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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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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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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NYRB Remain Objective: Need Better “Mentality From the Kickoff”

With a 1-1 draw against the Colorado Rapids on Wednesday night, the New York Red Bulls maintained an undefeated start to the 2015 MLS season. Despite the strong start, however, many of the players are not satisfied with the team’s performance at times over the past few weeks. For the fourth time this season, New York conceded the game’s first goal, after Colorado forward Gabriel Torres scored in the 25th minute. While the Red Bulls were able to salvage a point with a penalty kick before halftime, the early deficit forced the team to change its tactics and dig itself out of a hole. Midfielder Lloyd Sam acknowledged that this has been an issue for the team in recent years. “I remember we’ve had this problem in the past at this club…we’re giving ourselves a mini mountain to climb. We normally get a goal back but it’s too much to get another goal…one of these days it’s going to be too much to bounce back.” Fellow midfielder Sacha Kljestan says that breaking this habit starts with the team’s mentality from the first whistle. “It’s getting annoying,” Kljestan said to reporters after the game. “It’s not the way we want to start games. I think it just comes down to a little bit of focus. Our mentality has been so good to come back, but it’s like ‘Why are we putting ourselves in those positions?’ Sometimes it comes down to individual plays, sometimes it comes down to just having a good mentality from the kickoff.”

It might be surprising to hear members of the New York Red Bulls express dissatisfaction over the team’s form, given that they are the only undefeated MLS club at this point in the season. However, it demonstrates how to remain objective about your performance as a team or an individual player, no matter how much success you are having. Being objective as a player means that you take time to reflect on what has been going well for you, as well as what parts of your game still need improvement.
Through his evaluation, Kljestan recognized the importance of having a strong start to a game, in order to avoid digging a hole and having to fight back. In order for a team to do this, all players need to be physically and mentally tuned in when the first whistle blows. Start by recognizing how you like to feel in order to perform at your best when you step onto the field. Some players like to be calm and relaxed, while others prefer to be pumped up and excited to perform well. Pre-performance routines, including skills such as self-talk or mental imagery, can be effective ways to consistently get your mind and body to a state at which you are prepared to perform at your best when the game starts. Self-talk involves your inner dialogue with yourself. It can be instructional (e.g., “I need to force my opponent to her left because she is right-footed”) or motivational (e.g., “I’ve prepared for this game, and I’m going to shut my opponent down”). Also, imagery involves creating a mental picture of your upcoming performance. You can use imagery before competition by visualizing your role, the teammates you’ll need to communicate with throughout the game, and your plan for recovering quickly from mistakes. Visualize yourself starting the game confident and focused on what you need to do to be successful. In order for imagery to be most effective, use as many different senses as possible to create a vivid mental image. Having identified a part of their game that needs improvement, players on the New York Red Bulls now have an opportunity to figure out how they will individually and collectively prepare for games in the future in order to allow them to be as physically and mentally ready to perform as possible from the very beginning.

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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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Real Sociedad and Valencia Earn Impressive Wins Over La Liga’s Best

There were two surprising results over the weekend in La Liga action, as the top two teams were beaten on the road by smaller clubs. League leaders Real Madrid gave up a one-goal lead and fell 2-1 to Valencia (4th place), while Barcelona (2nd place) were beaten 1-0 by Real Sociedad, a club currently in 13th. Sociedad’s win over Barcelona was particularly impressive, as the club has now earned wins over the top three teams in Spain this season, after previously beating both Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid at home. In Sunday’s win over Barcelona, an early own goal by Barca defender Jordi Alba gave Sociedad a 1-0 lead, which the club protected for 88 minutes to earn a massive three points. David Moyes, who took over as Sociedad’s manager in November, was full of praise for his team’s ability to match up against the league’s best. “It is the happiest night since I arrived in San Sebastian. We worked very hard. The players showed courage and defended incredibly,” said Moyes. “This team has shown it is capable in the big games against the best teams in the league.”

As a player, part of pushing yourself to become better involves testing your abilities against the very best competition you can find. These games can often cause many players to feel more nervous than usual, and fearful of the likelihood of losing against a more talented opponent. Many coaches and players recommend seeing these matchups just like any other game. While it is true that your physical and mental preparation should remain consistent regardless of your competition, it is okay to acknowledge that one opponent may be more challenging than another. Instead of fearing this challenge, accept it, and view each of these games as an opportunity, rather than something to shy away from. If you want to become a top team or a top player, you must be able to compete with, and beat, the very best. Your preparation for doing so starts with focusing on what you can control. Rather than dwelling on possible outcomes of the game, focus your attention on the process. This is where a pre-performance routine can be especially helpful. If you have an effective pre-performance routine, refine it to focus on what you need to specifically do to beat a talented opponent, but resist the temptation to make significant changes, just because you are facing tough competition. Identify, and rely on, what has worked for you in the past – and draw confidence from this past success. Heading into Sunday’s match against Barcelona, Real Sociedad had not lost against the Catalans at home in six previous meetings. Recognizing that you’ve had success like this on prior occasions can boost your belief that you can do so again. As Sociedad attempt to climb further up the league table, Moyes’s men can continue to draw courage and confidence from their ability to match up against the best Spain has to offer.

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Murray Battles Through Discomfort in a Strong Mental Performance

While most athletes prefer to feel as physically prepared as possible when they perform, unexpected conditions and uncontrollable circumstances can make that a challenge at times. For eighth-seeded Andy Murray, the first round of the U.S Open on Monday, against unranked Dutchman Robin Haase, was unexpectedly challenging, given Murray’s reportedly strong training period leading up to the tournament. His difficult victory in four sets was anything but routine, after he began to cramp only halfway through. While he has played through discomfort before, the physical challenges Murray faced in this match were far from ordinary, yet no less painful. After winning the first two sets, Murray’s body began to suddenly break down and he started cramping in his quads, both sides of his abdomen, and both arms. Between points, the 27-year-old was seen grimacing while he twisted his torso and stretched his legs, trying to push away the pain. Even in the summer heat, the cramps were unanticipated for the Scot who, in 2013, became the first British male to win the singles title at Wimbledon in 77 years. “For me it was unexpected, and therefore quite difficult mentally to deal with,” he said. “It’s hard because, you want to be able to just focus your energy on trying to win the match. But you need to then have tactics as to how you’re going to deal with how you’re feeling…It becomes tricky. You start to think about the cramps, rather than what you’re trying to do on the court…I managed to get through in the end.”

As an athlete, despite your best preparation, there may be times when injuries or physical discomfort arise unexpectedly and challenge you mentally during competition. For athletes competing at any level, it is neither ideal, nor recommended, to play through significant pain or an injury. Before you make the decision to do so, talk to either a trainer or coach (preferably both), tell them about your pain, and allow them to help you decide if you can, or should, continue to play. Nevertheless, if there is no risk of further injury, there may be times when you do not feel in top physical shape, but you have to push through and keep competing. Under these circumstances (i.e., cramps, bruises, sore muscles, etc.), it is important to develop the ability to mentally cope with the challenge. This mental strength starts with your preparation. Having a routine that consistently allows you to be as physically prepared as possible (including what you eat and drink, and how you stretch) is the first step. If, despite the preparation, you sustain a small injury or knock, but can still play, the next step is to remain composed and focus on the task as you push through the discomfort. As Murray noted, one of the more challenging aspects of playing through physical discomfort involves the natural tendency to focus more on the pain and less on your game. In these moments, the use of refocusing cues (i.e., “Focus on the task” or “One point at a time”) to keep your mind in the present moment can be especially effective. Become comfortable with these tools by using them in training, and gradually developing the natural ability to maintain your focus and composure through minor pain by focusing on what you control in each moment. As Murray turns his focus to the next round, he will undoubtedly take steps to ensure that his body has recovered and is ready to compete again, while also knowing that he has the mental fortitude to perform at a high level if he encounters more physical challenges in the future.

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