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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Wenger Ends Nine-Month Scoring Drought

When the Philadelphia Union took on the Portland Timbers at PPL Park on Saturday, it had been exactly nine months to the day since Andrew Wenger last scored a goal. That streak came to an end in the 69th minute when he scored from outside the box to give Philadelphia its first goal in an eventual 3-0 win. Speaking to reporters after the game, Wenger admitted that his inability to score this season has, at times, been mentally challenging. “There’s been good days and there’s been bad days,” he said. “And there’s probably been a few more bad days than good. But that’s the life of a soccer player or an athlete… you just try to move forward.” Wenger also credited head coach Jim Curtin for showing confidence in him throughout his scoreless streak. “[He told me] ‘you’re a good player, just keep going. Just keep after it. Keep moving forward.’ And that’s all you really can do…some of the best players out there, that’s all they’ve ever done.” After the game, Curtin acknowledged the importance of Wenger’s goal, but also pointed to other ways in which he has contributed this season, even if they weren’t readily visible on a stat sheet. “He’s gotten good looks this year; nothing has seemed to go in for him,” Curtin said. “But I still see the guy from preseason…the little things that he does…he won probably ten head balls tonight off goal kicks, he fights defensively…he protects [left back] Fabinho, he does a good job making Fabi’s job a lot easier…he’s doing a lot of the dirty running…Every good pro goes through moments of dips in form, and how you respond to it is how you’re judged. It’s easy to quit and bail out, but the good ones, the ones who belong and stick in this league and have great careers are the ones that can deal with that.”

Wenger’s ability to overcome his scoreless streak is a testament to his accountability, his patience, and his commitment to focusing on the controllables. While a “slump” like this can certainly be frustrating and even overwhelming as a player, there are steps you can take to help you manage, and ultimately overcome, any rough patch. First, it’s important to take ownership over the part of your game that is giving you trouble. Facing a “slump”, many players fall into the habit of blaming anyone but themselves for their substandard performance. While it may be true that a teammate’s performance, a coach’s decisions, or even blind luck can play a role in whether or not, as an attacking player, you’re scoring goals, blaming your performance on any one of these factors will do you no good. Instead, being accountable for your struggles allows you to take steps to overcome them. Second, having taken ownership, identify specific ways to work on whatever part of your game needs improvement. Set process goals, or daily objectives, that determine how you will specifically go about bettering this aspect of your performance. Third, whether you’re working to rediscover your scoring touch or improve your 1v1 defending, also take time to identify other areas of your game that can make you effective on the field. Wenger received praise from his coach for his effort in winning defensive headers, his discipline in making a teammate’s job easier, and his commitment to doing the “dirty running”. Likewise, pinpoint small ways in which you can make a positive impact on or off the field. Ultimately, overcoming a “slump” comes down to recognizing that “how you respond to it is how you’re judged.” Wenger may not score in every game moving forward, but his accountability, his patience, and his commitment to focusing on the controllables will help him cope with whatever adversity he may face.


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Hall Focused on Returning a “Better Goalkeeper” Than Before

After suffering a torn ACL in his right knee last August while playing for the Houston Dynamo, goalkeeper Tally Hall knew he was in for a long recovery process. During that time, he was traded to Orlando City, an MLS expansion club preparing for its inaugural season. Now, nine months after his injury, the two-time MLS All-Star is preparing to make his return to the field at a time when his new club might very much need him, having started the season with only two wins out of its first ten games. Hall, who helped lead Houston to two consecutive MLS Cup Finals in 2011 and 2012, recognizes that it’s ultimately his coach’s decision on when he returns to the field, but feels confident that he has controlled what he could throughout the process. “I feel very comfortable in practice. I feel like I can explode going both ways… my movement isn’t hindered at all,” Hall said. “My job is to work hard and try to be the best goalkeeper on this team. When coach deems that to be the case, then I’ll be playing.” Throughout his recovery, Hall has focused his energy not on getting back to his old self, but on returning better than he was before. “For me, it’s been an opportunity to refocus, reenergize, get a different mindset on how I approach the game,” he said. “I think what I’m doing now is going to prepare me to be a better goalkeeper than what I was doing a year ago.”

No matter how severe, being injured is never easy. As a player, it’s normal to feel frustrated and even helpless dealing with something that can, at times, seem fundamentally out of your control. It’s common to hear things like “be patient” and “stay positive” throughout an injury, but this is certainly never easy, and the mental challenges can at times be more difficult than the physical ones. With any injury, accept the fact that your body will heal at its own speed, and recognize that your doctor, athletic trainer, and coach will make many of the decisions regarding whether or not you are fit to play again. In the meantime, acknowledge what is out of your control, and choose to focus on what is within your control. Communicate frequently with your trainer and coach to set realistic goals for yourself. Commit yourself fully to the physical therapy, and ask about other ways that can possibly help accelerate the physical recovery process, such as changing your nutrition or sleep habits. Hall’s approach to his own injury demonstrates the importance of viewing recovery as an opportunity for reconditioning, as opposed to rehabilitation. In other words, injuries, as frustrating as they might be, open the door for you to work on different parts of your game (e.g., leadership, tactical understanding of your position, other forms of fitness, etc.) that could help you return to the field a better player – physically and mentally – than you were before you left. Also, recognize that, despite your absence from the field, you can still fill an important role within the team. Use your time away from the field to be a leader, both vocally and by example. When you’re watching training or games from the sideline, offer encouragement and feedback to players on the field. Take seriously the physical exercises you’re able to do, while remaining as patient as possible, because while you understandably want to play as soon as possible, your teammates and coaches are relying on you to be at your best when you do return. Even after nine months, Hall’s job isn’t done, as he must earn his spot back in the lineup. Nevertheless, having navigated many of the physical and mental challenges of a long reconditioning process, he is well prepared to cope with any further challenges or lingering frustrations that he might face.


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After Great Start to Career, Jamieson Must Remain Process-Focused and Patient

On Sunday, LA Galaxy fans got their second glimpse of Bradford Jamieson IV this season, in the 18-year-old striker’s second ever MLS start, and for the second week in a row, he didn’t disappoint. Last week against Sporting KC, Jamieson impressed coaches, teammates, and fans in his first MLS start, but was unable to score. On Sunday afternoon against the New York Red Bulls, however, the young forward scored the Galaxy’s only goal on a brilliant individual effort only nine minutes into the game. Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena has been pleased with Jamieson’s first two starts, but pointed out the importance of being patient when it comes to young players. “He’s doing well,” Arena said. “Let’s wait awhile. Let’s not get crazy like everybody does every time a young player does something right. It’s a long haul in becoming a player. He’s many years away from being where we would like him to be and where he’s going to be. So let’s just be patient and see what happens down the road.” Jamieson was quick to agree, and recognized that there will be ups and downs ahead of him. “Obviously, the next game is going to be even harder, because you’ve got expectations now,” he said. “And every game after that is going to be the same kind of battle, where you’re trying to impress fans and impress coaches and keep your confidence up…And there’s going to be games maybe where it’s not as good as the other ones have been. The best thing to do there is bounce back and play like I played before.”

Arena’s response to Jamieson’s early success at the professional level shows the importance of focusing on the process of training and competing as a player and remaining patient throughout your development. Young players can often get caught up in allowing success or failure (outcomes) to dictate their mentality on a day-to-day basis. Some players can make a mistake in thinking that the road becomes smooth after you’ve been selected for an academy team, called into national camp, or earned a professional opportunity. Likewise, others can see a single setback as a sign that they won’t make it as a soccer player. Instead, as is the case with any sort of success or failure, it is important to remain patient and focused on the process in order to manage these ups and downs. First, recognize that, like always, you will continue to have good days and bad ones. There will be times when your touch isn’t quite right, or you’re not feeling 100% physically, or as a striker, you’re struggling through a goalless streak. Likewise, there will be very successful periods, when things are going very well. Regardless, it is important to keep a level head and remain patient during these times, while also managing the emotions (highs or lows) that come with accomplishments and setbacks. Second, recognize that the process does not change, no matter what the outcome is. For example, just because you’ve reached one achievement, it doesn’t mean that the work stops or that your focus can drop. Likewise, a single setback does not mean that your career is doomed. In either case, continue doing the things that have brought you success in the past, by focusing on what you can control. Pay attention to the details, and prepare yourself physically and mentally on a regular basis so that you are ready to perform at your best in any game. Finally, when it comes to evaluating your performance, avoid evaluating yourself based on outcomes. Instead, do so based on the process of your development, by focusing on your strengths and working on your weaknesses. At 18 years old, Jamieson potentially has a long professional career ahead of him, and it will be important for him to stay patient and process-focused in order to manage the highs and lows and get the most out of his potential.


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Chicharito Seizes the Moment After Coping Through Limited Playing Time

On Wednesday night, Real Madrid joined Juventus, Bayern Munich, and Barcelona as the four teams left competing for this year’s Champions League title, with a 1-0 win over cross-town rival, Atlético Madrid. With Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema both sidelined due to injury, Javier “Chicharito” Hernández earned a rare opportunity to start, and scored the winner in the 88th minute off an assist from Cristiano Ronaldo. It was a typically opportunistic performance from Hernández, who, after being loaned to Real Madrid from Manchester United last September, has spent most of this season on the bench. Nevertheless, in only 421 minutes this year, Hernández has still managed to score four goals, and made the most of his opportunity again on Wednesday, after creating several scoring chances and problems for Atlético’s backline. After the game, Real Madrid head coach Carlo Ancelotti recognized that Hernández deserved the goal. “I have to congratulate him,” Ancelotti said. “He has had a difficult year, but he has fought and he has suffered. He deserves it.” During his time with United, Hernández received similar praise from Sir Alex Ferguson, who once said, “[Chicharito’s] such a great professional. He never complains.” And on Wednesday, despite scoring the goal that earned Real Madrid a spot in the Champions League semifinals, Hernández maintained his professionalism and humility in typical fashion: “It felt great to score but the goal is for the team and the fans.”

In a game with countless egos and many players who complain when things don’t go their way, Chicharito provides an outstanding example of someone who remains patient for individual opportunities and puts his club first. What does it take to embody this type of professionalism during frustrating times, while also being opportunistic and seizing the moment when it arises? There’s no denying that spending a lot of time on the bench can be incredibly frustrating for anyone. At times, it may even seem unfair given the effort and dedication you are putting in on a daily basis. But circumstances like this come down to acknowledging what you can’t control, and focusing on what you can. Professionalism during these moments means continuing to put forth your best effort during training, and to maintain respect for your teammates and coaches on and off the field. Players who complain publicly under these circumstances accomplish nothing, and often trigger conflict within a team. As a player, instead focus your energy on whatever role you are asked to fulfill. On the training ground, continue to strengthen your weaknesses and build on your strengths. On and off the field, support the teammates who are getting playing time, and encourage those who, like you, are dealing with the frustration of time on the bench. Being a leader during these times, maintaining a positive attitude and high levels of effort and focus in training, and continuing to focus on what you can control are the best ways to ensure that you are ready when opportunities do arise. When you do earn the opportunity to play, recognize your role in the upcoming game, the strengths you bring to the field, and the steps you need to take to physically and mentally prepare to perform your best. While Hernández has never been known to stand out in games like a Ronaldo, Benzema, or Bale, he consistently gets himself into the right spots. And when the moment arises, his hunger, preparation, and hard work allow him to capitalize. Along with his individual success, earning this type of praise and recognition from the likes of Ancelotti and Ferguson shows that good things often come to those who are patient and maintain the highest standards of professionalism.



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One Year Later, Rogers Still Coping With Challenges of a New Role

When Robbie Rogers made the switch to play as an outside back for the LA Galaxy nine months ago after playing his entire career as a winger, many were impressed to see how quickly he acclimated to the position. It didn’t take long for him to earn a starting spot, and he played a major role in helping the Galaxy claim the 2014 MLS Cup. The start of his second year in the backline, however, has not been as easy. Rogers has been partially responsible for three out of the four goals that opponents have scored in the Galaxy’s first four games. After training on Tuesday, the 27-year-old spoke with reporters about the mistakes in his recent performances. “It’s just been a little weird,” he said. “There’s like little moments where I think my decision making hasn’t been as good as I want it. … It’s been a little frustrating because it’s just little mistakes that make a big difference…It’s a little disheartening…I just need to kind of take a step back and see and learn from these…and progress going forward…I want to be a good defender, and that’s my position now, so I need to learn from these.” Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena acknowledged the importance of Rogers finding his consistency again, but emphasized the learning process. “He’s been inconsistent,” Arena said. “He’s got to be steadier than he’s shown…[but] I think you’ve still got to accept the fact that he’s played this position for a little over a year, if that. There’s still a learning curve to it.

Adaptability and confidence are two of the most important mental tools for any player transitioning into a new position (see link for previous blog above). However, what happens when that transition does not go as smoothly or as quickly as you would like? What happens when, nearly a year later, you are still making “little mistakes that make a big difference” in your new role? Under these circumstances, some players may encounter a decline in confidence. For Rogers, and any other player faced with these challenges, it is important to remain objective in these moments and recognize that any learning process will have ebbs and flows. There will be times when things come easily for you and you make huge strides in your new role, and there will also be times when it all seems unnatural, and you are making some of the errors that you thought were behind you. Don’t be afraid to seek out feedback in these moments. Talk with the coaching staff and teammates, watch game film if possible, and reflect on your recent performances, to determine specific things you can do to build your consistency in that role. As soon as you stop seeking out ways to learn how to be more effective (even after years of playing in a position), your improvement in a new role will plateau. Think about what helped you to have success in this position in the past – for example, this could be making your game as simple as possible – and watch other players in this role to see if you can pull new useful information about how to be more effective there. Come up with performance and process goals that will add new dimensions to your game and give you a plan of action for how you’ll improve. Lastly, recognize that every training session and every game is merely a chance to grow as a player. View success as evidence that you are improving, and see mistakes as opportunities for learning more. With a long season ahead, Rogers has plenty of time to gain his consistency again, as long as he remains committed to the learning process.


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It Happens to the Best: Di Maria Struggles Through Recent Poor Performances

Despite a very strong start to his time as a Manchester United player, Angel di Maria is facing a recent drop in form that has led to criticism from fans and the media. So far this season, the 27-year-old Argentine midfielder has only scored three goals across 19 Premier League matches, and has struggled to stay fit, having been sidelined on several occasions with injuries. In United’s 2-0 win over Sunderland on Saturday, Di Maria was replaced at halftime, after not performing well in the game’s first 45 minutes. In response to questions over his teammate’s performance, United’s captain Wayne Rooney noted that it was only a matter of time before Di Maria returns to the form he displayed early in the season. “It was just one of those days that every footballer has,” Rooney said after the game. “He is a great player, he has shown that and you don’t lose your talent overnight…He has got a lot of experience and I think he will figure it out…We all have to do that sometimes. There is nothing worse than when everyone keeps going on at you…You have to come to it in your own way and I am sure he will be a big player for us between now and the end of the season.”

Being able to manage the ebbs and flows of performance is an important part of any player’s mental game. No matter how hard you train or how well you prepare, there will be days when your touch is off, you struggle to find your rhythm on the field, or you just can’t seem to get a technical or tactical part of your performance right. As a striker, perhaps you haven’t scored in several consecutive matches, despite numerous opportunities. In these moments, it is easy for players to become critical of, and overly frustrated with, themselves. While this may be your initial reaction, try to step back from some of the emotion you feel, and be objective. Evaluate your recent performances, and determine whether or not some controllable aspect of your game needs to be changed. It may be that you are not quite physically or mentally ready to perform at a high level when you step onto the field, in which case, you could tweak your pre-performance routine. Perhaps you struggle to stay focused during the game, and a refocusing cue could provide a trigger that helps you snap back to the present moment. Maybe you find that your performance tends to drop after making a mistake early in the game, and you need to examine how you respond to these moments. If you find that you are enjoying the game less because you are so focused on trying to perform well, what steps can you take to enjoy yourself on the field again?

Beyond doing what you can to focus on what you can control (i.e., routines, refocusing cues, coping with mistakes), patience is important. Recognizing that “you don’t lose your talent overnight,” and knowing that even the top players in the world go through times like this can help you cope with the feeling that you may never perform well again. Rooney’s response in this situation shows that, as a teammate, you can play an important role in helping another player deal with the frustrations of one or more poor performances. If you notice a teammate struggling, recognize that you have been or will be in their shoes at some point, and do what you can to provide your support and encouragement. Ask them if there is anything you can do, such as working with them after training, to help them get back to their best. Di Maria is undoubtedly one of the top midfielders in the world, and his return to form, while inevitable, requires patience and a continued commitment to the parts of his game that are under his control.



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