Having lost to the LA Galaxy in last year’s MLS Cup final, players and coaches on the New England Revolution had been looking forward to Sunday’s rematch at home in Massachusetts. Unfortunately for the Revs, however, the club was missing two of its best midfielders – veterans Chris Tierney and Lee Nguyen – after both received red cards last week. Nguyen and Tierney are also the first options to take set pieces for New England, and so, when the Revs earned a free kick outside the 18-yard box in the 37th minute on Sunday, it was 20-year-old midfielder Diego Fagundez who stepped up to take it. With the Galaxy leading 2-1, Fagundez lined up and curled a ball over the wall and in, helping the Revs secure a 2-2 tie against the defending champions. According to New England head coach Jay Heaps, the ability to execute a rare set piece opportunity when it mattered most came down to the Fagundez’s preparation. “Diego does those in practice quite a bit,” said Heaps. “This week he’d been really good on set pieces and I think that was something that we were looking forward to.” Speaking to reporters after the game, Fagundez said he developed a comfort from repeatedly hitting balls from a similar distance, and after making one in Sunday’s pre-game warmup, he knew he’d be ready if the opportunity arose. “Yesterday [in training] I probably hit it, maybe 30 times right from that spot,” the midfielder said. “Then today, right before warmups I hit one and I stopped with that one.”
When it comes to improving their mental game, players often hear the phrase “focus on what you control,” whether this refers to how you handle playing in a new position, how you react to a mistake, or how you manage your emotions after a bad call. However, before facing any of this in competition, focusing on what you control starts, first and foremost, with your preparation during training sessions or on your own. One of the ways to get the most out of this preparation is to engage in something called “deliberate practice” when you train. Practicing deliberately means having a purpose when you step onto the training field. Rather than simply going through the motions on any given day, treat every moment you are on the field as an opportunity to become a better player. Start by setting process goals for yourself for each training session. Identify what you want to work on – perhaps one of your weaknesses or something you can improve on from the previous game – and more importantly, identify how you will go about working on it. Another way to practice deliberately is to actually visualize yourself performing in game-like situations. Many players perform better in training than they do in games because they put less pressure on themselves in training and, therefore, are naturally more composed and confident. But, when they get to the game, their training has not necessarily prepared them for the intensity of competition. Therefore, when you are training with your team or even on your own, try to imagine yourself in realistic game scenarios. For example, if you are practicing free kicks, imagine a wall of players in front of you, the goalkeeper moving along the goal line, and the noise of the crowd as you step back to take it. Finally, recognize that deliberate practice does not mean that you cannot enjoy yourself during training. Hold yourself to “game-like” standards when it comes to your effort and focus, but be sure to enjoy the opportunity you get to play. Doing this on a daily basis will help you carry the same intensity, passion, and enjoyment onto the field when it comes time to perform during games. For Fagundez, who has struggled for playing time this season, engaging in deliberate practice will help him be physically and mentally prepared to execute whenever the opportunities do arise.
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