Pfeffer Responds to Latest Disappointment With Strong Performance

This season has been full of highs and lows for Philadelphia Union midfielder Zach Pfeffer. The 20-year-old is currently enjoying the most playing time of his professional career, having appeared in nine out of the club’s 12 games thus far, and started five of them. He also scored the second goal of his career last month in the Union’s first win of the season over New York City FC. With that success has also come disappointment though, as Pfeffer was red carded last month against FC Dallas, and forced to sit out for two games. And last week, he learned that he was the final player to be left off the U.S. roster for the U-20 World Cup next month in New Zealand. Despite this setback, on Sunday, against Eastern Conference leaders D.C. United, Pfeffer scored the game winner in the 93rd minute after being subbed on for Andrew Wenger 22 minutes earlier, giving the Union its second win of the season. For the Union’s first ever Homegrown Player, his second goal this season showed he could bounce back from the mental challenges of a personal setback in a big way. “I was very excited, very happy, and relieved. It was a great moment…I was definitely disappointed not to have made the final [U-20 World Cup] roster, but that’s going to happen in this profession,” Pfeffer said after Sunday’s game. “There’s going to be ups, there’s going to be downs. I have to use moments like this as momentum. I did that tonight and want to keep moving forward. It’s a bump in the road, but I believe I’m in a pretty good spot with the team here.”

Whether it’s losing a game, making a single mistake, or failing to be selected to a team, you are guaranteed to encounter disappointment during your career. Like most players, you will have many highs and lows, and strings of good days followed by some bad ones. The first step in coping with the setbacks that come with being a competitive athlete is recognizing that you will encounter these ups and downs so that you are prepared to manage the emotions that come with both extremes. As a player, it’s normal to feel upset, bitter, or frustrated after a setback like the one Pfeffer encountered last week. Ultimately, however, it’s important to turn your attention and focus back toward what you can control. Accept whatever has happened, because, in all likelihood, you can’t do anything to change it. Also, recognize that one setback does not mean that your talent or skillset has disappeared, nor has it been taken from you. You are still the same player, and like always, you have the opportunity to choose to be confident in your abilities in these moments. Start by focusing on the next training session or game on your schedule. Consider setting new outcome, performance, and process goals that will help you address elements of your game that you feel will make you a better player. At the same time, reflect on your strengths and the parts of your game that you can rely on to bring you success. Finally, recognize that, just like success, disappointment is temporary. Focus on your next performance, and gain confidence from your achievements, no matter how big or small. As a 20-year-old already in his fifth year as a professional, Pfeffer has a long career ahead of him. By focusing on improving each day and continuing to view setbacks as mere “bumps in the road,” it probably won’t be the last time he is in consideration for a national team spot.

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Ramos’s Moment of Madness Costs Orlando

As a club, Orlando City SC had plenty to be frustrated about on Saturday, after a 3-0 loss to the Columbus Crew. While Columbus performed well in front of its home crowd, Orlando’s struggles were mostly due to its own mistakes, including a first-half red card issued to young right back Rafael Ramos. The 20-year-old performed extremely well in the club’s first six games this season, but was far from his best on Saturday. Ramos’s poor clearance was mostly to blame for the Crew’s first goal in the 32nd minute. On the other end of the field, two minutes later, he lost possession of the ball after being knocked off balance by Columbus defender Waylon Francis. When the assistant referee failed to call a foul, Ramos jumped up and lunged feet-first into Francis’s legs. While referee Ricardo Salazar initially pulled out a yellow card for the foul, Ramos ignored him out of frustration, and ran down the sideline back toward his own goal. Salazar finally caught up to him and instead held up a red card. For Orlando head coach Adrian Heath, Ramos’s inability to manage his emotions was a turning point in the game. “Rafa’s had a lot of really good publicity in the last week, but then tonight he has cost us dearly,” Heath said after the game. “Just because you don’t get a decision doesn’t mean you can go and recklessly tackle somebody…He has got a lesson to be learned here and we will have a look at it on Monday and sit down with him and have a chat about it. We have spoken to him in the past, but today it has been costly for his teammates.”

This incident demonstrates how easily a player’s emotions, if they are not managed effectively, can influence his or her own performance, and cost a team the game. Like any sport, soccer can be emotional. There are times when you may feel incredibly excited, perhaps after scoring a goal, and there are also times when you may feel angry or embarrassed, possibly after making a mistake. These and other emotions (e.g., pride, nervousness, disappointment, etc.) are not inherently good or bad. Instead, they can either be effective or ineffective, depending on how they impact your performance. Players are often told that they need to control their emotions, as though feelings like frustration, anger, or happiness can be turned “on” or “off” whenever they wish. Instead, it’s important to see these emotions as part of the game. In these moments, it’s not about controlling your emotions, but instead, about managing them. Emotional management starts with your awareness. Knowing, like Ramos for example, that you become frustrated after a mistake or after a referee’s call doesn’t go your way, think about how it influences your performance. Next, develop a plan for how you’d like to respond when you become emotional during a game. Many players manage their emotions by using them to their advantage, or channeling them into something effective. In other words, if you are angry after a referee fails to call a penalty when you were tripped up in the box, consider using that anger to motivate you to work harder and earn another opportunity. A centering breath can also help you create some space between the emotion you are feeling during a game and your behavioral response. Drawing air deeply into your stomach, holding it for a second or two, and then releasing slowly can help you relieve tension and can also provide you a moment to refocus and then choose to respond in an effective way, rather than to react with no thought. As a young player, Ramos now has the opportunity to learn from his mistake, and develop strategies for managing his emotions so that they no longer cost his team valuable points.

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Donovan’s Experiences Shed Light on Athlete Mental Health

On Sunday, Landon Donovan played his final competitive match as a professional soccer player, and in helping the LA Galaxy clinch its record fifth MLS Cup, he ended his career on a winning note. While he has enjoyed unprecedented success as an MLS player, one part of Donovan’s career is discussed less often: his battle with mental health as a professional athlete. In recent years, Donovan has openly expressed mental exhaustion with the game, has reportedly struggled with depression, and meets with a therapist on a regular basis. In early-2013, when he took a four-month break from soccer to address some of these issues, MLS’s all-time leader in goals and assists said that, “We have a sort of stigma that being in a difficult mental place is not acceptable. We should ‘pull ourselves up by the bootstraps’ and ‘fight through it’.” In the postgame press conference on Sunday, a reporter asked him whether he could see himself as an advocate for athlete mental health in the future. “Obviously I’ve been very open about some of my struggles,” Donovan said in response. “I think it’s probably the last untapped part of sports. It’s pretty fascinating because your mental state and your emotional state can dramatically impact your performance. And so it’s actually mindboggling to see sports spend hundreds of millions of dollars on things, but not focus on that. Perhaps that will change in the future…perhaps I will be a part of it. But for me, the more meaningful way is to help individuals.”

Mental health is often seen as a taboo or uncomfortable topic and the world of sports is no exception. Athletes are often thought of as strong and invulnerable, and if they reveal that they are struggling mentally or emotionally, can be perceived as weak. However, like any other human being, athletes at any level encounter a range of emotions and challenging mental experiences that are often amplified by the pressure that comes with high-level performance and competition. While these experiences are normal, mental and emotional struggles can affect some individuals more than others. As an athlete, it is first and foremost important to recognize that you will encounter various emotions on and off the field, and while these emotions are not necessarily controllable, they are manageable. You can use tools such as a refocusing cue (i.e., “Let it go”) or centered breathing to manage the everyday emotions (i.e., anger, frustration, etc.) you experience during competition. However, at times, these emotions may seem too powerful to cope with on your own. In these circumstances, it is essential that you find someone you can talk to about these experiences, such as a parent, a teammate, a coach, or a sport psychology professional. It may be the case that you know or feel that something is wrong, but may not know what that is, or even how to go about handling it. It is acceptable and encouraged for you to seek out assistance with these issues. Donovan’s experiences as a professional demonstrate that regardless of competitive level, athletes are, first and foremost, human beings. Especially within the context of competitive youth sports, an individual’s wellbeing should always be the top priority. As this message continues to grow, athletes everywhere have better chances to combat the negative stigma associated with mental health.

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United’s Latest Struggles Arise From Lack of Emotional Management

Despite a new coach and the arrival of world-class talent over the summer, Manchester United is still struggling to win big games. The club’s latest setback, against Manchester City on Sunday, came largely as a result of playing a majority of the game with 10 players. Center back Chris Smalling received his first yellow card in the game’s 31st minute, after he interfered when City’s goalkeeper Joe Hart was dropkicking the ball from the top of the penalty area. Only eight minutes later, Smalling earned his second yellow card for a late challenge outside the box. After United was reduced to 10 men, City’s Sergio Agüero scored the game’s only goal midway through the second half to claim three points. Following the game, United head coach Louis van Gaal noted that Smalling should have done a better job managing his emotions in the first half, and made adjustments to his play after receiving his first card. “I didn’t see the first yellow but with the second, you know you already have a yellow, so [you] have to handle it differently,” van Gaal said. “There is also emotion and sometimes you cannot control your emotion but it was not very smart…As a player you have to control your aggression.”

Smalling’s red card provides an example of the consequences that can come from a player’s inability to manage his or her emotions and adapt during a game in response to circumstances. As a player, it is important to recognize that emotions are part of the game. Competitiveness, passion, and a desire to win can cause you and players around you to experience a range of emotions, including excitement, frustration, anger, and disappointment. While you cannot control your automatic emotional response in the moment, you can develop the ability to manage your emotions. As a player, emotional management starts with your awareness. Consider times when you have failed to maintain your focus or composure under emotional circumstances and allowed emotions to negatively affect your game. Recognize that these and other emotions will, at times, challenge your focus and composure during a game, and develop a strategy or plan to respond effectively in these moments. During training, when you notice that your emotions are pulling your attention away, find a stoppage in play and try a centering breath (inhale deeply into your stomach, hold the breath momentarily, and exhale). This can help you release some tension and bring your attention back to the present moment. Refocusing cues (i.e., “My game” or “Let it go”) can also be great tools for helping a player manage his or her emotions while playing. These short words or phrases can help you recover your focus when you feel it slipping away.

Game awareness and decision-making also play a big role in emotional management. When Smalling was issued his first yellow card, it was important to make adjustments in his play (e.g., avoiding late challenges) in order to avoid giving the referee any opportunity to make a difficult call. Recognizing that a second yellow would leave his teammates in a frustrating position with 50 minutes remaining could have helped him avoid a costly decision in a crucial moment in an important match.

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Most Recent Matchup in Djokovic-Murray Rivalry Becomes a Battle of Emotions

Wednesday’s U.S. Open quarterfinal match between Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray produced a fierce battle of fitness, mentality, and emotions. Top-ranked Djokovic ultimately won the match over his close friend and rival, after four sets and a riveting three and a half hours. At times, both players enjoyed some strong play and also suffered through mistakes and periods of frustration. However, across the entire match, the world’s No. 1 seed seemed better able to manage these ups and downs. “I get the feeling that if I get to stay with him and work, and not get too loose and too frustrated with points, and not allow him to get into a big lead, I feel like there is a point where I have that edge physically,” said Djokovic. “That’s what I try to always focus on and it paid off tonight.” In Thursday’s matchup, this seemed to be a noticeable difference between the two players, as Murray – known to be a temperamental player – struggled to manage his emotions and maintain his composure after mistakes. Between points throughout the match, Murray became visibly frustrated with his performance and self-critical, often hanging his head after a shot was mishit. At one point, after hitting the ball into the net, he swung his racket furiously, hit himself in the leg, and screamed. During another break, he was overheard talking angrily to himself out loud, even calling himself an “idiot” and describing his play as “terrible.”

As an athlete, it is important to find effective ways of managing your emotions and maintaining composure throughout competition. Rather than thinking of them as good or bad, emotions should be effective, rather than ineffective. While some players may feel that they can handle frustration, it can still become a distraction and take your focus away from what you can control and what you need to do in the present moment. Your self-talk during these times is extremely important. It is okay to hold yourself to high standards as an athlete, and you may even feel frustrated or disappointed after a mistake. However, instead of allowing words like “terrible” or “idiot” to enter your dialogue, exchange these comments for more effective ones (i.e., “Move on” or “Next point.”). As a general rule, if you wouldn’t say something to a teammate after he or she made the same mistake, chances are that you should not say it to yourself. During competition, when things seem to be going wrong and you feel that mistakes are becoming more frequent, try using a centering breath during a stoppage in play (i.e., inhaling deeply into your stomach, and slowly letting the air out) to regain composure. As Novak Djokovic prepares for his eighth straight semifinal in the U.S. Open, he recognizes the importance of this part of his mental game against Murray: “We both go through a lot of emotions, times when you play well…you’re positive,” he said. “Sometimes you’re a little bit negative about how you’re doing, about how you’re feeling…It’s important to handle this emotion.”

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For Luis Suarez and His Fresh Start, Words Are Not Enough

It is no secret that Luis Suarez is among the most talented, yet controversial, players in modern football. Recently sold to Barcelona from Liverpool for a staggering 80 million euros, the striker arrives at Camp Nou with a tarnished reputation attached to his talents and price tag. In the immediate future (until October), Suarez’s services will be unavailable to his new club, as a result of a four-month ban handed down by FIFA, after the Uruguayan bit the shoulder of Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini during a World Cup group stage match this summer in Brazil. The severity of his punishment comes largely as a result of two similar incidents at the club level for Suarez at both Liverpool and Ajax, for which he was given 10- and seven-match bans respectively. Historically, Suarez has struggled to manage his emotions during pivotal moments in the game, and as a result, his behavior has damaged his reputation and overshadowed his talent. Despite record-breaking scoring abilities, his clubs have been forced to play for weeks and even months without his contributions on the field. Yet, Barcelona’s new number 9 has recently tried to assure media, coaches, teammates, and fans that such behavior is behind him: “…I won’t do that anymore,” Suarez said. “I spoke to my psychologist, and he said I had to face it and say sorry. I did – now I would rather focus on the present, which is Barcelona…everything from before is forgotten.” While Suarez is right to focus on the present and on what he can do to contribute to his team’s success, his ultimate contributions and his legacy in the game will come down to his future actions.

Emotional management plays a massive role in athletic competition. During the World Cup, teams like Portugal, Uruguay, and Brazil were forced to play without some of their top players (i.e., Pepe, Suarez, and Thiago Silva) because of the inability of these individuals to manage their emotions during the heat of competition. As a player, emotional management starts with your self-awareness, and the recognition that there will be times in a game when your focus and composure are tested. Reflect on your experiences, and the times when you have, and have not, managed to stay composed. Knowing yourself and possible triggers that can cause you to lose focus during competition is an essential step in maintaining this composure. For example, knowing that you are the type of player who becomes easily frustrated and reactive over a referee’s call allows you to, perhaps, develop a cue (i.e., “Let it go”) or physical response (i.e., a centering breath) that can help you stay in the present moment. As a teammate, you also play an important role in helping others manage their emotions, by knowing and understanding the player next to you, and taking the initiative to step in when you notice that he or she may be losing control. Demonstrate leadership in these moments by bringing your teammate’s focus back to the present moment – possibly through encouragement or a reminder of accountability (i.e., “We need you in this game!”).

Despite likely skepticism from media, fans, and even possibly coaches or teammates, Luis Suarez has already turned his attention back to the task ahead of him: “That is something from the past and to be forgotten. I have already tried to erase it and move on… My mind now is focused on training until October.” For the sake of his new club, and the legacy of a very talented footballer, one can only hope that Suarez has, in fact, learned from his mistakes, and that the fresh start available to him at Camp Nou will provide him with a door back into the spotlight for the right reasons.

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Houston’s Ownby Learns the Value in Emotional Management

With the World Cup only weeks away, many MLS games have recently featured new faces, as many players throughout the league have been called into their respective national team camps before the tournament in Brazil. On Wednesday night, DC United topped the Houston Dynamo 2-0 in Washington D.C., easing the memory of three losses to the Texas-based club last season. Houston was forced into lineup changes like most other teams around the league, as three of their star midfielders were unavailable for the trip to the nation’s capital. Brad Davis and Boniek Garcia are both fulfilling their duties with their respective countries, while Ricardo Clark is sidelined due to midseason injury. As a result of these absences, third-year midfielder Brian Ownby earned a rare playing opportunity last night. DC United goals on either side of halftime left the Dynamo in a 2-0 hole late in the game. Ownby was enjoying more time on the field (77 minutes) than he had ever played; however, his performance was cut short and his team was forced to play a man down for the final few minutes, when the midfielder was given a red card one minute into second-half stoppage time. While the Dynamo were desperately pressing to score, Ownby lashed out in frustration and struck United defender Christian Fernandez in the face. While Houston failed to score a goal in the final minutes, the red card leaves them in a deeper hole, as Ownby will be forced to miss the next match as well.

Managing emotions is a difficult mental hurdle many players face before, during, or after competition. Whether due to a goal, a mistake, a foul, or a referee’s call, players can experience a wide range of emotions during a game, such as frustration, anger, embarrassment, or excitement. If they are not managed, these emotions could take your attention away from the game and hurt your performance. Many players feel that they should try to control their emotions – to suppress or bury them. But, it’s important to recognize that emotions are automatic when you play. Instead of trying to control them and stop them from happening, focus on managing them.

Players who develop the ability to stay composed and manage their emotions throughout the highs and lows of competition typically have more consistency in their performance because they are able to stay focused in the present moment and avoid distractions. Emotional management is not easy because a wide range of experiences during a game could make you feel the urge to lash out, or erupt in celebration. As a player, however, you can manage these emotions by focusing on what you control during competition: your effort, your attitude, your communication, or your quick decision-making. A refocusing cue, or a short word or phrase that brings you back to the present moment (i.e., “Next play” or “Find the ball”) can be an effective mental response in these moments; it can bring your mind back to the present so you can focus on working hard and fulfilling your role in the competition. Similarly, when you feel frustrated or angry, increasing your communication on the field can help you re-engage in the game. For players like Ownby, who hope to earn further opportunities on the field, emotional management is essential because it can help them remain focused and composed and bring their best game to the field.

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