~ Yael Averbuch
Recently, I’ve been listening around the agility ring to the comments people are making before and after their run. It is fascinating to hear what people are thinking. I’ve noticed that the mental game becomes particularly important when a dog makes a mistake in the ring during the first run of the day. That mistake makes the handler pay particular attention in the second run. Let’s say your dog missed the weave entry in the first run. In the second run the handler pays extra attention to the weave entry. The mind is telling the handler to watch the weaves so that the mistake does not happen again. The mistake then becomes the focus of the second run. This usually doesn’t help the situation and, in fact, makes matters worse.
Oh yeah, I’ve been sucked into this way of thinking more than once. It usually happens when I start to say something like “my dog does not do ______” or “my dog has a _______ problem.” We’ve all been there. By improving the mental game, these self-sabotaging thoughts can be eliminated.
The challenges surrounding the mental aspect of performance and the areas that you can/cannot control are similar in many sports. I had the opportunity to ask Yael Averbuch of the 2013 US National Women’s Soccer Team a few questions regarding the mental game. (Her New York Times article entitled The Mental Game can be found here.) As a two-time Women’s Professional Soccer champion, she has a lot to offer on the subject, and I’m excited to share her thoughts with you. Her style of writing and her thoughts on the mental aspect of the sport really resonated with me. I hope you will enjoy and gain some insight as I have. (For the super enthusiastic, check out this video of Yael scoring the fastest goal in a NCAA game, which she pulled off in only four seconds into the match. That ROCKED!)
Yael had many little nuggets of information for me, and I hope they will speak to you as well. Read on to hear how she recovers from mistakes, avoids the mental roller coaster of the game and how she reaffirms why she plays her sport.
Michelle: When you have had a series of repeated mistakes or events not capitalized upon in a game how do you handle it? How do you handle it the next time you step on the field? What are you thinking? How do you avoid having two bad games in a row, so that you don’t get into a slump?
Yael: It’s never an easy thing to recovery from mistakes, but I’ve learned and developed a couple tactics over the years that have drastically helped. One is to be in the moment. While playing, there is no benefit to think about what just happened or what may happen later in the game. I try to keep my focus only on the task at hand in that single moment. That way, I can let mistakes (or even good plays) slide right by me as they happen and then be prepared for the next. Another tactic I used was shared with me by a former coach. He said, “play without a conscience.” I absolutely love that idea and it’s almost like reverting back to childhood when games were played just for the sake of playing. I have tried to adopt this principle, and while I do care very deeply about my performance, I just play and do the best I can and then forget about all the rest.
Michelle: I’d like to be able to write the analogy about the handler who steps to the line saying their dog can’t complete the weave poles because the last three trials he has come out at pole 10 instead of completing all 12 poles. What tips can you give this handler about their mental state as they step to the line with their dog?
Yael: I think that the great power in sport and competition comes from the belief that anything is possible. In soccer, I have been on teams playing a stronger opponent who on paper based on their record and players should beat my team 10 times out of 10. Yet, I have won some of those games. I have been in situations where my team was losing by a couple goals with seemingly much too little time to come back and tie the game, but sometimes we have pulled it off. It is those moments that make sport special. If every time we compete, the outcome was exactly as everyone would have expected, then there would be no point. As competitors, we must always harbor the belief that we are capable in any moment of being the hero and doing the unexpected.
Question: When you are learning a new skill, how do you get past actually practicing in practice and finally implementing it on the field? I often see dog handlers who practice new skills but it becomes game day and they won’t step up and try what they’ve been practicing for the fear of failing and not qualifying. What would you say to them?
Answer: Soccer might be a bit different in this area because it is actually a game of mistakes. Many more times within a 90-minute game, you “fail” at what you are attempting as opposed to succeeding. That’s why the scores of the game are usually only a few goals. But I think that you can gain confidence from the work you put in off the field. I love the feeling of knowing that I’ve repeated a skill until it is habit for me or that I’ve worked on something more times than any of my opponents. I also see games (while the results do matter) as opportunities to improve and learn. It is very hard to get better by always playing it safe. Stepping out of our comfort zone and trying new things is how we grow as athletes and how things that once seemed challenging become the norm for us.
Michelle: How do you handle the times when you feel like you have made a mistake and become down upon yourself? How do you get over that feeling? How do you let go and mentally get ready for the next game (or in our sport the next run)?
Yael: I try very hard to be even-keeled about what I do. Believe me, it is not easy! When you care a lot about something and invest your time and energy (both physical and emotional) in an endeavor, it is so easy for it to become a mental roller-coaster ride. For this reason, I attempt to never let my lows get too low or my highs too high. By that I mean that when I face disappointment I allow myself to feel the pain because that is a valuable motivator, but at the same time I realize that it is only one moment within my career. The same with a great moment. I feel the pride and joy of the moment and then I let it pass because there will be a next moment when I must prove myself once again. By focusing on the journey and seeing the ups and downs as only passing waves within that journey, it is a lot healthier and allows for better mental longevity. Otherwise, I would have gone crazy by now!
Michelle: I find myself not trusting my dog if he has made mistakes recently and I see a pattern. If he doesn’t complete the weave poles in the two prior runs I find myself baby-sitting the weave poles the next run. I know it doesn’t help but mentally I can’t help it.
Perhaps, a pattern in soccer could be missing two corner kicks set up just for you. You know you have missed the last two corner kicks set up for you and this time you want to get it right. How do get mentally prepared for that and not worry about the last two mistakes?
Yael: In moments like this, I try to revert back to the basics. I take the situation out of the picture and only focus on the skill or technique that I am about to perform, which I’ve done thousands of times. This is obviously easier said than done! But it is very useful to establish a mental routine. For example, every time I take a penalty kick in soccer I place the ball down the same way, take the same number of steps, pause for a moment after the referee blows the whistle, and then place the ball exactly where I’ve practiced. Yes, many times it doesn’t go exactly where I want. But in a high-pressure situation, I can forget about the outside world and only focus on my personal routine that is very familiar to me. Sometimes you have no control over outside circumstances, but you can always control how methodical and prepared you are personally.
Michelle: Do you have any mental advice to get over a pattern?
Yael: I try to purposely break patterns before they get too built up in my mind. If I’ve noticed I am doing something in particular that is causing either a successful or unsuccessful result, I try it in a drastically different way. Part of this is because I have some OCD characteristics and get really hung up on patterns or possible superstitions. There are obviously some really good patterns that can form which should not be broken. But if there is a mental or physical pattern that is not helpful to my performance I make sure to try something new and different as soon as I notice it.
Michelle: Many people in the sport of dog agility tell each other just have fun. Since, you play professionally how do you handle this statement mentally?
Yael: I believe that the basis for why we play should always be to enjoy the experience. I am incredibly fortunate to be paid to play a game that I love. However, it is impossible to have fun every time you step on the field and I’ve had to accept that. As much as I love soccer, it is my job. Sometimes I have to perform when I am tired, mentally down, or when my confidence is low. In those moments, it is not fun. Overall, it is so valuable to remember why I do what I do…simply because I love the sport and the challenge of getting better and expressing myself on the field. I put in a lot of hard work and push through some not-so-fun moments just for those few moments when I’m out there and everything “clicks.” I think everyone who competes knows the feeling–when everything seems to flow naturally and you can feel all your training paying off–those fleeting moments make all the rest so worth it!
Ah yeah! I love some of the little nuggets of information she gave us. “Play without a conscience.” I take this to mean be in the moment. Don’t worry about winning or loosing. Don’t worry about kicking the soccer ball too hard or not hard enough. Don’t worry about what your dog might or might not do. Just be in the moment.
My motto for this blog is this: Believe in yourself. Believe in your dog. Be awesome and dare greatly. Yael described that, as competitors, we must always harbor the belief that we are capable in any moment of being the hero and doing the unexpected. This sounds a lot like being AWESOME!
Ride the waves and enjoy the journey. Yael mentions you should enjoy the victories and feel the pain of disappointment, but only for a moment because it is only one moment along the journey. Be in the present.
Thanks for the insight Yael! I hope you’ll join us on the blog again sometime.
To my readers: I would greatly appreciate it if you headed on over to my Facebook page and “like” it. My goal is to get fifty likes by the end of the week. If you share and like this post on Facebook, it would mean a lot to me. And please feel free to leave a message and let me know what you do to help recover from mistakes.
Believe in yourself. Believe in your dog. Be awesome and dare greatly.