Your Greatest Ally = Your Mind


In 2003 Heather O’Reilly was set to win a spot on the U.S. women’s World Cup soccer team. But 74 seconds into a match against Italy, she collided with the goalkeeper and fractured her fibula (look it up, it’s in the leg). Her chances for the World Cup vanished and she was left with a long recover. Definitely not anything you want to experience this season, or ever.

Was there anything she might have done to prevent her injury? Could she have seen it coming? And what did she do afterward that enabled her to return and ultimately win an Olympic medal?

Your mind can be your greatest ally or your evil master when it comes to focusing on the field and that ability can prevent many unwanted collisions. The best soccer players are able to concentrate and focus attention on things that matter in competition and practice. Soccer is a fast-paced sport that requires a player to easily and quickly shift attention from the ball (a narrow external focus) to awareness of other players’ positions on the field (broad external focus).

Likewise, when there is so much happening that concentration is lost. A good athlete knows how important it is to re-center, to focus internally, to calm the mind and bring the game under your control again.

Making attentional control a part of practice on the field has an added benefit of working in other areas of life and, if you practice in every day life, performance in soccer improves. Strengthen your ability to concentrate by sticking to one idea or thought process longer in school or doing homework. Practice shifting attention purposely, back and forth when you are watching TV, listening to people in a crowd, walking to class. Practice on the field, in school, anywhere you want but practice as diligently as you practice kicking and heading and blocking.

This must be second nature when you need it in competition. If you are lost in your own thoughts or if you only see the ball, it is easy to miss the runaway train that you are about to collide with and believe me, that will get your attention.

Another important mental skill that can help in both avoiding and recovering from injury is to learn to balance emotions. Note the word balance, not flatten. Being balanced means being alert, energized, and ready. Being too psyched up can actually minimize performance and cause you to miss important plays, create anxiety, and create a perfect environment for injury. Stress narrows attentional focus and it becomes easy to miss what’s happening on the periphery. For example, it is essential to either see or hear another player coming in order to move out of the way.

Some of the stresses you might recognize are situational, focusing on the importance of the game, lack of support from the audience, whether you are playing at home or away, tired, hungry, or just having bad day. Your personality characteristics often determine what you tell yourself, whether you believe you have control or not, whether you are thinking positively or negatively. These factors are just as powerful. It is easy to walk onto the field with your mind somewhere else. You are already distracted, your mind is not on the game, and you are not likely to see what’s coming or to have the best control of your body.

On another matter, although we often hear coaches and supporters say, “give it 110 percent out there” it’s not really how hard you play, but how smart you play. Here is a good example of why 110 percent doesn’t produce the best performers.

In 1995, sport psychologists (Weinberg and Gould) tested the performance of 400-meter runners. They asked them to run a timed trial at 110 percent effort and, a few days later, a second trial at 95 percent effort. Interestingly, the 95 percent effort resulted in quicker times. The reason was that, at 110 percent the athletes experienced “increased muscle tension in attempting to run beyond their capacity. This interfered with necessary coordination of working muscles.”

In other words, they were too tense and psyched up at 110 percent to perform at their best. Go figure. Your mind controls your body so make it work to your best advantage.

Also, certain attitudes predispose us to self-fulfilling prophecies. It’s like we expect something to happen, it happens, and then we say to ourselves, “see, I knew that would happen.” Then we expect it the next time.

Check your attitude before heading out for practice or competition. Are you mentally tough? Can you concentrate on what needs to happen? Can you rebound from a fault or a losing score to play your best game?

This brings us to what happens after an injury. What can you do to return to the game stronger than before? It is challenging to stay positive, patient, and disciplined when you are no longer able to live your life the way you are used to, much less play soccer. And when you do return to the field you may discover your body has a memory of its own, as if it wants to prevent the same situation from happening again. You find yourself hesitating when you used to charge into play, holding back on a kick when other players are coming toward you. What’s going on?

Let me assure you that you can come back stronger mentally and physically after an injury if you learn from it appropriately. During recovery you must learn to be patient, to focus attention on the immediate situation and in a positive way. Of course you aren’t able to do what you did yesterday and tomorrow seems far away. But today is what counts. What can you do to heal and become stronger? That is the question.

One of my favorite sport psychology stories is about an Olympic hurdle jumper who had a major injury one year before the Olympics. During his recovery he kept a hurdle in his living room and every day imagined himself running and jumping over that hurdle. When he returned to race he found that he was even better than before his injury. His muscles hadn’t forgotten how to perform and his precision had improved.

Even though you can’t see movement, it is a well-known fact that muscles are activated when the mind imagines movement. I use biofeedback in my work with athletes to demonstrate this connection. Try it right now. Just close your eyes and imagine yourself running down the field, kicking the ball or heading it off to another player in a better position for a goal. See if you can imagine your body in play. If you practice mentally during recovery your body will be less likely to hesitate when you return to competition.

You can learn how to stop hesitating, to build confidence and concentration, to return to the game stronger from your experience, not damaged by it. If you practice mental techniques within your soccer practice you will be a stronger opponent and the one less injured and you will make wiser decisions and conserve energy by focusing where it is needed most.