Hello from Kansas! As my season with FC Kansas City is now well underway and you are entering playoff time, I thought I'd share some ideas on performing when it counts.
Sports are funny. We put in hours training, play game after game, and then everything can literally come down to one little moment. It's the beauty of the game, but can also be mentally draining! How can we stay mentally tough and sharp to be prepared, focused, and confident when it matters most? Here are some pieces of advice based on my experience:
Embrace the competition. Sometimes it can be fun playing games when there is less on the line. But the reason we all play at an elite level is because we love competing against the best. It's the truest test of our abilities as individuals, and as a team. At FC Kansas City, we have a long preseason, during which we're training and playing practice games against college teams. These games are always a good way to bond as a team, but every year it strikes me how different it is when we actually compete against other NWSL teams. To take the field each week against some of the best players in the world--and in your case, some of the best players in your age group in the country--is an honor and takes on a whole different meaning than any other game. This type of challenge is why we work hard, and it's the best way to test ourselves on where we stand as players.
Stay relaxed. There can be a ton of pressure when you've worked all season long to get to a certain point, and then all of a sudden it's "go time," so to speak. It's ironic, but the key to the big moments is not to think of them as big moments. I remember when I was about to sub in to my first game with the U.S. Women's National Team. I was so nervous that I could literally not feel my legs. Like a lot of players, I get anxiety before big games, fitness tests, or tryout-type situations. It's totally normal if you get like this, too. It shows that you are excited and invested. I've tried to develop some relaxation techniques for these big moments, because let's be honest, it's hard to play if you can't feel your legs, or if your chest is tight and your heart rate is racing before you even start to run! I do deep breathing and visualization to help me relax. If you're good at staying relaxed in pressure situations, more power to ya! But if you are anything like me, it helps to make a conscious effort.
Stick to what you know. No matter what the circumstance or how much is riding on the results, it's important not to change your routines and usual preparation. You've gotten to this point for a reason. Trust that the things you've been doing all along will continue to serve you well. Whether it's your style of play, pregame ritual, or training routine, don't change it up. I try to keep everything consistent throughout the season: from what I eat to what I do on game. I even have a routine for how I foam roll and stretch in the locker room before heading out to play. These little things are mostly mental. It's comforting to have familiar preparation and thought processes, even when the outside environment can be very different.
Focus on the positives. It's very easy to let nervousness cause mistakes in big games. The longer I play, the more I try to shift my focus to the positive things I do during the game. The more involved you are in the game, the more chance you have of making a positive impact. Mistakes are part of the game and will certainly happen. For me, the more focused I am on NOT making mistakes, the more they seem to happen. But when I feel confident, and shake them off easily, I find that my impact on the game is much more positive.
You've worked all season for playoff time. You've prepared through training, bonded as a team, and navigated the ups and downs as a group. The path to success is to stick to the things that have made you successful all the way along. There's no way to 100% insure victory, but you can insure that you do everything possible to set yourself up for it!