Union GK Andre Blake Recovers from Injury and Manages Nerves in Debut Game

On Saturday, Philadelphia Union goalkeeper, Andre Blake, made his season debut in Saputo Stadium against Montreal Impact. After suffering a torn meniscus twice throughout this season, he finally had his opportunity to take the field. Besides being his first game of this season, it was only his second start as a professional player. Blake stated, “I once learned that if you don’t have nerves going into a game, the game doesn’t mean anything to you. So, I definitely had some nerves, you just have to learn how to control it.” He seemed to be able to manage those nerves because he played a solid game, and with the help of his team, earned a clean sheet. Union Head Coach, Jim Curtin, praised his young goalkeeper, saying, “We gave up four shots on goal and Andre did a great job being clean with them.” He continued. “It’s a huge confidence builder for him… He’s been very patient and I thought he deserved an opportunity and he stepped up and kept a clean sheet.”

Dealing with injuries is never easy, particularly recovering from two difficult injuries back-to-back within one season. Along with the necessary physical training and reconditioning, it is important to continue working on your mental skills while you recover from injury. Staying focused on the process of your recovery, setting small goals, and leaning on teammates, family, and friends for support can be very helpful. Another strategy to help you feel prepared for your first game back is to start practicing how you’ll manage any nerves you might experience well in advance. While you’re going through your recovery process, try using visualization to envision what your experience will be like when you can play again. To do this effectively, try to engage many of your senses. For example, picture what the field will look like and what kit you’ll be wearing, how the grass will smell, what the crowd will sound like, and how you anticipate your body will feel. Then, train yourself to visualize your effective response to this situation. You could visualize yourself using centering breathing and self-talk to manage your nerves, and you could visualize yourself communicating with teammates and staying focused to start the game off strong. Make an effort to make this mental training a consistent part of your recovery plan.

Then, on the day of your first game back, keep that mental practice in mind. That time you spent training yourself mentally can be a big source of confidence. Further, in order to manage your nerves as you step into the game, try using self-talk that helps you feel confident and focused. Saying things like, “I prepared for this” or “I can do this” could help. Think about what might work for you. As Blake mentioned, there is nothing wrong with feeling nervous before a game, particularly before you first game of the season. Your job is to manage those nerves, and you choose how you want to do it.


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USWNT Embraces the Moment to Beat Germany

On Tuesday night, the U.S. women’s national team, ranked number 2 in the world, encountered its most difficult opponent thus far in the World Cup when it took on the world’s top-ranked team, Germany, in the semifinals. With a 2-0 win courtesy of second half goals from Carli Lloyd and Kelley O’Hara, the U.S. moved on to play in Sunday’s final in Vancouver. Despite owning an 18-4-7 all-time record against the Germans, the U.S. was an underdog heading into Tuesday’s semifinal. Germany scored 15 goals and only conceded one in its three group games, before beating fifth-ranked Sweden and third-ranked France to reach the semis. However, speaking to reporters before the game, U.S. players talked about embracing the opportunity to test themselves against the very best. “This is what this tournament is all about, and I really am so happy that we are playing against the No. 1 team in the world,” said defender Ali Krieger. “I think this is what makes it so fun. This is why we’re here. We want to beat the best team in the world.” The same mentality held true for Lloyd. “These are the moments that I live for,” she said, referring to the knockout round matches and upcoming test against Germany. “You prepare for it mentally, physically…I don’t just train to be a participant…I train to come up big in big moments.”

Facing a stronger opponent, many players in this situation might be fearful or anxious about the upcoming challenge. And while anxiety or nerves are common (and can even be a good thing) in these moments, the players who are able to perform at their best and enjoy these games are those who have prepared to do so and choose to embrace the challenge in front of them. First, it’s important to recognize the role nerves can play leading up to games like this. Nerves are often your body’s way of telling you that it is readying itself for the upcoming challenge – a sign that you are “warming up” internally. Choosing to interpret nerves as useful or effective can help you manage them when they do arise. Second, you can also manage nerves you might feel before big games by recognizing that you have put in the work to prepare for the moment. Preparation is one of the biggest factors that can determine whether a player is able to embrace and enjoy this type of game. The effort, focus, and intensity you bring to training will ultimately influence whether or not you are able to rise to the occasion when it comes time to perform. Finally, having prepared both physically and mentally, not just to be a “participant” in these games, but to be the type of player who “comes up big,” it comes down to your ability to enjoy the moment itself. Relish the opportunity you have to test your ability against the best competition you can find. Embrace the chance you have to put all of your hard work and preparation on display against others who have also worked hard to get there. The greatest competitors in the world enjoy and seek out opportunities to step outside their comfort zone in an attempt to beat those who are as good as or better than them. Having overcome their toughest test thus far, the U.S. players must now turn their attention to Sunday’s final, where they will have another opportunity to embrace the moment on an even bigger stage.


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Union Newcomers Look to Impress by Focusing on Patience and Process

The Philadelphia Union opened up its 2015 season with its first training session on Monday, held at YSC Sports. The session provided the coaching staff with its first glimpse at many of the players who will make up the first team roster this year. Joining the returning Union players on Monday were some youth academy players, trialists, and the four players selected by Philadelphia in the 2015 MLS SuperDraft last week: forward Dzenan Catic (Davenport University), midfielder Eric Bird (University of Virginia), and defenders Aaron Simmons (UCLA) and Raymond Lee (Saint Louis University). The club begins 2015 looking to add talent into roles recently vacated by players like Amobi Okugo, Zac MacMath, Pedro Ribeiro, and Brian Brown. Facing his first full season in charge of the club, head coach Jim Curtin offered up some words of wisdom for the new players looking to earn a spot. “I told all of the young guys that they’re not going to impress us in the first four minutes of a training session,” Curtin said. “So you’re not going to make a team by doing a trick or a step-over. It’s about guys putting together a good day, then a good week, then a good two weeks and then a good month. … I think that’s a good message for any young player.”

Facing a trial or tryout scenario can be a psychologically challenging experience for young players looking to make the jump from college to the professional ranks. However, Curtin’s message is valuable for nearly any player hoping to be selected to a team, recruited, or even trying to make the starting lineup. Learning how to mentally approach these experiences can play a key role in helping you perform well. First, it is important to view them as opportunities to show your strengths. Avoid dwelling on any possible outcome (i.e., making the team or not), and focus on the whole process. Second, many players become overwhelmed with the idea that they are being evaluated or tested in these situations, and they feel the need to drastically change their game to impress coaches or scouts. Instead, focus on what you do consistently well as a player. Be patient, because coaches are not making decisions based on any one spectacular play or any one mistake. In these situations, resist the temptation to try to do too much. Use your routine to help you remain consistent and focus on what you control by demonstrating good habits (i.e., effort, a positive attitude, and effective communication). Third, while you may feel nervous leading up to these opportunities, focus on how you are interpreting these nerves. View them as a sign that your body is preparing to compete. Some athletes like to think of this as getting their butterflies to “fly in formation.” It’s all about how you interpret and manage your emotions. Finally, in these situations, coaches want to see how you respond to adversity as a player. If you make a mistake, stay in the present moment and get back to focusing on what you know you do well. And above all, enjoy the opportunity you have in front of you. With more than a month of preseason before the Union’s first game against the Colorado Rapids, the new players have time to focus on, and enjoy, the process in front of them, and demonstrate to the coaching staff that they can contribute to the club’s goals this year.


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After Impressive Start to Season, Berahino “Soaks In” Pressure

After scoring only five goals in 32 games last year with West Bromwich Albion, Saido Berahino is currently enjoying an impressive start to this season with the club, and is starting to see the rewards. In West Brom’s first 11 matches, the 21-year-old striker has already scored seven times, and has added another three goals for the England Under-21 national team this year. As a result, he was recently called up to the country’s senior national team to make his debut in its upcoming qualifiers for the European championships. After moving to England as a 10-year old seeking asylum from his home country of Burundi, Berahino has played for nearly all of England’s youth national teams during his young career. In response to his most recent achievement and any possibility of increased pressure, Berahino exhibited some of the same composure he has shown in his finishing ability this season, including three goals from the penalty spot. “I don’t feel under pressure,” he said. “People put it on me but I just soak it in. I try to enjoy it. I am definitely mentally strong after what I have been through in life – I am a stronger person and a stronger character – nothing can be harder than that.”

It is no secret that players can perceive increased pressure as they move up in their competitive careers. Many players falsely assume that composure is only a natural ability – that some players are born able to cope with pressure, while others are not. While it may be the case that some are less influenced by pressure, there are strategies any player can use to cope with perceived pressure under different circumstances. Berahino’s response demonstrates several of these tools. First, one of the most effective means of coping with pressure involves reframing it as a challenge. Embrace whatever situation is in front of you and enjoy the opportunity to test yourself. Recognize that you have prepared well for the moment you are facing, and “soak in” any pressure as fuel to drive your performance. Whether you are preparing for a championship match, thinking about an upcoming tryout, or walking up to take a penalty kick, find some enjoyment in the moment. Viewing these situations as opportunities for yourself can help you manage any nerves or anxiety you may be feeling. Second, Berahino also demonstrates the value of identifying your past experiences as an individual, and recognizing that there have been times in the past when you have overcome challenges in the face of expectations or perceived pressure. Use these experiences as proof for yourself that you have what it takes to confront whatever is in front of you. Furthermore, consider how the opportunity ahead of you can provide a valuable learning experience for you as a player and a person, and focus on the process of that experience, rather than the outcome. Finally, acknowledge the individual strengths or qualities you have built up as a result of overcoming these challenges, and rely on those strengths to take advantage of the upcoming opportunity. Berahino’s continued ability to cope with pressure will go a long way in helping him earn further opportunities with England’s national team, and will help his club as it attempts to build on a solid start to the season.


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Froese Overcomes Nerves in MLS Debut

While the 2014 MLS season may be nearing an end, the careers of some players are just beginning. Vancouver Whitecaps Homegrown player Kianz Froese made his debut over the weekend in front of more than 55,000 fans in a pivotal away game against the Seattle Sounders. The 18-year-old earned his first MLS action as a halftime substitute, and played a strong 45 minutes to help the Whitecaps earn a 1-0 win. After the game, Froese acknowledged feeling nervous early on. “When [coach Carl Robinson] told me I was going in, my heart dropped. I was quite nervous for a bit, but the game settled down and then you slowly get into it…I’m just happy being part of the group and helping the guys win.” Froese’s coach and teammates were quick to praise the midfielder’s first MLS performance. “Sometimes it’s best learning in the toughest environments and [Friday] was the toughest environment for him to learn,” Robinson stated. “[He was] excellent. Hard work, determination, the kid can play.” Kekuta Manneh, the game’s lone goal scorer and the player Froese replaced, agreed with his coach. “He was exceptional when he came in,” Manneh said. “He did his job well and that’s what we can hope for. He’s a really good player and he just needs a little more minutes and you will see what he can do.

Froese’s performance provides an excellent example for young players on how to cope with nerves at any level of the game. While feelings of nervousness or anxiety are not a bad thing, they can negatively impact performance if you interpret them to be harmful. Whether you encounter them before or during a game, nerves and any related mental or physical sensations (i.e., worries or racing thoughts, shallow breathing, sweating, or upset stomach, etc.) are often indications that your body is getting ready to perform. Rather than interpreting nerves as a sign that you are not prepared to perform well, see them as a sign from your body that it is ready. Players who effectively cope with nerves or anxiety also maintain a focus on their strengths and what they can control leading up to, and throughout, the performance. Know your role on the field, reflect on your strengths as a player that allow you to perform that role well, and commit yourself to paying attention to details (e.g., hard work, communication, etc.) that can help you stay engaged in the present moment throughout the game. Recognize that you will probably make mistakes, and stay focused on how you will quickly recover in those situations, perhaps through the use of a refocusing cue (i.e., “Back to the moment” or “Here and now”). You can also help teammates cope with nervousness by providing communication on the field, encouraging them when they do something well, or providing effective feedback or guidance when they can improve. It is often the case that your efforts to help them stay composed will help you deal with your own nerves as well. Finally, as part of the reframing process in coping with nerves, enjoy the opportunity to test your abilities against other talented players. Whenever Froese sees the field again, either during the regular season or playoffs, he can draw confidence from his ability to cope with the pressure in his MLS debut, and continue to contribute to his team’s success.


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This Year’s La Liga Title: What Every Competitor Desires

On Saturday, the La Liga title will be decided in the final game of the season – a tantalizing matchup between the top two teams in the table, currently separated by only three points. Atlético Madrid holds the narrow lead over FC Barcelona, and will attempt to add silverware to an already-impressive campaign, by earning at least a draw at Camp Nou, while a Barcelona win at home would earn the Catalans the trophy on their head-to-head record this season. Until recently, many would have deemed this an uneven matchup. Barcelona have won a total of 22 league titles, and four in the last five years, while Atlético have only won 9 and are nearly two decades removed from their last trophy. Yet, the club from Madrid has recently arrived among Europe’s elite, and has held the edge for most of this year, despite Barcelona trying to defend its title. While the two teams are arguably comparable in talent, they are markedly dissimilar in tactical approach. In the five previous meetings between these two teams this season, Atlético has held a slight edge with four draws and a win in the Champions League quarterfinal second leg. However, Barcelona has owned a dominating margin in possession, averaging 71.2% of the ball across the five games, and completing three times as many of its passes in these games. Atlético is more direct in its style of play, while the Catalans have, historically, awed the football world with their mesmerizing tiki taka, through short passes and constant interchanging movement around the ball. “They are the best in defence, they pressurise you, support each other and have different options up front,” Barcelona midfielder Xavi says of Atlético. “It’s a historic opportunity…It’s a great final, a fantastic match. It would be the icing on the cake for this generation, playing such an important match as this.”

In any athletic context, the greatest competitors are often defined by an appreciation for the fiercely competitive, pressure-filled, high-profile environment of a game like this. Competitive players thrive in these opportunities and don’t back down from the prospect of testing their talents against the very best. This is not to say nerves are not a factor. As a player, it is normal to feel nervous or anxious for this type of game. However, your interpretation of these nerves, your mental approach to the competition, and your preparation will influence your performance. Know that nerves are your body’s signs of preparing to perform well, and find pride and confidence in your training up until this point. Compete with the knowledge that if you put in deliberate effort and focus in training, you will be well prepared for the game, and that the game will provide an opportunity to showcase your talents and test your ability against a worthy opponent. Before and during the game, it may be tempting to focus solely on the outcome – whether or not your team is victorious. However, take time to balance this desire to win with an understanding, and application, of a process-oriented approach. Know that these games typically bring out the best in the participants, and that by focusing on the process and what you can control (your individual role in the game, your effort, and your attitude), you will rise to this occasion. Above all, it is important to view these games as a challenge or opportunity. As the two Spanish sides take the field this Saturday to try and earn their first silverware of the season, the players’ ability to appreciate and thrive in this challenge will, in Xavi’s words, determine who comes up as champion in this historic game.


For Bortles, Poise and Composure Make the Difference

As professional basketball and hockey seasons draw to a close with their respective playoffs, NFL teams and recent college players are preparing to take their next step toward the fall season with the 2014 NFL Draft, which begins next Thursday, May 8, in New York City. One of the players projected to go early in this year’s selection process is University of Central Florida quarterback Blake Bortles – standing at a towering 6’5” and possessing all of the physical qualities NFL coaches desire. As a junior in the fall at UCF, Bortles passed for 3,581 yards and 25 touchdowns, and led his team to a 12-1 record and an upset win over sixth ranked Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl. The star quarterback wrapped up his career in Orlando with a 22-5 record in the games he started. However, the interest Bortles has drawn from NFL teams during this draft season has emerged largely due to intangible qualities not found on a stat sheet. Throughout his college career, and with all of the commotion and expectations surrounding this offseason (the combine, team interviews, pro-day, and the draft itself), Bortles has stood out from the crowd due to his composure under pressure. “I thrive on being poised,” Bortles said. “To me, it wasn’t hard at all. It was enjoyable…Everybody talked about how stressful the combine was going to be…I approached it with the attitude that I’m a football player. I throw the football. I want to show people what I can do.”

Bortles’ response to the pressure of this draft doesn’t necessarily mean that he has not felt nervous during this process. In competitive sports, athletes often feel some level of anxiety or nerves leading up to an important competition or tryout. But, these feelings do not have to be interpreted as a bad thing – or hurtful to your upcoming performance. In fact, just like you warm up before a competition to get your muscles loose and ready, your body warms up in anticipation of intense activity; so, nerves are just your body’s warm-up. You can learn to manage pressure and nerves by training yourself to interpret your nerves as a signal that your body is preparing to compete. Rather than perceiving nerves as a sign that you are not ready, you can use those feelings as fuel to help you compete with focus and intensity.

To train yourself to interpret your nerves as helpful to your performance, start by shifting your mindset about them. Embrace the notion that nerves are just a warm-up. Like Bortles, try to have an attitude that pressure situations are your chance to showcase your skills. You can use self-talk like “I’m ready for this” or “It’s my time.” Also, reflect back on other situations in which you performed well under pressure. Use these images, and your training, to remind you that you have what it takes to succeed, even when the stakes are high. Perceiving games, meets, races, competitions, or tryouts as occasions to do what you love at your highest potential will allow you to focus on what you can control as an athlete: your physical and mental preparation, hard work and your attitude. As Bortles turns to next week to find out the direction of his professional career, he can find further comfort and composure in the knowledge that, according to ESPN senior writer Jeffri Chadiha, “He’s the kind of quarterback every NFL team covets: one who sees pressure as an opportunity to prove that he belongs at the highest level of his sport.”


Sidney Crosby: The Perception of Pressure

This past weekend, the medal round of Men’s Ice Hockey served as one of the final events of the 2014 Winter Olympics. After beating the United States 1-0 on Friday, the Canadian men’s hockey team was preparing for the gold medal game against Sweden. Heading into the final game, Canadian hockey player Sidney Crosby addressed any nerves he and his teammates might have been feeling by saying, “You want to win, you want to produce, but I think you go out there and leave it all out there and trust that your game will take over individually and as a team. I think we [team Canada] always feel pressure, individually I always feel that, but that’s not a bad thing”. For some players, the pressure to perform and succeed in a game can bring about nerves or anxiety. How players handle these nerves can significantly impact their performance.

How do you perceive the pressure you feel prior to a big game? When you feel your heart racing or your palms getting clammy, do you believe your body is telling you that you are ready, or that you are unprepared? The impact of nerves or anxiety on performance is largely dependent on your interpretation of those feelings, which is influenced by the training and preparation you put in prior to competition. As you prepare to play, your body experiences activation. Players can interpret this activation, or nerves, as being helpful or hurtful to performance. For example, consider games when you might have perceived nerves to be an indication that you were not prepared to play. This could have resulted in a poor performance if you were not feeling confident or prepared. On the other hand, consider games when you interpreted nerves or anxiety as a signal that your body was gearing up to be ready to perform at your best. Interpreting this activation in your body as being helpful to performance and reminding yourself of your preparation often lead to a strong performance. So, listen to your body and be aware of the how you feel prior to competition. Try to interpret that activation as helpful to performance – your body is getting you ready to compete. Then, the next time you experience those feelings, remind yourself that they are your body’s way of saying you are ready. As Crosby explains, feeling pressure isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It all depends on your interpretation of this pressure and the nerves that might come with it. If you have put in the necessary preparation to play at a high level, these nerves are often reassuring you that you are ready to perform, and that you can trust those feelings of activation.


Knowing your nerves

It’s that time of year again. Starting this Saturday at 4pm at PPL Park, the 2013 MLS Regular Season will begin for the Philadelphia Union. The Union will host Sporting Kansas City, marking the eighth meeting between the two clubs. The team has been training together throughout preseason and is gearing up for their first season game.

Games, especially season openers, could cause players to experience some nerves or anxiety. When thinking about anxiety, players should understand that it’s not the nerves themselves that matter; what matters is how players interpret their nerves. For example, a player who teaches him/herself to understand that pre-game nerves are the body’s way of saying “I’m ready” could interpret nerves as facilitative to performance. On the other hand, a player who doesn’t grasp this idea might interpret pre-game nerves as a sign that he/she is not ready to play at his/her best.

Creating a pre-game routine can help a player who feels nervous before games learn to interpret those nerves as helpful to performance. A routine is a list of steps you follow before a training session or a game to get yourself into the mindset that helps you perform at your best. Parts of your routine may include listening to a certain music playlist, doing certain physical and mental warm ups, or talking with a friend. Anything that gets you in the proper mindset and makes you feel confident before a game could be part of your routine. Find what works for you. Routines work best when they’re practiced and used regularly. Therefore, when it comes to season openers, establishing a routine during preseason could help players know how to get themselves into the right mental state and interpret their nerves as helpful to performance.

Before your next season opener or regular season game, take a minute to be mindful of the nerves you may be experiencing. Reflect on what these nerves may be telling you. Are they telling you that you’re confident for the upcoming game? Or, are they telling you that you don’t feel ready? Either way, you can rely on your pre-game routine to help you prepare for the upcoming match and determine what, if any, steps you need to take to make sure you’re prepared.