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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Commitment to Team and Character Help Union Through Disappointing Start to Season

Eleven games into the 2015 MLS season, the Philadelphia Union was struggling to get the results they wanted. However, with a massive 1-0 win over D.C. United in mid-May, and three wins out of four since then, Philadelphia has started to turn things around. The day before the May 17th game against D.C., team captain Maurice Edu told reporters that getting through the rough stretch came down to the players’ ability to stick together and stay committed to the team. “We have to realize we’re in this together,” Edu told reporters. “Through the good times and the bad times…the only way to get out of the situation is if we work together.” Three weeks later, after the team’s most recent win – 3-0 over the Columbus Crew on Wednesday night – Edu acknowledged the character his teammates showed in putting in the work necessary to get back on track. “There’s a lot of character in this dressing room,” Edu said after Wednesday’s win. “Even though we weren’t getting the results early on, we still felt like we were playing well in glimpses. In training, we pushed each other, we challenged each other…we brought the best out of each other. Some guys were doing extra stuff, whether it was fitness or working on different things to help them be able to contribute more in these games…so when the games [came] we were better prepared.”

For any team facing a situation like this, the frustrations of not having outcomes go your way can often build and build until players begin to take out their frustrations on one another. Teammates can suddenly begin arguing during training sessions and games, blaming each other or the coach for the disappointing results, and many players fall into the habit of giving less than their best effort or focus, because they feel that they are not responsible for the team’s misfortunes. If you’re a player who has experienced a rough patch like this, these and other symptoms probably sound familiar. As Edu noted before the Union’s recent string of victories, getting through these times as a team comes down to working together as players to find a way to improve the team’s performance. Individually and collectively, you can start by focusing on one training session at a time. As a player, bring your best effort to the field, not only to get better on an individual level each day, but also to push the players around you to become better. Rather than taking the easy route in these situations, and blaming teammates or coaches for the team’s lack of success, reflect on your own performance. Determine parts of your game that need work (e.g., fitness, a technical skill, etc.) and consider devoting extra time outside of training to getting better in these areas. While it is the team that needs to stick together in these moments, momentum can often begin to turn in your team’s favor when individual players decide to take responsibility on their own and take action to get better.

Leadership on the part of every player (not just the captain) also plays an important role during these times. Edu’s response during the Union’s tough start to the season exemplified the mentality and the attitude of an effective captain. He acknowledged that the team was not getting the results it wanted, and pointed out the importance of working together to find a way of getting through the “bad times”. And, according to the captain, the team’s attitude won’t change moving forward:“…To get a positive result, it’s good for us. This continues our momentum. We’ll take confidence from this game, but now we have to get focused again…we have a tough game against New York here on Saturday.”



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Rodriguez Maintains Professionalism With Vancouver’s Reserve Team

Soon after joining the Vancouver Whitecaps on a one-year loan in January, Uruguayan defender Diego Rodríguez quickly earned a starting position with the MLS club at center back. His bright start to the season was interrupted, however, when he suffered a quad strain last month against the Columbus Crew. Having finally regained fitness, Rodríguez appeared in his first competitive game since April 8th on Sunday, with Vancouver’s United Soccer League (USL) side, Whitecaps FC 2. And despite being relatively young, at 24 years old, the 6’3” center back wore the captain’s armband and led the reserves to a 2-1 win over Real Monarchs SLC. According to head coach Alan Koch, Rodriguez’s time with WFC2 was a testament to his professionalism. “Diego is a class act,” Koch said. “He’s a true professional. He came and trained with us for the first time and he jumped in right away. He embraced everybody…he was asking guys names, he got to know them. And you could see that he wanted to play the full 90 minutes but we were told to play him for 60 and he put in a quality performance.” For Rodriguez, this professionalism is just part of focusing on what he controls and getting more games with the MLS side. “When the [first-team] coach needs me, I’ll be ready,” Rodriguez said. “I work every day…I feel very healthy, very good, and ready to play.”

Part of having a professional mentality means bringing your best effort and focus to the field, regardless of the environment or the players you are playing with or against. For Rodriguez, spending time with the reserves probably isn’t ideal, given that he came to Vancouver to pursue a career in MLS. However, the young center back displayed remarkable leadership over the weekend, by maintaining a positive attitude, and treating his time with the USL side no differently than if he were playing with the first team. There’s no denying the fact that situations like this can be frustrating for players who want to play at the highest level at all times. However, many players in these circumstances allow their focus and intensity to drop off, either feeling sorry for themselves, bitter about playing with less talented players, or feeling like they don’t need to work hard to be effective at a lower level. In this situation, it’s important to view the experience as an opportunity to improve as a player, by working on your weaknesses and continuing to refine your strengths. Even if you’re not typically a leader on the field, take the opportunity to be a role model in this situation, by holding yourself to high standards and maintaining your best effort and focus during training sessions and games. If, like Rodriguez, you are around new teammates, introduce yourself and do everything you can to get to know them and demonstrate that you are committed. Part of being a professional also means communicating effectively on the field, encouraging other players when they work hard, and providing useful feedback on what they can improve. When it comes to your individual performance in this situation, consider setting new goals, challenging yourself to lift your game to the next level. Above all, recognize that every moment you are on the field, regardless of the players you are competing with or against, is an opportunity to put forth your very best, focus on your role and responsibilities, and improve your game. Rodríguez’s talent and work ethic will greatly contribute to earning him a spot back on Vancouver’s first team. In the meantime, his professional mentality will help him make the most out of his time with the reserves, help the team be successful, and continue to get better on an individual level.


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Terry’s Leadership Guides Chelsea to Premier League Title

With a 1-0 win at home over Crystal Palace on Sunday, Chelsea claimed its fourth Premier League title and fifth English league title overall. Perhaps most impressively, the Blues did so with three games remaining in the season. Eden Hazard, recently named Premier League Player of the Year, scored the game’s only goal in the 45th minute. While Hazard’s performance over the course of this season has received considerable attention, Chelsea center back and captain John Terry has played a key role in helping the club claim its first title in five years. According to former Chelsea midfielder Ray Wilkins, Terry’s leadership this season has helped head coach Jose Mourinho manage his players on and off the field. “He’s a fantastic leader and that’s what a lot of people don’t see, the way he controls the dressing room for Jose Mourinho, he is Jose on the pitch, they are both winners,” Wilkins said. “[John’s] a dream to work with and is a massive assistance (to the manager) because he gets across what you want him to get across and that is very, very important when you are a manager. They have lots of big personalities in there.” Having a captain that can help manage a locker room of “big personalities” in a club like Chelsea is invaluable, and Wilkins further noted that Terry’s ability to fill this role is “…something that every club in the Premier League would have loved to have had for the last 10 years.”

Leadership comes in many different forms. Some players are comfortable being loud vocal leaders on or off the field, while others choose to lead by example. Being a vocal leader means that you understand how to effectively communicate to your teammates in ways that help them perform at their best. This involves recognizing the difference between feedback and criticism. Feedback involves providing specific information to a teammate in a way that he or she can receive and use it (e.g., “I like that you are taking risks, try to help us maintain possession by playing the simple ball.”). Criticism, however, often involves a personal attack, in which a player provides general, unhelpful information to a teammate about his or her performance (e.g., “You’re giving the ball away every time!”). Leaders who communicate effectively know that how they send a message is just as important as what they are saying. While vocal leaders are often more noticeable, being the type of player who leads by example means that your behavior on and off the field sets a standard for your teammates to follow. You can lead by example by demonstrating an ability to manage your emotions on and off the field in any situation. You can also lead by bringing your best effort and focus to the field on a regular basis, and understanding and executing your role in training and games. As a player, you can develop your leadership abilities like any other mental or physical part of your game. Focusing on your effective communication or the different ways in which you lead by example on and off the field can help you build leadership capabilities that teammates and coaches come to notice and value. While players like Hazard may receive most of the recognition for their contributions to Chelsea’s latest title, leaders like Terry played a critical role behind the scenes in helping a team of world-class players (and personalities) perform together towards a common objective.


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Red Bulls Implement New Approach to Leadership for 2015

When Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill left the New York Red Bulls at the end of last season, after retiring and moving to a new club, respectively, there were questions surrounding the team’s future, specifically concerning the void of leadership. Yet, five weeks into the 2015 season, the Red Bulls are one of only two clubs who are still unbeaten, and have taken a new approach to leadership roles. While veteran midfielder Dax McCarty took over the captain’s armband, head coach Jesse Marsch has also implemented a “leadership council”, composed of McCarty, midfielder Lloyd Sam, goalkeeper Luis Robles and five or six other veterans, charged with sharing the leadership responsibilities. “When you have Thierry in the team, there’s always a bigger personality no matter what,” McCarty said. “But now that he’s gone and some other players are gone, it’s more of a case of this is a team of seven, eight, nine, 10 really experienced, veteran guys. All of us see ourselves on the same level in terms of our leadership and our abilities and our roles.” McCarty also recognized the contributions of non-veterans. “I love that our young guys aren’t afraid to talk and give us their opinions and speak their mind. This is an environment where every player’s opinion is valued and every player’s opinion matters. You’re never going to win a championship with five or six guys.” Thirty-year-old Robles also sees the new approach as a way of promoting ownership. “It’s built accountability,” Robles said. “Guys have to make sure that guys are doing what’s supposed to be done, whether it’s on the field, off the field, in the locker room, in the community, whatever we’re called upon to do…The one thing that’s really good about this collaborative effort is that it allows people to feel ownership…ownership in what they’re doing, in what the team is trying to achieve.”

While a “leadership council” may not be the answer for every team, it shows the value of spreading these responsibilities among players, rather than having a single captain who is seen as a team’s only leader. Many players make the mistake of thinking that leadership is a natural ability – that you are either born to lead or you’re not. Many of them also assume that leadership is entirely vocal – that you need to be a loud, outspoken player in order to have an effective influence on your teammates. Both of these are misconceptions. First, leadership can be developed and improved over time. You can build your vocal presence on or off the field by focusing on the simple elements of effective communication: sending and receiving messages in a way that helps you or the players around you perform at a higher level. Offer clear and specific feedback that helps other players, but doesn’t come across as personal criticism. Find opportunities to encourage or motivate other players to continue working hard, or to increase their effort. Second, recognize that leadership is not always about verbal communication. You can be an effective leader through your behavior, by consistently working hard in training sessions or games, by focusing on performing your role to the best of your abilities, and by staying emotionally and mentally composed when your team faces adversity during competition. Ultimately, your own form of leadership comes from knowing yourself and the strengths you bring to a team, and how to use those strengths to positively influence the players around you. Despite a noticeably different roster heading into this season, the Red Bulls look primed to have a successful campaign. The extent to which each player on the roster (veteran or not) continues to be accountable for leadership in his own way will likely play a big part in helping them accomplish just that.


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Kaká Emphasizes Learning Opportunity Despite Orlando’s First Loss

When Orlando City FC signed Brazilian playmaker Kaká as it’s first Designated Player last summer, it was with the hopes that the 2007 World Player of the Year would add world-class talent to the club’s roster. Three games into the season, it’s obvious that Kaká has brought other qualities to Orlando as well – namely, a high level of experience and leadership. On Saturday, Orlando suffered a heartbreaking loss deep into stoppage time at home against the Vancouver Whitecaps. After Orlando had dominated possession throughout the game, Vancouver striker Octavio Rivero scored his third goal in three games in the 96th minute to give Vancouver a late win. Speaking with reporters after the game, Kaká was quick to offer perspective on the disappointing result. “Today is a great opportunity for us to learn,” he said. “It is only our third game and now, after a draw, a win and now a defeat, it is a chance for us to understand how the team will react.” The former AC Milan and Real Madrid midfielder stressed the importance of learning from the result and moving on with an effective response. “We have to improve a lot of things but the most important is learning to accept what we did wrong and having a positive reaction. I’m sure the team is going to react in a good way and we will start again on Monday and get things on track.

It’s never easy to lose a game, but losing like Orlando did on Saturday can be especially frustrating for any team. It can be a major blow to a team’s confidence, and if players and coaches do not respond effectively to these results, things can often spiral out of control quickly. After a game like this, you may experience regret or frustration with yourself over missed chances, or anger over what seemed to be an unfair result. In these moments, it’s tempting to place the blame to any external conditions that could have possibly explained the outcome, such as a decision by the referee, the field conditions, the weather, or another teammate’s lack of effort. However, leaders do not seek external excuses for their individual or team performance. Instead, leaders maintain their focus on what they control, and they take steps to learn from the experience. As Kaká pointed out, games like this provide you with an opportunity to grow as a player and as a team. Objectively evaluating these games means recognizing what you did well, “[accepting] what [you] did wrong,” and committing yourself to doing what it takes to improve on the weaknesses in your performance. Have the honesty and courage to ask yourself whether you prepared physically and mentally as well as you could have. Did you lose focus during a pivotal moment in the game? Did you communicate effectively with your teammates during difficult times? Did you put forth your best effort throughout? Bouncing back from a game like this requires that you remain honest, but objective, when reflecting on your performance. Set judgment aside, and avoid statements like “I can’t believe I let my man get behind me.” Instead, focus only on drawing the useful information from the game, and moving on with a clear plan to get better. Take the lessons you pull from your individual performance and turn them into performance and process goals for the next week of training. No player or team is ever defined by one performance. However, it is often the case that a season can be defined by how a team responds to games like this. Having faced a mental and emotional setback so early in the club’s inaugural season, Orlando’s players have an opportunity to show what they’re made of and set the tone for the inevitable ups and downs of this year.


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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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