Off to Qatar Part 7: Sport Psychology of the First round

In this addition, here are the top 5 sport psychology observations from the first round

1 – How teams, coaches, and players handle the press

The World Cup is the biggest sport event on the planet. Beside the two year qualification process, the skills and teamwork on the field, which brings enough pressure in itself, there are the off-the-field elements. One of which is being in front of the press and the entire world.  How teams handle that element of the tournament is a fascinating and important part of it.

Exhibit A – Belgium = too old? 
The Number 2 ranked team in the world was only able to manage one goal, a long ball vs Canada, in their 3 group stage matches.  The team clearly did not have a winning mentality, as their comments in the papers showed. Star midfielder Kevin De Bruyne said the team was “too old” to win, and captain Eden Hazard said “Our defenders are not the fastest and they know it,”  to which defender Jan Vertonghen retorted a few days later “I guess we attack badly because we are also too old up front. We didn’t create enough chances.”
This is not the mentality a competitive team should be voicing.

Exhibit B – Canada Coach motivates Croatia

After Canada’s near miss against Belgium (they lost 1-0 despite having out-played them most of the game), Coach John Herdman tried to talk up his team in the press:  “I told them they belong here. And we’re going to go and eff Croatia,” the coach said with a smile, using a single letter F to avoid a televised profanity. “That’s as simple as it gets.”
This did not go over well in Croatia, who went over to demolish the Canucks 4-1 (despite giving up the earliest goal of the tournament in the 2nd minute).  After the win, Croatian Andrej Kramaric (who scored two goals) said: “I want to thank the Canadian coach for the motivation, In the end, Croatia demonstrated who eff’d who.”
**On a side note, the USA team has handled press conferences brilliantly.  Coach Gregg Berhalter is very intelligent and well-spoken, and Captain Tyler Adams is wise beyond his years.  If you haven’t already, check out Adams’ answer to this Iranian reporter, who seems to be trying to stir up controversy.   Very proud of the USA in this regard.

2 – Qatar – Host country freezes up

The host country gets an automatic bid to the World Cup (part of the controversy in Qatar being awarded the tournament is lack of a soccer history).  A country of just under 3 million people (only about 350,000 are Qatari citizens, the rest are immigrants), it’s the smallest country competing.     

Last summer, they played in the Gold Cup in the USA and did quite well.  After 3 wins and a draw, they lost to eventual champion USA 1-0 in the semi-final of that tournament. This World Cup tournament was a different story entirely.  The Qataris never looked comfortable, and in fact looked downright nervous, playing tight in all 3 games, losing all 3 and being outscored 7-1.

After the first game vs Ecuador, Coach Felix Sancez put it this way:  “Our nerves betrayed us. We were unable to string together four passes in a row. Also, many defensive gaps. The team was not balanced and that hurt us a lot. When you play against a team of this level … you pay for it.”

Was there too much pressure put on them?  Externally or internally or otherwise? It certainly seemed so.

**The USA/Mexico/Canada will be the hosts of the 2026 tournament.  How will these 3 teams handle the pressure of hosting?  Canada didn’t handle 2022 very well, but that’s understandable being their first World Cup since 1986.  Mexico also didn’t handle the pressure well, being held scoreless in their first two matches and not advancing through their group.  The USA looks to be well positioned for 2026, being the 2nd youngest team this year.  Will the pressure of hosting factor in? 

3 – If you don’t finish your chances, everyone is good enough to counter you.

This may be the most balanced tournament in history.  No team won all 3 games in the group stage.  Heavyweights Argentina, Brazil, France, and Portugal all lost a game.  Top ten ranked teams Belgium, Germany, and Denmark were all bounced in the group stage.  One of the trends was that despite being the better team, and dominating the run of play early, if you don’t finish your chances, the opponent will take advantage.

These matches were among the most obvious of this trend:

Canada – Belgium  (Canada out-shot Belgium 22-9 in this match, but lost 1-0)
Argentina – Saudi Arabia (Argentina actually scored 4 goals in the first half, but 3 were off-side.
Saudi Arabia went on to pull the major upset 2-1)
South Korea – Ghana (South Korea outshot Ghana 22-7, but lost 3-2)
Germany – Japan (Germany outshot Japan 26-12, but lost 2-1)

I attended 3 of these matches, and the stats do them all justice. Each of the losing teams were dominate from the start of the match.  But something happens and the confidence starts to swing from high confidence for the attacking team to not be able to score, and the confidence starts to build for the team that withstands the opening rush.  Then once the first goal goes in opposite the run of play, confidence completely changes teams.

**Fortunately (from this fan’s perspective), the USA never fell behind in the group stage. We were the only team that didn’t give up a goal from the run of play (a 83rd minute PK from Gareth Bale of Wales was the lone goal against suffered by goalie Matt Turner and the USA defense). For tonight, if we come out and dominate, we really need to score one early!

4 – The beauty of the  group stage –  humiliating beat downs in the first games don’t necessarily knock you out

The round-robin group stage is the most unique way to run a tournament. No other sport does it this way.  It gives each team a chance for a mulligan, and still be able to advance.  

Exhibit A – Costa Rica lost their first game to Spain 7-0. But they didn’t give up, and beat Japan 1-0, and were leading Germany 2-1 with 20 minutes left in the 3rd match. Had they been able to hold on, they would have qualified for the round of 16.  They fell just short, but have to admire the grit and determination.

Exhibit B – Iran lost their first game 6-2 to England.  But instead of giving up, they turned in an incredible performance against Wales, scoring in the 98th and 101st minutes against Wales to win 2-0.  They needed just to draw with the USA to advance, but fell just short, losing 1-0.  A team that was definitely outmatched in all 3 games talent-wise, made up for it with passion and belief. 

This is the psychology of the sport at it most pure, and it’s a joy to watch.
**The USA didn’t have to face this, but with only 2 draws in the first 2 matches, they had to win against an extremely hungry Iran squad.  Kudos to the team for handling the pressure and getting the job done.

5 – That’s why they play the game!

Several favorites are out!  

#2 Belgium
#6 Italy (didn’t qualify)
#10 Denmark
#11 Germany
#13 Mexico
#14 Uruguay
#17 Columbia (didn’t qualify)
#19 Wales
#20 Iran

These teams outside the top 20 are moving on:

#24 Japan
#26 Poland
#28 South Korea
#38 Australia

**USA was ranked #16 coming in (may have had the most difficult group with all 4 teams in the top 20 (Iran, Wales, and England #5)

Bonus – Fun with stats. When goals get scored

For fun I tabulated all the goals and when they were scored in 5 minute increments (1-5, 6-10, etc).

There were 120 goals scored in the group stages.  

43 in the first half (36%)
77 in the second half (64%)

Least goals in a time frame – 11-15th and 16-20th minute (2 goals each)
Most goals in a time frame – 46-50th minute and 66-70th minutes (10 goals each)

Stoppage time goals – 3 in the first half, 11 in the second half
Earliest goal – 2nd minute (Alphonso Davies’ of Canada vs Croatia)
Latest goal – 101st minute (Ramin Rezaeian of Iran vs Wales)

Off to Qatar Part 6

Ghana vs South Korea, South Coast Tour, USA vs Iran

South Korea vs Ghana

On Monday, we set off for Education City stadium for what turned out to be the most entertaining match we attended: South Korea vs Ghana

In a tournament that saw five 0-0 draws in the first round, this one was quite the opposite.

29 shots, 18 corner kicks, 22 fouls, 4 yellow cards, and many many crosses.

South Korea began the first 20 minutes in the Ghanain end, but couldn’t find the back of the net. Ghana scored off of a set piece and a cross/header to go into the half up 2-0.
South Korea came out on fire and leveled the game on 2 crosses and headers by their forward Cho Gue-Son.  Ghana got the game winner on a second goal by Muhammed Kudus. South Korea again dominated the last 15 minutes of the game with cross after cross, but great saves by the Ghanaian goalkeeper kept the ball out of the net.

Son Hueng-Min readying for one of the more interesting free kick set-ups I’ve seen

South Coast Tour

On Tuesday, we had a day off of games, until the USA – Iran match (10pm Doha time), and some free time to explore. We took a tour of the South coast of Qatar.  On the top of the priority list was to go on a camel ride, which we did with a couple fans from Argentina.

From the dunes we could see desert for miles and miles in the distance in 3 directions, and the Persian Gulf plus miles and miles to the east.  Truly beautiful land.

Except for the miles and miles along the coast full of oil fields and refineries. The ugly side to the main driver of the entire world economy. On the one hand, it’s made this country extremely wealthy, and creates opportunities for employment, innovation, and growth. But on the other, climate change and pollution are the wasteful by-products.

USA vs Iran – win or go home!

This was it, the game everyone was waiting for – the USA came in with 2 points, and Iran with 3 points.  A draw would have been enough for Iran to go through to the next round, while the USA had to win.

Not wanting to miss a minute, we arrived 2 hours before the match, and we weren’t disappointed. Thousands of fans were there too, enjoying the scene outside the stadium.  It was extremely festive, with fans of both teams (and other nations as well), all decked out and ready to go. 

With all the governmental/political issues between the two countries, many were wondering how the game would be.  But there’s politics and there’s people.  This was pure people.  My friend Tom and I were decked out in our red, white, and blue, and we estimate around 40-50 Iranian fans asked to get pictures taken with us.  And vice versa.  I’m sure we are on social media all over the world 🙂  It was nothing but love and respect, and it was beautiful.  One fan asked to take a photo with us, but said he had to fix my gutra (head covering).

After that, it was on to the game.  I was lucky enough to have seats very close to the field.  The atmosphere was electric, and the Iranian fans (at least in my section) were way louder than the USA fans, mostly due to these plastic horns (kinda like vuvuzelas, but louder and more annoying).   Expectedly, Iran played for the draw and sat back and defended.  The USA put on a dominating first half performance, and got the goal they needed from Chrisitan Pulisic. They almost doubled their lead, but Tim Weah was judged to be offside.

As expected again, Iran came out strong trying to tie the game up, but the USA were determined to win, and defended well.  There’s not much more I can say about the game that everyone reading this didn’t see for themselves, but I did get some great pre game photos.  *Would post a few videos, but facebook and instagram will not allow any video from inside the stadiums to be posted 🙁

That’s it for now. Except that we have extended the trip to be able to attend the Round of 16 match vs Holland (or is it the Dutch?  Or the Netherlands?)  Stay tuned for more!

Off to Qatar Part 5

Random thoughts about the tournament, Exploring Qatar, USA-England

As I sit with my breakfast, newspaper, and computer to write today’s blog, here’s what I am looking at: 

First some random thoughts about the games so far through 1 week of matches:

1 – The competitive gaps between countries are closing.  Spain beat Costa Rica 7-0, but then Costa Rica beat Japan, who beat Germany.  And England beat Iran 6-2, but then Iran beat Wales 2-0.  Outside of that, most games have been competitive.

2 – Teams play not to lose their first game. There have been five 0-0 draws in the first games.  70% of teams that don’t win their first game don’t move on, and coaches know that. As mentioned in point 1, the tactics don’t change drastically from team to team.

3 – To win, you have to have game-breakers.  At the Denmark – France match last night, the teams were fairly evenly matched. Possession, defending, set pieces, etc were similar.  France just won the battle of game-changing players like Kylian M’bappe, Ouseme Dembele, and Antoine Grieman made the difference in a 2-1 game.  This is why I still think Brazil has the advantage to win it all – Neymar, Richarlison, Martinelli, Jesus, Antony, and a few more are all threats to change a game.

Qatar has been under Bahraini, Saudi, Ottoman, and British rule, gaining independence in 1971. Much of the wealth here is from oil and natural gas exports.  There are 2.6 million people, but only 313,000 of them are Qatari citizens.  Much of the museum focuses on the earlier periods of history and the ties to Mongolian people, Bedouin nomads and their culture.

On Saturday we went to the Museum of Islamic Art.

This was a massive museum, 4 floors of 1000s of years old artwork, was just stunning. Again, I wish I had way more time to explore.  Intricate wooden and ivory carvings, Persian rugs, glass pieces, and more.  But most of what was on display were handwritten copies of the Koran and other books throughout the centuries.

Friday was the big day – the big game – the rematch of the Revolutionary War – USA vs England!

This is the one we’d been waiting for. The atmosphere was pretty electric, and the game was competitive, as far as 0-0 draws go. We were able to take it to England and create the better of the few chances, but unfortunate not to finish one of them and go home with the full 3 points. Also unfortunate to not have more to write about!

I saw Claudio Reyna (Former USA legend, and father of current player Gio Reyna) sitting in my section.  I also sat right next to Columbus Crew forward Lucas Zelerayan – so that was cool.

Next up on my schedule:
Today – Canada vs Croatia
Monday – South Korea vs Ghana
Tuesday – the big one:  USA vs Iran – win or go home for the Yanks!

Off to Qatar Part 4

Thursday was our 3rd day in a row of 2 games a day (at least it was supposed to be – a side note, the way tickets are handled here has been atrocious – it’s a long boring story so I won’t write about it in detail, but 8we were not able to attend the Brazil-Serbia match tonight, and missed out on the goal of the tournament in person)

Here were the games we have seen live and in person, with small recap:


Tunisia vs Denmark:  boring match, save for the very loud and energetic fans who made up it seemed like 90% of the crowd

France vs Australia:   Australia jumped out to a surprise lead, but France is clearly World class with M’bappe and Dembele on the wings, and Griesman running things at the 10, and Giroud up top.  Kylian M’bappe is extremely impressive in person – so explosive.


Japan vs Germany  – The best game of the tournament so far, saw Germany dominate the first half, but not able to find the knockout blow, allowing for Japan to comeback with a strong second half to pull off the 2-1 upset

Canada vs Croatia – another great game with Canada dominating the first half but unable to score, and Belgium snuck one in on a long ball with almost no time left in the half.  A PK save by Courtois was the turning point of the match.  Had Davies converted the PK, Canadian fans would have blown the roof off the place

South Korea – Uruguay – a 0-0 draw with limited opportunities for each team

Brazil – Serbia*see above

We have settled into somewhat of a rhythm at this point in the trip.  Games are at 1, 4, 7, and 10pm, and as luck would have it, our games have all been at 4pm and/or 10pm, so plenty of time to make the matches.  Basically a day so far looks like this:

9:45am – wake up
10am – breakfast and coffee (might sleep in longer but breakfast buffet closes at 10:30), read, write, relax
11:30am – workout in the hotel gym or go on a run
1pm – watch 1pm game on tv
2pm – head out to 4pm game
4pm – Game
6pm – find some dinner and watch 7pm game on tv
8:30pm – head to the 10pm game
10pm – Game
2am – home from game, sleep

So the ticketing system has been kind of a mess, and the travel is sometimes a mess as well.  As I mentioned in Part 1, there are 8 stadiums, all within about an hour of the center of Doha. The options for travel are the Metro, and Uber.  Our hotel is a 15 minute walk from the Metro station, and Uber will pick us up right outside.  EIther method is about 20-30 minute ride to the stadium.  Once you get to the stadium it’s typically a 20 minute walk, then 15-20 more minutes to get through security.  So far we have been fortunate enough to get to each game early.

While getting to the games thus far has been very easy, it’s the getting home part that’s difficult. Most games have been between 40-45,000 fans, and they all need to get home.  There are hundreds of ushers pointing the way to the Metro station and Uber/taxi pick up points. After the first match (USA-Wales) we figured out that if you don’t leave right away (or even a little before the end of the game), it can add an hour or more of standing in line.  After the USA – Wales match, we didn’t get home til after 2:30am, but after that it’s been before 2.

So now, every team has played one match, and the front-runners are clear:  France, England, Spain, Brazil.

I rate Holland, Belgium, Portugal, Ecuador just below them, winning but not quite as impressively.

Saudi Arabia with their surprise victory over tournament favorite Argentina could make some waves in the second round.

Of course, Argentina despite their early upset could be a contender.

Out of contention are host Qatar, Iran, and Costa Rica

Besides the world-class soccer, my favorite thing about the World Cup is the people. My friend and I were talking about the political aspect of things.  Of course, there has been a lot of corruption by FIFA, Qatar, and other countries, worker’s rights and gay rights and more. There are geopolitical and religious tensions between countries and ethnicities.  But here, at the World Cup, it is more about people that politics.  Everyone here is happy.  Everywhere you go, people greet you with a smile.

We see Asian people in Germany jerseys, Europeans cheering for Ghana, Middle Eastern folks crying that Argentina lost to Saudi Arabia.  It’s very cool to see and experience.

Qatar is a unique country.  It is in the old world, but modern.  It is very rich, but also with poor people. It is under Muslim law, but there are all religions here. Everyone speaks multiple languages (mostly Arabic and English).  You can find schwarmra and other middle eastern street food, but you can also eat at McDonald’s.  Almost everyone we have met in the service industry is an immigrant from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, or any number of African countries (similar to the US where those jobs are often filled with Mexican and Central American countries).

That there is no language barrier is huge. To be on the Metro and able to communicate with almost anyone is so enriching to the whole experience. 

Okay, that’s the first round of the group stage.  Tonight, just one game live – USA vs England – can’t wait!

Off to Qatar part 3: First couple days in Qatar

It’s almost noon and I have just got up.  We returned from the USA-Wales match at about 2:45am.  Almad bin Ali Stadium is one of the furthest from the center of town where we are staying, and with 40,000+ people trying to Uber or catch the Metro out of the stadium, it just takes forever.  

But I feel rested and ready for our first 2 live games in a day. We will see Denmark-Tunisia at 4pm and France vs Australia at 10pm.  We will have to plan our day accordingly, as the travel is not necessarily difficult, but it is crowded, and takes a little longer than we thought at first.

Doha is a very modern (and quite expensive) city. They built most of the stadiums and a metro system (kinda like the Max or BART), and many buslines. There is also Uber and cabs to get around.  We have also walked a lot (20,000+ steps yesterday).  My travel partners, Tom and James and I, are staying in a 3 star hotel, with 2 single beds and a small bed in the living room. In the area are small shops and restaurants. There are many immigrants from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and several African nations. They have come here for the jobs and opportunity mostly.  The majority of people we have encountered speak English.

The first two days here, we spent a lot of time at the Souq Wahif, a large labyrinth of a market with crafts, jewelry, fabrics, spices, food, animals (mostly birds), and of course, mass produced trinkets from China.  We have run into people from all over the world, both locals and people here from the World Cup – so far I would say the best-represented countries are Argentina, Ecuador, and Mexico.

On to the soccer part!  On our first full day, we were on a quest to find a place to have a beer while watching the opening game. Alcohol is illegal here, in public, but there are bars in the fancier hotels. The first one we went to was charging 420 Qatari Rial (about $125 USD) for the privilege of sitting in their bar. With entry you also received $125 worth of vouchers for drinks, which there was no way I would have come close to spending.  So, we moved on and ended up at a couple of places for food and drink, including the hotel where team USA is staying.  We didn’t see any players, but we did see former US legends Earnie Stewart and Cindy Parlow Cone coming into the hotel.

So now onto the soccer – we were able to watch the opening match between Qatar and Ecuador at this very Americanized bar (burgers and fries and beer).  The host country was sadly out of their league, and the game turned out not to be much of a game.  We were only able to see the last 20 minutes of England-Iran game, and the first half of Holland vs Senegal from the big Fan Fest area.  Lots of goals in the first game, and a very competitive second game.  The Fan Fest area was enormous. One main area with a big screen, with the lights of the city skyscrapers in the background (including one keeping everyone updated of the score of the game).  There were other screens showing the game, and exhibits and activities hosted by the tournament sponsors.

We then headed to the USA-Wales game by Uber, which took about 45 minutes. The atmosphere was great. Many fans dressed up with face paint and flags – very colorful. And the Wales fans all wear these red, green and yellow fishing hats.  The game itself was exciting and competitive, with the US dominating the play in the first half and going up 1-0, and the Welsh coming out strong in the second half, final evening things out with a PK by Gareth Bale (who else?) late in the game.  The refereeing, which as a mental performance coach I try not to put too much stock into, was awful.  But that wasn’t why we didn’t hold on for the win – the US failed to adjust to the Wales team’s strategy of pressing higher up the field in the second half, leading to some nervous moments, and eventually a poor decision by Walker Zimmerman (who had up to that point had a very solid match) to slide tackle Bale in the box.

That brings us back to the 2 hour 45 minute trip back to the hotel, and the sleeping in til almost noon.  In the first post, I had posed the following factors to look for in the World Cup from the sport psychology angle – here they are with my thoughts after the first 4 games.

  • This is the first “winter” world cup (it usually takes place in the summer)
  • The temperatures will be in the 90s for most games
    → It’s actually not been so hot, in fact, once the sun goes down around 6pm the temperature cools down significantly.  I don’t think this has been a factor so far….
  • The majority of pro leagues are in the middle of their season. Typically with a World Cup, the pro leagues are in their off-season
    → This may be a good thing for the tournament, as players are in peak condition and form.  England scored a whopping 6 goals in their match, and Holland looked solid as well.  Two teams brimming with players in mid-season form for their clubs
  • The above points have lead to some key injuries, and most likely will lead to some during the tournament
    → So far this hasn’t affected any games significantly. France will be the first big test, with out Kante, Pogba, and Benzema
  • There is a lot of outside noise surrounding corruption and human rights abuses in the host country of Qatar
    → This is not something that we have heard anything about really, so it’s hard to tell.
  • As always for World Cups, the teams do not have a very long time to practice together and to gel as a unit. Players are coming from different teams, different leagues, and to be on the same page in soccer is crucial
    → As I mentioned earlier, this seems to not be an issue for teams like England and Holland so far.  USA and Wales were maybe a little less fluid

Okay, that’s it for now!  The next 3 days we will be attending the 4pm and 10pm games, so lots of soccer, lots of travel, and hopefully lots more fun!

Off to Qatar Part 2: Manila, Philippines

2022 World Cup Blog #2

As I write this post, I am on the plane from Manila to Doha, the capital city of Qatar.

I have spent a ton of hours on planes so far (PDX to SFO to Seoul to Manila, and now to Doha – around 30 hours in all)

The first  few days of the trip were spent in Manila, Philippines.   When I arrived, I met my friend Tom Atencio, who I have known for years and this will be our third world cup together.  I also met Coach James, the Director of Coaching for Hawaii Soccer Academy.

Sleep was decent, but it did take a bit to catch up from the jet lag (16 hours ahead of Portland) – it will be another adjustment in Doha which is 6 hours behind.  Whew.

The first thing to notice about Manila was the size and the traffic – it’s massive. 13 million people and it took a good 45 minutes to get about 5 miles from the airport to our hotel.  When I arrived at the hotel, my two partners were ready for their first adventure.  It was a meeting with Selu Lozano, the owner and coaching director for FC Makati, a city in Manila.

We met at his office, which also had a restaurant, a bar, a dance studio, and a workout gym. Selu is an interesting guy with a passion for a lot of things.  His office was adorned with photos and trophies from the history of the club, and filled 2/3 of the wall space (another part of it was a tribute to his pug).

We talked about the challenges of running a soccer club in a densely populated city with not much of a soccer culture to speak of (we saw more basketball gear than soccer gear on our journeys).  We went to his club training the next day.

This practice was held at McKinnley Road Stadium, a turf field surrounded by a small stadium on 3 sides. There were 5 groups, separated by age, participating in very organized drills run by around 15 coaches.  Many of the coaches were African, and were lively and engaging with the players.  Selu put on a very professional environment for these young players, who were decked out in blue and red club gear with the Philippine Airlines sponsorship on the front.  As you would see in the US, parents were scattered throughout the stand, observing practice and chit-chatting.  It’s always interesting to see how  soccer is organized outside of what I am used to.  For the most part, soccer is soccer wherever you go.

Overall, Manila was a great first stop. The weather was warm and sometimes rainy, a typical tropical island feel, and the people were very friendly and quick to say hello with hand over heart.  We did some walking around town, and a little sightseeing, which was somewhat difficult to do with the traffic.

As far as the World Cup goes, we have only been reading bits and pieces of the news going on (Sadio Mane injured and doubtful for Senegal’s first match, the Argentina team’s seemingly late arrival, and maybe the most dominant headline – no beer allowed in the stadiums, a reversal of earlier decisions by the Qatari federation).  This morning we spoke to a couple of Australian fans, and in the airport we spoke with a couple of Mexican fans.  
Oh, and I didn’t know this before but now I know, the Black Eyed Peas will be performing at the opening ceremonies….

Off to Qatar!

Brian is going to the World Cup!

Hey there, it’s been a while since the last post – part of the changes in life that COVID brought.

What better time to come back than to blog my trip to Qatar for the 2022 Men’s World Cup!  I have been fortunate enough to say this will be my 4th World Cup.  The first 3 being:

What I loved about my previous trips is being around and meeting so many people from all over the world, coming together to have a good time and celebrate the world’s most popular sport at the highest level.  It was for this reason that I started saving up to go to Qatar 3 years ago.  

I will be meeting up with a couple friends in Manila, Philippines for a few days, before heading to Doha for 10 days.  This year’s event is unique in that all of the stadiums are within a 35 mile radius of Doha, and it’s just a 2 ½ hours drive from the northern-most to southern-most stadium, if you stopped at every station along the way!

With that being the case, I will be attending 10 games in that 10 day span:

Nov 21 – USA vs Wales

Nov 22 – Denmark vs Tunisia

Nov 23 – Japan vs Germany | Belgium vs Canada 

Nov 24 – Uruguay vs South Korea | Brazil vs Serbia

Nov 25 – England vs USA

Nov 26 – Day off

Nov 27 – Croatia vs Canada

Nov 28 – South Korea vs Ghana

Nov 29 – USA vs Iran

I will plan to write 2-3 blogs posts detailing my experiences, so stay tuned for those.

In them I would like to look at things from a sport psychology perspective.  One of the most important concepts is “Focus on the Controllables.”  For this World Cup, the
“out -of-controllables” list will be especially important:

  • This is the first “winter” world cup (it usually takes place in the summer)
  • The temperatures will be in the 90s for most games
  • The majority of pro leagues are in the middle of their season. Typically with a World Cup, the pro leagues are in their off-season
  • The above points have lead to some key injuries, and most likely will lead to some during the tournament
  • There is a lot of outside noise surrounding corruption and human rights abuses in the host country of Qatar
  • As always for World Cups, the teams do not have a very long time to practice together and to gel as a unit. Players are coming from different teams, different leagues, and to be on the same page in soccer is crucial

I will be thinking about these issues as the tournament kicks off, and will make sure to include my observations as the tournament kicks off.

Embodying the Cliches (part 5/5 Inside the Mental Game of a State Champion)

What would sports be without cliches?  Let’s face it, some of the ones announcers often use are downright hilarious: 
“What it comes down to, is the team with more points is going to win this game.” 
“She’s a hard worker!”
“What an athletic play!”

Some would say many of these cliches are played out or even should be retired forever.

But the thing with cliches is that they are said so often because they are true at their core. During the Lightning’s championship run, here are the 5 cliches that our team embodied.

1. “Take it one game at a time”

As mentioned in Part 4 we had many reasons to doubt ourselves, including early-season losses and key injuries. When we reached the playoffs, we saw in the bracket that we’d have to beat 3 league rivals, and win all three, on the road. We could’ve seen this as one insurmountable task but we chose a different route. We took it one game at a time. A lot of this was a credit to the way Coach Ty not only coached each game individually, but how he set up the team culture to enjoy the moment (see Part 2).

2. “There’s no I in team; No one cared who got the credit”

As mentioned in Part 1, we had a lot of guys who could play. Fifteen different guys scored, 13 got assists. In the playoffs, we had several first time scorers/assisters.  Each goal was celebrated the same, no matter who scored it.  Of course, we weren’t perfect. There were moments when there was discontent, questions over playing time, etc, but overall those problems were worked out quickly.  Again it goes back to Part 2 – the culture and coaching demanded this cliche of the team, and the players chose to respond.

3. “They just wanted it more”

This one is tough to say because there weren’t many teams out there who I would say didn’t “want it.” But the extra work put in with early practices, and high accountability the players held each other to made just playing the game not seem like work.  How else to explain winning so many games on the road and in overtime?  We wanted it more, and we know how to get what we wanted. And the results came our way, sometimes in pretty fashion, and sometimes it was ugly. We heard plenty of whispers about being lucky, but I’m a big fan of another cliche – “you make your own luck.”  When you want it more, it’s funny how it seems less like luck, and more like destiny.

4. “Offense sells tickets, defense wins championships”

This one is so often true, that even though people are sick of hearing it, this one will never go away.  In our case, when we dedicated ourselves to defending with purpose and urgency, that’s when the team really started to gel.  Our center back won Oregon State Player of the Year, and our Goalkeeper could just as easily have won that award (he was consistently hailed as MVP! MVP! by his fans in the stands game in and game out and he was Goalkeeper of the Year for Oregon)

Everyone wants to see goals in soccer. But the reason there are so few is because it is hard to score. We just made it that much more difficult for other teams to score.  “You can’t win if you don’t score” is another cliche, I believe.

5. We peaked at the right time

I chose this as the final cliche, because I feel like it sums them all up.  And it bookends the first cliche (Taking it game by game). We knew going into the season that we had a great chance to win a title. Even with no school history of doing such. We were able to sustain that belief, and  learn and grow, and improve. We got to know each other better, build chemistry, no matter which players were in the game.  And by the end of the season, with each success, our confidence grew a little more, a little more, until we headed into that final match with the peak level of confidence.  There was as little doubt in our players as I think I have ever felt going into that final game.  I can still remember how it felt heading from the locker room out to the field, knowing that there was work to be done, but at the end it would go our way.

As of this writing the 2021, shortened/postponed/Coronafied season is getting set to start.  This year’s version of the Franklin Lightning is has “a lot of pieces returning.” Let’s see if we can “gel again and get it done.”  See if we are “capable of making a deep run.”  This team has “a chance to do something special.” We have to “remember what got us there,” “act like we’ve been there before,” and remember that “There will be no one to stop us but ourselves.”

Mental Training in the time of Social Distancing

If you are like me, social distancing is not coming easy. I do enjoy my downtime, but for the most part, as an athlete and a coach, I thrive on my time spent with others. The time spent training, coaching, being coached, and competing with others is where I thrive, and I imagine most people reading this do too.

But, here we are. And the best thing to do is use this time wisely. It’s a perfect time to work on the mental part of your game. In my experience, most athletes and coaches know the importance of confidence, focus and a strong mindset. They know it’s crucial for high level performance. But dedicating time to mental training often falls down the priority list. Well, now there’s a lot of extra time on most people’s hands. So it’s the perfect time to take a deeper dive into mental training.

The history of sport psychology

Before I go into some ways to mentally train during this shutdown, I’d like to offer a little background about my field.  Sport psychology was “invented” when an Indiana psychologist named Norman Triplett noticed people seemed to cycle faster in groups than when alone. In 1898, he took these ideas into the lab and did studies, and found that in general, people do in fact, perform tasks faster when they are with other people.

In the study’s conclusion he wrote:
“we infer that the bodily presence of another contestant participating simultaneously in the race serves to liberate latent energy not ordinarily available.”

Here is a copy of his research paper. If you are into that type of thing.

“Social Facilitation”

In 1924, another psychologist, Floyd Allport, furthered this research and termed this phenomenon “Social Facilitation.” It basically means that people perform better in the presence of others.*  There’s a reason we workout with friends, with teammates, with coaches. It’s more motivating, more fun, and to quote the research “serves to liberate latent energy not ordinarily available.”

Ok that’s all good, but now what?  What do we do with this info? Because, at the moment, we are only focused on NOT being around other people. While we are social distancing, we can’t get the full benefits of social facilitation. For athletes, I suggest setting up virtual training sessions with friends or teammates.  You can find an online class to have a coach lead you through skills and/or a workout (there are surely hundreds of them out there. Check out this live online Soccer Workout for example).  At the very least, find a teammate to be an accountability partner, to make sure you are staying on task.

For coaches, I suggest that you do everything you can to keep your team connected during this time. Host online meetings through Zoom or Google hangouts.  You can do film study, you could bring in a sport psychology coach to help your players work on the mental game :), or just talk and keep the team together to get the benefits of social facilitation.

Mental Training

But what about all this time on your own? There is less commuting, less hanging out with friends, less going out to dinner.  What will you do with all that extra time? This is where mental training comes in. Just like the skills and physical training you do to be the best at your sport, you can train your mind with mental skills. While it’s great to use the benefits of social facilitation, one of the goals of sport psychology is to build that motivation and gain skills to be able to push yourself without the help of outside factors.

It’s a great time to take stock of your own mental game: your confidence, your mindset, your motivation.  It’s a great time to learn and practice skills like visualization and goal setting. Here are some practical mental training tips.

1 – Take a sports mindset inventory – Take this downtime to reflect who you are as an athlete, especially how it relates to your mindset.  Answer questions like: What are my distractions? What things build and break down my confidence? How do I handle adversity? What can I do to get better?  What things motivate and de-motivate me?

Knowing the answers to these questions are important for the next tip.

2 – Set new Goals – During an unknown time like this, one thing that is known: the goals you had previously are going to change. Maybe not much, but they will change. Setting goals around mental training and improving on your confidence, focus, mindset and motivation can now move into the forefront.

3 – Practice Visualization – Visualization is an amazing, but under-utilzed tool in an athlete’s arsenal. Visualization is basically a controlled daydream in which you imagine yourself performing a task, skill or event. Beyond just vision, it incorporates all 5 senses. Visualization is such a powerful tool, track and field athlete Marylin King came in 2nd in the Olympic trials in her event after being hospitalized from a car accident.

Taking seriously these three action steps can help you mentally train while you can’t train physically. And, of course we don’t know when, but the coronavirus will run its course and we will be back to normal at some point. When we get there, and are back to normal training and competitions, where will you be mentally? 

Mental Training Tools

Would you like more help in your mental training?  AMPlify Sport Psychology offers a variety of tools:

*Interestingly enough, the flip-side of Social Facilitation is “Social Inhibition” which is kind of the opposite: basically, some people tend to mess up when others are watching or competing. This is typically when the person is a novice or not particularly good at a skill.
**While we are on the topic, another tangential topic is “Social Loafing,” which says that in big groups, members can tend to “loaf” or not work as hard because they figure someone else will take care of it.  Not super relevant to the topic we are talking about, but it’s in the same ballpark.

How to Handle Adversity (part 4/5 Inside the Mental Game of a State Champion)

At first glance, it seems like an underdog story. How does a 14th ranked team win all 5 playoff games, 4 of them against higher ranked teams?   But in our eyes, the better question would have been, how did a state championship caliber team only manage to get the 14th seed at playoffs? One of the main elements to why we only ended up ranked 14th was adversity. The thing about adversity, Once you get through it, and come out the other side everything else seems easy. You are more confident.  

And one of the main elements to why we won all those high-pressure games was how we faced that adversity, took it on, and overcame it.  Here are three ways in which we faced adversity during the season.

1) Early Season Losses

While we ended up 14-3-2 on the season, we started out 3-3. We scored only 8 goals and gave up 11 in the first 6 games.  Our early season losses included:

a 1-0  loss in which we outshot our opponent 16-4

-a 4-0 loss to a team that won just two other games the rest of the season

-a 5-0 beatdown to a very talented opponent at our place

These results would have shaken the confidence of most teams to the core. But our mentality and team culture wouldn’t allow that. To our players’ credit, they bought into the solutions we devised from these games. They learned very valuable lessons, which propelled us to victories later on. I firmly believe that the toughest adversity serves to show you something important.  And you can either get defensive and make excuses to why you failed, you can give up, or you can swallow your pride a bit and look inside for what you need to change.

We decided on the latter.  We learned at least one key lesson in each of these losses, and turned those lessons into actionable items.  In other words, if we want to be a championship caliber team, we have to make some changes and really dedicate ourselves to those changes.  The coaching staff and the team did a great job on turning our season around for the last 13 games. After the slow start, we went 11-0-2, scoring 41 goals while conceding just 8.

2) Who Deserves to Start

As I mentioned in Part 1, we had a lot of talent on this team. The coaching staff had legitimate decisions to make each and every game because more than 11 guys were good enough and deserved to start. This might seem like a good problem to have, and it is, don’t get me wrong. But the adversity comes in getting everyone the minutes they deserve, and making sure they feel like part of the team. Afterall, these are really competitive players who all want to be on the field. They have confidence and belief that they can contribute, and they want to be on the field.

Part of my sport psychology duties was to help keep these athletes sharp mentally. Over the years, a common theme for athletes that I work with is that they lose confidence when they don’t start or their minutes go down. It’s understandable, but ultimately the choice is the athlete’s: do I just let losing confidence happen, or do I change my mindset?  I talked to several of our players, and asked them to worry only about the quality of the minutes they get, and not the quantity. In other words, if you get 5 minutes, focus on putting in the best 5 minutes you can, and focus less on the 75 minutes you wish you were playing. Make your attitude and effort so strong, that you make our decision as coaches that much harder. Part of having that positive culture is to make sure everyone feels like they are contributing, even if their minutes on the field didn’t necessarily show it for a game or a week or even a month.

In our playoff run, we had guys that traditionally didn’t start show up in huge ways!  Several key goals and assists in our playoff run came from “second-stringers.” These guys didn’t let not starting kill their motivation or drive. They never felt sorry for themselves for very long, and took initiative to keep their skills and confidence sharp. Through strengthening their mindset, these players were able to overcome adversity, and perform at their best when it mattered most.

As we come into next season, this will be one of the more challenging aspects of our team dynamic. Hopefully, since we have faced this adversity already, we will. 

3) Injuries

Injuries are an unfortunate part of every sport. It’s an adversity you can’t prepare for, but you just have to react in the most positive ways you can.  Fortunately for us, as in the previous section, we had a lot of talent, and guys that could step up. We had 3 huge injuries that threatened to derail our season.

Early on in the season we lost one of our guys to a concussion for 8 games.  A solid and reliable starter, one of those players you don’t think much about how to replace him. That gave valuable time to several players, and gave him time to heal up and get back on the field for the second half of the season.

The next injury was more significant. Our captain, and at the time leading scorer, went down with a foot injury and was out for the year. We had some players who were maybe as technically talented, but there were some intangibles this player brought that were going to be tough to replace. You could tell the mood of the team was a little shaken. We had just begun to turn things around and were on a roll, and now our leader, the guy who stepped up and made things happen (like scoring a diving header against the 3rd ranked team in the state) was gone for the year.

In graduate school, I wrote my master’s thesis on leadership development. Specifically, how do you replace the leadership qualities of a player you have up until that point relied on for so long.  My short answer to the guys was, do not try to be him. We do not need anyone to replace his qualities. Just step up your own leadership qualities. Step up your own play. Do it together as a unit. That message was along the lines of Control the Controllables. Don’t try to be what our captain was, just be the best version of yourself. And to their credit, again they bought in! Some of the players who had been coming off the bench got their chance. 

Finally, in the second round of the playoffs, we lost our then leading scorer to a hamstring injury. A dynamic player with a nose for the goal, who already faced some adversity early in the season, his loss was maybe the biggest of them all. Again, this could have been devastating, but not to this team. At this point, we were pretty confident that we could handle anything. So basically, we played 3 ½ playoff games, including 3 overtimes, without our top 2 leading scorers. 

In the end, facing adversity was instrumental in our run. It’s typically not a matter of if adversity happens, but when. Not of how bad it will be, but how you decide to handle it. No one wants or asks for adversity to hit, but maybe they should!