your desire to gain playing time will help show the coaching staff that you have earned a chance. Still, it is normal to experience frustration when you do not get playing time; you may even find that frustration can lead to a lack of motivation or focus. But, it is important for players to maintain patience and professionalism in the face of limited playing time and continue to train with focus and perseverance. Kléberson’s work ethic in training and professionalism on and off the field most likely helped him to stay focused on, and connected to, the game. If you are facing similar obstacles or frustrations with limited playing time, emulating Kleberson’s patience, determination, and focus through these struggles could go a long way in shortening the time you spend off the field, and making the most of the time you get on it.

Steve Zakuani: Overcoming Injury

Injuries are regrettably common in soccer, and are often a difficult obstacle to overcome – both physically and mentally. The last two years have been long and agonizing for Steve Zakuani, midfielder for Seattle Sounders FC, as he has dealt with serious injuries. A nasty challenge in a match against the Colorado Rapids in 2011 resulted in a horrifying broken leg, and kept him off the pitch for over a year. After surgery and a lengthy rehabilitation period, Zakuani finally returned to MLS competition at the end of the 2012 season. However, less than a year later, groin pain led to sports hernia surgery and, thus far, another 18 consecutive games spent on the sideline.

Concerning the strenuous road to recovery in front of him, Zakuani notes that he will remain off the field until he is 100% ready to compete and help his team win. Have you ever felt pressure or the urge to return to your sport when you weren’t 100% ready? You might feel impatient, frustrated, and even fearful in the aftermath of an injury. However, under most circumstances, rushing back to the field can result in poor performance, repeated or additional injuries, and a lengthier time on the sideline, leading to further frustration. Instead, try to be patient and view your injury as a period of continual growth and reconditioning, rather than rehabilitation. Set incremental goals to break up the recovery period, allowing you to see steady improvement over time. For example, if you are recovering from a broken leg, your first goal might be to comfortably bear weight on that leg. Over time and with success, increase the difficulty of your goals until you can use your leg to run, pass, kick, and do the actions necessary to excel on the field. Throughout your reconditioning, remain involved and engaged with the team and the season. Help out your coach during training and use positive communication with teammates during practices and games. Consider sharing your recovery goals with coaches and teammates to help you hold yourself accountable and to allow your team to support you. This could help you stay focused on your recovery, avoid feelings of isolation, maintain motivation to get healthy and, like Zakuani, return to the field when you are ready.

Rafael Nadal: Tough Competition Brings Out His Best Game

On Monday night, Rafael Nadal won the U.S. Open for the second time, beating Novak Djokovic. After the match, Nadal stated that, “Playing against Novak is a very special feeling. Probably nobody brings my game to that limit like Novak did.” Although Nadal is one of the best tennis players in the world, he still faces stiff competition and has to rise to the challenge in order to succeed.

As a developing athlete, seek out competitive situations that challenge you. If you always train with and compete against players who do not challenge you, you might find that your athletic progress is stagnant. In order to challenge yourself more, ask your coach for extra exercises or more difficult drills for you to work on independently. Pushing yourself to master harder, more advanced skills can help you improve your overall game.

Another way to challenge yourself and try to improve your skills is to play against more experienced competitors. Although you may find it difficult, view the tough competition as a challenge, not a threat. With that attitude, you can approach the competition with an open, objective mind, focusing on developing your skills rather than beating the opponent. Like Nadal said, facing tough competitors like Novak brings out the best in him because he must elevate his game in order to succeed. The next time you train, think about what you can work on to elevate your game.

Deliberate Practice

Deliberate practice is the will, commitment, and enthusiasm to practice with a purpose. Many coaches consider it to be an essential part of any successful team because players who practice with a purpose arrive to practice focused, enthusiastic, and determined to improve. A player like this has the motivation to make every training session count. This player is aware that the work he/she puts into training will help determine what he/she will get out of it. However, in reality, many players have difficulty practicing with high levels of intensity and determination, day in and day out, over the course of a season.

Players who ‘go through the motions’ during practice typically don’t intend to and oftentimes don’t know why they are lacking enthusiasm and drive. Research findings indicate that under-intensity is often the result of poor preparation, a lack of motivation, and fatigue. Furthermore, players who don’t practice with a sense of purpose typically don’t set goals or develop a plan for their training sessions.

An important first step for any player trying to improve his/her ability to practice with intensity and purpose is to increase self-awareness. It may be helpful to check-in with yourself right before each training session to determine your level of enthusiasm and intensity. You can track your levels over the course of several weeks to learn which levels corresponded with your best practices. Another strategy to improve your ability to practice with a sense of purpose is to create a preparation plan, which includes clear process goals for each training session. Setting specific process goals, such as, “I will improve my crossing,” or “I want to push myself today,” may help give you purpose during practice and increase your level of intensity. It takes practice and dedication to increase your enthusiasm, intensity, and drive during training sessions. Pushing yourself every day will help you improve your skills and develop into a more consistent performer.

USMNT triumphed in the face of an unexpected challenge

Regardless of what sport you play, there are times when things aren’t going to go how you expected them to, or how you wanted them to. This was never more evident than it was Friday night during the USMNT vs. Costa Rica World Cup qualifying match. Both teams faced a rather large obstacle: playing in heavy snow, blizzard conditions. It’s possible to train for various situations during training that are likely to occur in a game, such as the opponent scoring and your team playing to fight back. However, a situation such as a blizzard is not likely to be one that either team expected. So, what do you do when situations like this arise?

When faced with obstacles, you should remember to focus on what you can control. You can’t control the weather, or whether the referee decides to continue or pause play. However, you can control how you react to the situation, your attitude, and the level of effort you exert. Use this obstacle as a challenge; think about how you can grow as a player and what you can learn from the experience. Having a positive attitude, and helping your teammates have a positive attitude as well, can help you and your team perform better.

While it may not have been a pretty game, the USMNT pushed on and persevered against Costa Rica. Rather than letting the snow slow them down, each member of the team gave maximum effort with the purpose of earning the points to help the team get closer to qualifying for the World Cup. This effort paid off with a 1-0 victory. Next time you find yourself facing an obstacle, think about this performance and how you can incorporate the resiliency of the USMNT into your own performance.