Thursday, June 23, 2016

Performing When It Counts

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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!

Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Mid-Season Grind

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It's been a while, but I'm back with another #FuelYourFire Blog Post! Sometimes once my season starts I have trouble putting thoughts and feelings into words to share. I'm sure you know the feeling--the season is turbulent and emotionally draining and it can be hard to make sense of it as you go through it.

The beginning of the season is always full of excitement and promise. Playoff time is make or break--with pressure--but in a really fun way. The in-between time can be a bit rough. I've found that no matter how well or poorly my season is going, I always get to a point where what I call the "mid-season grind" hits. A lot of times the word "grind" brings up a negative feeling, but I don't think having to grind is negative at all. It's something we, as competitive athletes, must do--and we become better for it.

In college at the University of North Carolina, our team was expected to go undefeated. The mid-season grind for us was to maintain that perfection and stay motivated when everyone was gunning for us. It could be stressful, but it was a fun challenge and brought the best out of us each and every game.

For most of us playing the the NWSL, the parity in the pro game came as a bit of a shock. We all grew up playing for successful youth club teams and college teams that did well too. We're used to winning. A lot. The professional game simply just doesn't work that way (although there are rare exceptions to this). From my first professional season in 2009, I had to get used to a different feeling. Three points are hard to come by! Right now with FC Kansas City, we are feeling that to the max. We've play six games so far and have lost four and tied two. Definitely not the start we had hoped for.

The longer I play, the more I place value on consistency. Often, all we can control as players is the daily input. It would be easy for us at FC Kansas City right now to be panicking or making drastic changes. But neither of those directions are helpful. For us, the grind is to keep working and keep trying to be better than we were the day before. Winning and losing come down to such small moments within the game. The grind at the professional level is to be ready for those moments and to be able to execute consistently.

Everyone's mid-season grind comes in a different form. We can view it as un-motivating or downright frustrating, or we can take on the challenge as an opportunity to learn and grow. As hard as it is, that's what I am working to do right now.

I must focus on every detail in training, focus on being better for my teammates and my club, and keep pushing until we get the results we need. And once my team and I start to get those results, we must keep pushing still. Training the mind and body to continually progress, even when it is difficult to do so, is such a vital part of the process.

I encourage YOU to think about the process and the mid-season grind, and share with me one of your favorite quotes about the process via social media, using the hashtag #FuelYourFire. I can't wait to see what you come up with!

Tag me on Twitter: @Yael_Averbuch or Insta: @yaelaverbuch

Let's all attack this mid-season grind head on!

Thursday, March 31, 2016

What Makes You Special?

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Take a moment to consider the answer to this question: "What makes you special?" If you can't immediately rattle off a list, then I encourage you to spend some time thinking deeply about it. It isn't arrogant to be clear on the qualities you bring to the field and the world. In fact, it's very necessary.

The further you go in your soccer development, the more clear it will become to you what your personal strengths and weaknesses are. As a very introspective person and player, I think about this for myself a lot.

If you're anything like me, you often get caught up with your weaknesses. Coaches point them out, we get evaluations that tell us what we need to do to improve them; we constantly harp on them and mentally replay our mistakes from the last game. These are important pieces when it comes to improvement. We must be honest about our performance and ability in order to get better. But we (females in particular) are often very hard on ourselves--harder than we would ever be on a teammate. So there needs to be a balance.

As a professional player, soccer is my job and my only obligation during the day. This is awesome! But it also can be a mental and emotional nightmare if I were to always be harping on my imperfections and mistakes. As a professional player, I've learned to balance attending to areas of weakness and harnessing my strengths. We all enjoy thinking about, working on, and being praised for our strengths, so it's important to do this just as much as we consider our weaknesses. Actually, more.

Even more than you cut yourself down, I encourage you to build yourself up. Think often about what makes you special. This is one of the most important lessons I've learned as my career progresses. I distinctly remember my first year as a pro. I was so blown away by how good my teammates were at certain areas of the game. On Sky Blue FC alone we had Natasha Kai, who's fast as lightning and incredibly dynamic; Christie Rampone, who's impossible to beat 1v1; Heather O'Reilly, who relentlessly runs at the other team and gets off shots and crosses.

As a competitive person, I immediately felt bad about myself because there was no way I could be as good as those players in those areas. But soon I realized that competition at the highest level is in a different form. The new competition I needed to engage in was to realize what makes me special and to be the absolute best at that as I could be. This is one of the most valuable lessons soccer can teach us. The beauty of a team is that you're on the team for what you already bring. Success comes from bringing that consistently.

My distribution is what makes me special. At my best, I can control the rhythm of the game and set my teammates up to do what they do best. I work to be a well-rounded player, but at the end of the day we all find the greatest joy and success if we can put our energy towards our strengths. I'm still very sensitive about my weaknesses as a player, because I care deeply about what I do. But I've established a new mental framework: if I'm going to fully dedicate myself to improving it, I will give a weakness thought and attention. If I don't plan to do that, I try to shift my focus away from that area.

I'm currently in FC Kansas City preseason and can think of an entire list of areas I'd like to be better at during this upcoming season. But realistically, I have the mental energy to focus to improve maybe two to three. So in addition to trying to be my absolute best at my strengths, I want to process the ball quicker, cover more ground, and tackle harder. Anything else that I could be better at--which are a lot of things--I'll give my best effort to in the moment but not dedicate mental energy to worrying about. I encourage you to do the same. If you don't have the energy to actively change it, don't think about it.

Know what makes you special. Know the areas that may hold you back from using those special qualities. Find ways to minimize the weaknesses without shifting your focus away from your best you. That's the mission I'm on and I hope you'll join me!

Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Art Of Transition

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As soccer players, we're very familiar with transition. We hear the word all the time when it comes to on-field tactics. And whether we are conscious of it or not, transition is a large and unavoidable part of life off the field as well. Personally, I dread transitions off the field. I like to get into a routine and to break that routine and uproot my life is painful. It's probably my least favorite part of being a professional player, but something I've had to deal with and learn to do as well as possible.

How can we take what we've learned on the field about transition and apply it to life outside the game?

The first important element of transition in soccer, whether it's from offense to defense or vice versa, is to recognize it as a moment of transition. If we're unaware, we will not be able to stifle any impending danger or take advantage of what may be an opportunity to capitalize on the opposition's weakness. Similarly, in life we need to identify when we are entering times of transition. Those times may be seasonal, have to do with changing teams or classes in school, or may be larger life transitions like moving to a new place or starting a new phase of your life all together.

As a professional player, I deal with transition frequently. The times when I'm aware that I'm about to enter a transitional stage always make it smoother and easier. I am able to prepare mentally, physically, and plan appropriately for the transition I will soon face. Right now I'm getting ready to move back to Kansas City to start preseason. I'm very aware of the transition I'm about to undergo. More than packing, I need to mentally prepare to say goodbye to friends, my boyfriend, and leave the place I've called home for the past six months. It's certainly not an easy thing to do and by acknowledging how I do (and will) feel, it allows me to address those feelings and not get blindsided by them on the day of my departure. I usually get very stressed out before a big move. The temporary end of the lifestyle I've worked to establish for the last six months gives me anxiety. I now am aware of that and know that when I feel those things for the week or two before my moving day, it's important to try to keep them from affecting me and the people around me in a negative way.

On the field, once you are aware that it's a moment of transition, the next important step is to remain focused and engaged as the switch happens. If we're attacking and lose the ball, we're always taught "don't shut off." It's important to stay tuned in and begin to defend immediately and try to win the ball back. Likewise, if you have just won the ball, that isn't the time to relax. It's actually the moment to be most aware because the other team will be in close proximity trying to win the ball back and if you attack quickly, they will be least prepared.

In my current transition from offseason to preseason, it isn't good enough for me to just think, "Ok, I recognize I'm in a time of transition." I need to stay focused on the important tasks at hand that will make this transition a successful one. I view my transition as two-fold. There's the leaving part, and then the arrival in my new environment. I'll pack up my car next weekend and drive to Kansas City with my dad. Right now I'm focused on tapering down the volume of my training so I can be fresh physically to start preseason. During the two days it will take me to drive there, I will rest my body completely, then it will be important to get out and move a bit after being cramped up in the car, before we start our team training sessions.

In soccer, the team that is able to transition the quickest and most efficiently will have the most success and likely win the game. In life off the field, it's no different. The more prepared you are and the quicker you are able to recognize a change, react, and then get used to the new environment, the better off you'll be.

When I arrive in Kansas City, it'll be important for me to get back into my lifestyle there as quickly as possible. Because I played there last season, it'll be much easier for me than the times I've moved to places where I had never lived. I am familiar with my teammates, the coaching staff, the general area, training fields, locker rooms. All of this will help to make the transition a lot smoother. Still, I will have to get used to a new routine--living in a new apartment with different people, shopping at a different grocery store, a different sleep schedule and training, and a lot of other things. The quicker I can establish my new routine, the better off and more relaxed I'll be (even on the field).

Transition truly is an art. Just like in soccer, it's easy to talk about the proper way to do it, but hard to execute it well. Some people are naturally good at exploiting moments in the game when there is chaos. Similarly, some people love a new adventure and are ok with their routines being thrown off from time to time. I prefer rhythms that I know and expect so for someone like me, this takes work!

I'd love to know how you feel about transition. Comment below and let me know what's the hardest transition you've faced. What are some of the ways you've found to cope? 

Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Never-Ending Path of Ascension

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Throughout our lives as elite soccer players there are many defining moments--some of them are those to celebrate and some, unfortunately, are disappointments. What I've realized as I am about to enter my eighth season as a professional player, is that the pattern doesn't end. You never get to a level where you are exempt from the ups and downs. Every single player--from the women on the U.S. National Team to you guys and all of your teammates--faces the same rollercoaster ride. Our confidence can be wonderfully high or shockingly low. There are great moments when you feel like all the hard work is worth it, and the times when you question why you are doing what you do and why you care so much. 

This is exactly why I see what I do as a journey. Whether it's something like signing day, a major tryout or selection time, a devastating injury, a championship game, or even the World Cup, what we experience are a series of moments. Some stand out to us as important moments that in some way or another define who we are and our passion for soccer. But even the most important moments, whether they seem to go in your favor or not, are fleeting. 

My college coach always used to tell us that we should "live on a never-ending path of ascension." I honestly didn't know why he would say that so much, but now I think I get it. So much of our lives within and outside of this game we love are out of our control. A lot of times, even if we do everything to the best of our ability, results come down to timing, a ref's decision, coach's opinion, or collective series of events that we don't directly create. So how can we take back control in a situation in which we have so little? The answer is by focusing on constant improvement. 

I remember being in high school and having teammates who committed to colleges and then decided to coast. I have been teammates of youth national team players who got to the college game then completely fell off. I have also witnessed college walk-ons become starters and team captains. Similarly, I have seen college stars not make pro teams and players who played for small schools I hadn't heard of have long pro careers as starters on their teams.That's because what we do every single day determines who we are as players and people so much more so than any one moment. 

It is the cumulative effect of getting better every day that we participate in this wild and crazy game that will determine who we are. That is not to say that we should discount the important moments. It's just that our daily focus should not be on those. Our daily focus should be on constant improvement--the never-ending path of ascension. 

I was a part of the U16 National Team. But after a few camps, a coach told me I wasn't athletic enough to play at the highest level. I went on to make the U17 and then U19 National Team, and was selected to go to the U19 World Championship in Thailand. I barely played at that tournament, and spent most of the games on the bench for all 90 minutes. I went to my dream college, UNC, and won 2 National Championships. I was named captain for two years, but it certainly wasn't easy and many times my teammates saw me in tears. I became a professional player. But I sat the bench a lot during my first season and my confidence was very low. It is my dream to play for the U.S. National Team. I have been on and off the team for about 8 years and have 26 caps. But I was cut twice and recently have not been part of the team pool at all. I was part of FC Kansas City, the NWSL Championship team, this past season. I had a great experience, but had to learn to play a new position, and didn't play much during the end of the season. 

My point in telling you this is that my career is full of many moments for which I am supremely grateful and very proud. But it also has been full of struggles, disappointments, and trials. The one thing that has kept me going is my commitment to be better today than I was yesterday. And better tomorrow than I am today. That is the only thing I can control. So whether you are the current star of your team and just signed a letter of intent to go to your dream school, or whether you are struggling at the moment to find success, stick with it. The days of work add up and as long as you're moving in the right direction, and always making progress, you will have no regrets. The only thing we can do as players is commit to living on a never-ending path of ascension. And if you can do that, you can have faith that you're doing it right!

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