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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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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Carli Lloyd’s Mental Preparation Culminates in World Cup Title and Golden Boot

Four years ago, when Carli Lloyd stepped up for the second penalty kick in a shootout to decide the 2011 World Cup final against Japan, she was visibly nervous. The pressure of the moment seemed to overcome the U.S. midfielder, who watched her shot sail high over the crossbar. In the four years since then, Lloyd has focused on better preparing herself for those moments, and has developed a rigorous mental routine leading up to games, consisting of meditation, visualization, and music. Fans around the world got to enjoy the result of that preparation on Sunday: a 16-minute hat trick by Lloyd that sparked a dominating 5-2 win over Japan, earning the U.S. its third World Cup title. “Over the years and definitely over the last four years, I’ve taken that visualization part to another level,” Lloyd told reporters last week prior to the final. “I’ve basically visualized so many different things on the field, making these big plays, scoring goals.” Lloyd’s six goals throughout the tournament seem to suggest that this preparation has paid off. “I basically zoned out the entire world except for the net, the ball, and myself,” she said, referring to her game-winning penalty kick in last Tuesday’s semifinal win over Germany. This mental preparation has also helped Lloyd develop an appreciation for the big moments. “I think there’s a switch that kinda goes off inside of me when there’s a big match, when there’s something big on the line…those are the moments that I live for…everything that goes into my training, it’s for those big moments…it’s for the final when everyone is tired and I’m still able to continue to empty that tank.”

Many players fail to devote sufficient time towards building their mental game before competition. Like any physical, technical, or tactical aspect of your game, mental preparation requires commitment and repetition. You can begin building an effective pre-performance routine by testing out different techniques to determine which ones work for you, and then engaging in them consistently on game day. An effective routine can incorporate any number of mental strategies, including self-talk, centered breathing, body scans to promote a state of relaxed alertness, meditation, yoga, visualization, and listening to music. The use of visualization, or imagery, for example, involves creating mental pictures of different scenarios you’ll face during competition, and imagining yourself performing well in those situations. In order to use imagery most effectively, try to incorporate as many different senses as possible (i.e., sight, sound, smell, etc.) into the mental picture to make the experience vivid and game-like. Like Lloyd, many players also include music in their pre-game routine, to help them manage their arousal or activation level before a performance. As for your choice in music, like most aspects of your preparation, it’s important to find what works for you, depending on whether you prefer to be pumped up or more relaxed (Lloyd revealed last week that she listens to Mumford & Sons and Ed Sheeran before games). Regardless of the strategies that go into your routine, remember to be flexible and adaptable. Unlike rituals or superstitions, routines are designed to help you prepare mentally to perform at a high level – they do not cause you to perform well, nor does having to change part of your routine cause you to perform poorly. Above all, mental preparation should involve focusing on what you can control, and staying in the present moment (rather than dwelling on the past or worrying about a future outcome). With a regular commitment to developing the mental side of her game, Lloyd has gradually turned the big moments into the ones she “lives for”, and as a result, has helped the USWNT earn its third World Cup trophy.

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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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Columbus Crew Players Stay Relaxed and Adaptable Through Rain Delay

Saturday night’s game between the Columbus Crew and LA Galaxy, originally scheduled for 7:30 PM, was delayed by severe thunderstorms in Ohio, and both teams faced the challenge of waiting for over two hours in the locker room before returning to the field for kickoff. According to an MLS report, Crew players found a unique way to occupy their time, in an attempt to stay “mentally sharp” while waiting things out. In a “Header Challenge” video posted to Instagram by midfielder Hector Jimenez (see link below), some of the players sat in the locker room in two rows of chairs facing each other. They attempted to move the ball from one side of the room into a trash bin at the other by heading it back and forth between the two rows. The video shows the room erupting in celebration when midfielder Ethan Finlay dropped the final header into the bin. Despite going down a goal after the game finally started just before 10 PM, Columbus secured a 1-1 tie against the defending MLS Cup Champions, the club’s first comeback of the season.

Situations like this delay can often be challenging for players, because while you don’t want to relax too much and completely lose focus during the downtime, you also don’t want to exhaust yourself by spending two hours pumping yourself up to perform. While the Crew’s response may have been unorthodox, it shows the importance of being flexible and adaptable when it comes to your physical and mental preparation for games. Pre-performance routines (i.e., stretching, listening to music, imagery, self-talk, etc.) give you consistent ways of preparing your body and mind to be able to perform at a high level during competition. However, what happens when something unexpected (i.e., weather, dead iPod battery, etc.) disrupts your routine and you need to modify your preparation? Many players in this situation can feel overwhelmed or anxious about the prospect of having to change things, but while it’s important to use a routine consistently, it’s equally important to be flexible and adaptable if the situation calls for it. The strategy used by some of the Crew players in managing Saturday’s rain delay provided a way of passing the time, while doing something together as a team and maintaining positive attitudes and a lighthearted atmosphere. Watching the short video, though, also notice that there were some players who sat to the side watching and chose not to participate in the activity. In other words, it’s equally important to understand your individual needs as a player in these moments. When it comes to managing unexpected disruptions to your pre-performance routine, develop a plan of action for yourself, based on how you like to feel to be able to perform at your best when the time comes. If you need to feel relaxed, this might mean listening to music or using some imagery or deep breathing exercises. If you know that you tighten up under these circumstances, find ways to stay loose without exhausting yourself. While there will undoubtedly be more unexpected distractions that threaten to disrupt pre-game preparation in the future, the Crew players can know that they have successfully coped with such challenges in the past and can do so again.

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Fagundez Seizes Opportunity Through Preparation and Deliberate Practice

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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Pre-Game Routine Gives Curry Confidence for Any Shot

At 58-13, the Golden State Warriors currently own the best record in the NBA. Much of this season’s success can be attributed to Stephen Curry, who, at 23.4 points and 7.9 assists per game, is one of the frontrunners for league MVP. Having previously set the NBA record for three-pointers in a season, some have begun to call the 27-year-old point guard one of the best shooters in NBA history. “I’m never afraid of a shot…never,” Curry said after the team’s most recent win over the Washington Wizards. This confidence to shoot is no accident. Before every game, Curry runs through a detailed routine on the court, in which he often takes more than 180 shots. “Once you step on the court for that 15-minute session, that kind of starts the game process,” Curry said. See the video below for highlights of Curry’s routine before Monday’s game against Washington:

Pre-performance routines are an excellent way to focus on what you control as an athlete. Readying yourself physically and mentally to perform at your best comes down to finding a pre-game process that works for you, and helps you feel comfortable before your performance. There is no such thing as a good or bad routine. Instead, it should meet your needs and be effective. Whatever you choose to do in your pre-performance routine, the goal should be finding consistency and increasing your comfort before competition. The video above shows that Curry builds his routine around different situations he will face during the game: “Five minutes of ball handling, just get warm, get your hands kind of used to the ball. Then… get some flip shots and runners, just to work on your touch. Hopefully, you start close to the basket; you see the ball going in a lot more. Then it’s just working around the arc in five spots—catch-and-shoot, off-the-dribble and then shooting threes.”

Developing your own pre-performance routine has a lot to do with finding what works for you as an athlete. Reflect on how you feel when you’re performing at your best. One player may prefer to be pumped up and excited, while another performs well when he or she is relaxed. Listening to a certain type of music, or engaging in certain exercises (e.g., stretching, yoga, a light run, etc.) can help you reach a level of physical and mental readiness that is appropriate for you. As an athlete, it’s also important to recognize the difference between a routine and a ritual. Rituals, much like superstitions, are things you feel you need to do before a game to be at your best (e.g., putting your right shoe on first, listening to the same song exactly three times before leaving the locker room, etc.). Players may engage in a ritual because they believe that it causes them to perform well, rather than helps them be as prepared as possible to perform well. This undermines the notion of focusing on what you control and may lead you to think that you will only be at your best if the right circumstances align. Therefore, recognize that it is important to be flexible with your routine, and know that you can still perform at your best if you put your left shoe on first, or your iPod battery dies. As the Warriors head into the final stretch of the regular season having already locked up a playoff spot, Curry’s preparation before each game will help him stay consistent when his team needs it the most.

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