Serena Williams Takes It “One Match At a Time” As She Competes for a Calendar Year Grand Slam

In tennis history, only five players have earned their place in the upper echelon of tennis greats who have won the calendar year Grand Slam (winning the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open in one year). As Serena Williams embarks on yet another US Open, she is fighting to earn a place among those greats, as winning this major tournament would earn her a calendar year Grand Slam. Such a history-making tournament outcome could certainly put pressure on Williams. As a seasoned player at the professional level, however, she seems to understand the need to focus on the process of her performances, rather than the overall outcome. In an interview after her first match (in which Williams won after her opponent, Vitalia Diatchenko, forfeited in the second set due to an ankle injury), Williams explained that this tournament is an opportunity for her to reach a major milestone and that she’s, “trying to take one match at a time.” When asked what she needs to do to be successful, she stated that she needs to, “Stay relaxed, stay in the points, and stay calm.”

Staying in the present moment and focusing on the process is an important step in being able to perform at your best. To do this, let go of past plays or points (whether good or bad) and try to avoid thinking about the future. Keep your mind in the present moment by using focusing cues like, “here and now.” You can also add a deep, centering breath and combine breathing and self-talk to help you stay in the moment. Keep in mind that you will find yourself losing focus and getting distracted from time to time. Just recognize that (non-judgmentally), let the distraction pass, and use your refocusing strategy to bring you back to the moment. As Williams stated, it’s important to “stay in the points” and take things “one match at a time.”

Also, recognizing how you like to feel before you play – and using a routine to help you feel that way consistently – will benefit your performance greatly. Williams explained that she wants to feel relaxed and calm. You might find that you like to feel the same way, or maybe that you like to be pumped up and a little nervous. Every athlete is different, so find what works for you. Once you know how you like to feel and what you want to focus on, use a pre-competition routine to help you get to that state consistently. This includes making a plan for what you want to think about and focus on the morning of a competition, on the way there, during warm-ups, and as you compete. For example, if you like to be calm and relaxed, then consider listening to music that calms you, taking deep centered breaths, and doing a body scan before you compete to release any muscle tension you feel. All of these strategies should be used consistently for your routine to be effective. Remember, there are many things that you cannot control in competition, but you can control how you prepare and what you choose to focus on.

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Lack of Emotional Management Was Costly for Pique

Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao matched up on Monday for the second leg of the Spanish Super Cup (a competition between the winning teams of La Liga and the Copa del Rey). Going into the game, Barcelona had to score four goals to catch up to Athletic in aggregate and earn the championship title. Barcelona began the second half up 1-0, but that momentum was short-lived. Barcelona defender Gerard Pique was sent off hardly ten minutes into the second half on a straight red card, earned for foul and abusive language toward a linesman. Pique was reacting to what could be argued as a missed offside call, which could have led to a goal against his team. Although the play led to a corner kick, and not a goal, Pique demonstrated a noticeable lack of emotional composure that ultimately cost him the remaining minutes of the Super Cup game, as well as the opportunity to play in the first La Liga game this upcoming weekend. Barcelona ended the match in a 1-1 draw, which awarded Athletic the championship title.

Many things are out of your control in soccer, or any other sport. However, your recovery from mistakes, your attitude, and your reaction to adversity are within your control. In this instance, Pique could not control the referee’s decision, but he could control his reaction to what he considered a poor call. Managing your emotions during the height of competition is much easier said than done. But, it is a skill you can develop with deliberate training. One strategy is to manage your focus. Keep your attention on what you can control. In order to do this, use refocusing cues like “let it go” or “get organized for the next play” to help you think about what you need to do next, rather than something you cannot change (like the referee’s decision). This will take some getting used to, because your initial emotional reaction might be strong, but if you consistently practice this strategy in training, it will become easier to use and more effective over time. Another strategy you can add to this to help you manage your emotions is to take a centering breath. This is another way to help you shift your focus away from what you can’t control. After using a refocusing cue, try taking a centering breath. Breathe in slowly through your nose, bringing the air down into your stomach. Slowly release the breath out of your mouth and try to release any tension you feel as you exhale. Keep in mind that this will only be effective at certain points in a game, like at a stoppage in play. Work on these skills consistently to enhance your emotional management and be prepared to handle the highs and lows of competition.

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Philadelphia Union Stay Focused Leading Up to Chicago Fire

The Philadelphia Union faced off against Orlando SC on Saturday, ending the game in a 0-0 draw. It was a tight match, with the Union coming close to earning three points with several good scoring opportunities. Now, a victory in tomorrow’s game against Chicago Fire earns the team an opportunity to compete in the Open Cup Finals. Still, the team needs to stay focused on tomorrow’s game and take it one game at a time. Goalkeeper John McCarthy discussed the significance of Wednesday’s game in a Union press conference today, saying, “ We talked about it. We know we’re one game away… We hope to take care of Chicago on Wednesday. That’s our mindset right now, only Wednesday. We’re not looking forward to any other game. But we know that the final is on the line and we’d like to get back to it.”

It can be hard not to focus on the significance of some games. Every player is aware of how certain games impact the overall season, particularly as you near the end of a season and approach playoffs. Despite this, it’s important to be able to remain focused on the present moment and the task at hand. In order to stay focused and take things one game at a time, especially when you understand the weight of some games, start with thinking about your role in the upcoming game. Once you know the line-up, think about your position, if you’re starting or coming off of the bench, and what you need to do to on the field and from the bench in order to contribute to your team.

Keep your goals in mind as you prepare for the game and go through your routine. Your focus should be on the process of how you’ll prepare and perform, rather than the outcome of the game. Like any game, make sure you pay attention to pre-game nutrition and hydration. During warm-ups, stay engaged in the present moment by working hard and preparing your body for the tasks you’ll need to complete on the field. Think about your role in your team’s overall plan, and the specific things you need to do to get that job done (for example, communicating with the players around you, moving off the ball, paying attention to your mark, and recovering quickly from mistakes). If you notice your mind wandering or that you’re starting to worry, try using refocusing cues, such as “here and now” or “focus in”, or trying using self-talk that helps you feel more confident, such as “I’ve been training for this”, or “I can do this.” As the Union prepare for tomorrow’s game, it’s important that the players stay focused on their roles against Chicago Fire and take it one game at a time.

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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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Pontius Relies on Short-Term Memory to Bounce Back

For the second week in a row, D.C. United midfielder Chris Pontius had an opportunity to score in second-half stoppage time, and this time, he converted. In last week’s frustrating 2-0 loss against the New York Red Bulls, Pontius sent a penalty kick over the bar that would have cut the deficit in half with a few minutes remaining in the game. On Saturday, however, against the defending MLS Cup Champion LA Galaxy, the 27-year-old redeemed himself by scoring the game winner with a diving header in the game’s 93rd minute. Speaking with reporters after the game, Pontius pointed out the importance of bouncing back as a team after a disappointing performance last week against the Red Bulls, and noted that he was also focused on letting go of the past when it came to his individual performance. “We asked ourselves to have a response after a bad loss in New York…Not only this game but past games, you know you just have to have short-term memory and leave that stuff and keep yourself alive. That penalty kick [in New York] didn’t feel good, obviously. Like I said, short-term memory. I was just focused on the team today.”

It’s not easy to recover mentally from a mistake like this, especially when it involves a meaningful moment late in a game. Afterwards, many players can find it difficult to maintain their confidence, composure, and/or focus. After a mistake, it’s probably the case that your mind tends to stray in one of two directions, by either dwelling on the past, or by worrying about the possibility of making more mistakes in the future. Perhaps you even struggle with both. Regardless, when the mind goes to either place (the past or the future), your body is still trying to perform in the present, the “here and now,” and as a result, your play can become hesitant or timid. Developing the ability to stay in the present moment while you perform has a lot to do with having a plan of action when it comes to your mistakes.

First, before going into any competition, recognize that your performance will never be perfect. Mistakes will happen, and your ability to put forth a strong performance largely depends on how you respond in these moments. Second, develop a strategy or plan of action for dealing with mistakes in your game. Practicing “temporary amnesia” means that you let go of whatever happens in the moment, and immediately turn your attention to the next play, choosing to reflect on, and learn from, the mistake later after the game is over. Strategies such as a centered breath or a refocusing cue (e.g., “Flush it” or “Let it go”) can help you in maintaining a short-term memory when it comes to these moments. Keep in mind that these strategies should be brief, because you may not have much time to pause and take your time in the moment. Players will also often use a quick physical cue to symbolize that they are letting go of a mistake, by picking up and tossing away a blade of grass, or by snapping their fingers to bring their focus back to the here and now. After the game, there will be time to objectively reflect on your mistakes and learn from them. However, while competing, it’s important to have a plan for how you will stay in the present moment. With a long season ahead, including a difficult road trip to Orlando this weekend, followed by a rematch against the Red Bulls, this will not be the last mistake Pontius makes this year. However, his ability to maintain a short-term memory, let go of the past, and stay in the present moment during each game will contribute to him staying consistent, while also setting a strong example for the younger, less-experienced players.

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Barcelona Remains Process-Focused to Earn Spot in Champions League Quarterfinals

On Wednesday night, Barcelona secured a spot in the Champions League quarterfinals with a 1-0 win over Manchester City in the second leg of their round-of-16 matchup. With a 2-1 aggregate lead from the first leg in Manchester, and a match against Real Madrid looming this weekend, it could have been tempting for Barcelona’s players and coaches to look past Wednesday’s matchup. However, in a press conference before the game, Andres Iniesta made it clear that he and his teammates were not letting the Champions League advantage, or the immensity of Sunday’s Clásico, distract them. “It’s true we have an important match on Sunday against a direct opponent, but we can’t think about what we have ahead of us further than Wednesday’s game. We have a good result from the first leg but City [has] enough good players to turn that result around. City [is] a dangerous opponent. We can’t make the mistake of thinking that the first leg result guarantees success. You can’t predict what will happen. Our only objective is to play a good match.” In response to Barcelona’s chances of winning the treble this season (i.e., Copa del Rey, Champions League, and La Liga), Iniesta reemphasized the importance of staying focused in all competitions, and taking it one match at a time. “We don’t meet and talk about winning the treble. We know we have a good chance to fight for every title until the end but that’s no guarantee and we can’t get distracted thinking about that.

Most young players have, at some point or another, been in a situation similar to this one: You’re playing in your final group game in a tournament, and you’ll win the group and advance with a tie in your final game. Suddenly, you and your teammates begin thinking about the difficult team you’ll play in the next round, and the fact that they haven’t been scored on throughout the whole tournament. Before you know it, you’ve overlooked your final group game and lose 1-0, because you and your teammates failed to take the opponent seriously and did not perform well. Situations like this are excellent examples of why it is so important for players to learn how to stay in the present moment and focus on the process, rather than any outcome. Taking things ‘one game at a time’ requires mental discipline. It means that you are committed to maintaining your routine before each game to ensure that you are physically and mentally ready to perform at your highest level, regardless of the opponent.

Nevertheless, even if you stay focused on the process as an individual player, how do you get your teammates to stay in the present moment with you, especially when it can be tempting for any of them to think the next game is already won? You can start by setting aside time between games to talk as a team. Acknowledge the temptation to start thinking about future games or outcomes, and figure out a way to collectively maintain focus on what is immediately in front of you. Recognize and take pride in your success thus far, but work together to set it aside and refocus. Decide on performance goals for the group, based on the most recent game, and discuss steps you will take individually and collectively to reach those goals. When you hear teammates talking about future opponents other than the next one on your schedule, you can provide the refocusing cue (e.g., “One game at a time”) to help them stay in the moment. Your leadership in these situations is essential, both in terms of your communication, as well as your willingness to lead by example, by doing what you need to between games to recover physically and prepare mentally for the next performance. With the latest Champions League milestone behind them, Barcelona can now turn its attention the much-anticipated Clásico this weekend, and by continuing to maintain a process-focused approach, can take one step closer to the desired outcome.

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Aston Villa Avoid Complacency in Massive Win Over Sunderland

Saturday’s Premier League action saw Aston Villa take a huge step in its attempts to avoid relegation this season, after earning a 4-0 win against Sunderland. The victory was even more impressive, considering what was at stake: before the match, Villa was one spot above the relegation zone in 17th place, and playing an away game against a Sunderland side one point ahead, in 16th. With four goals, two apiece from strikers Christian Benteke and Gabriel Agbonlahor, in the first half, Villa was able to secure a valuable three points, and jump ahead of Sunderland in the table. Speaking to reporters after the match, Villa head coach Tim Sherwood was pleased with the win and the offensive output, but recognized his team’s ability to maintain the shutout after building such a large lead by halftime. “We’re delighted, obviously, to get four goals in one game,” Sherwood said. “I’m almost as pleased with the ‘zero’ on the end of it in the second half as I was with the four goals we scored in the first half. It’s not easy, you know, to play when you’re 4-0 up…it’s a lot easier when you’re 4-0 down to be honest.” Speaking to his players after the game, Sherwood re-emphasized the importance of staying grounded and avoiding complacency with 9 league matches left in the season. “I just told the guys, there’s a long way to go…there’s a lot of hard work to be done, but this is a great step.”

It can be difficult, at times, for players to maintain high levels of concentration and effort after they’ve been successful. When things are going your way on the field or in your career, and the game seems to be easy for you, it is tempting to take your foot off the gas pedal and coast to an outcome. You can become over-confident in your abilities, and assume that the game has been won, or your goals have been reached, before the “final whistle”. As a result, you may stop working hard, and your focus can drop, as you lose sight of your role and responsibilities in the moment. The same can hold true for your team, moving forward after a big win. As a player, complacency can be one of the biggest hindrances to consistency on the field, because success can cause you to lose sight of the hard work and discipline it took to get to where you are. Avoiding complacency has everything to do with being aware of your mind’s tendency to stray from the present moment. As a player, it’s normal to imagine yourself winning or to spend time thinking about your outcome goals, because either one can motivate you. However, there is a time and a place for both, and when you find that you are thinking so much about an outcome that it is taking your mind away from the present moment, try to shift your focus back to doing what it takes to be successful. During halftime of a game like Aston Villa’s over the weekend, reflect on what allowed you to have success in the first half. Remind yourself, in times like this, to stay in the present moment with a refocusing cue (e.g., “Here and now” or “Don’t let up”). It can also help to set small goals or objectives for yourself, during a game for instance, by challenging yourself to maintain possession, or win your 1v1 defensive battles. Communicate effectively with players around you, reminding them to stay organized, disciplined, and focused on the present. With two and a half months left this season, Villa does indeed have “a long way to go” to ensure that it can compete in the Premier League next season. The ability of the players and coach to stay disciplined and focused on what they need to do throughout each game will go a long way in helping them achieve just that.

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