Roughly 150 players from the nine National Women’s Soccer League teams currently find themselves in the off-season. Some have headed overseas on loan deals to clubs in Europe, Japan or Australia, but the vast majority stay rooted to a home base for the six months between N.W.S.L. seasons.
The professional women’s soccer off-season can be a mysterious topic: Except for the draft, which was held Friday, it is rarely talked about in the news media. Even the term is misleading; for those of us who aspire to be the best we can be, there is technically never an off-season. For me at least, the downtime between seasons is part of a continuous cycle of improvement.
I think of the off-season as a blank canvas. I can recreate myself as a player, fine-tune areas of my game, sharpen my strengths and attack my weaknesses head-on. It is when I improve most, by taking my development back to the basics, far from the spotlight of games or organized team training sessions.
With the freedom to decide what to do and when, maximizing my growth often comes down to choosing from a seemingly endless menu. I have learned the importance of several principles that I think are critical to the art of off-season training, or improvement of any sort:
Find experts to trust with your development. Over the years, I have devised methods of training and improving on my own. But I have learned that there are aspects of getting to the next level that I cannot tap into independently. For this, it is best to find an expert. I work with a performance coach, Chris Gorres, who is based in Virginia, on many of the areas that I had essentially ignored earlier in my career. I didn’t know better. For all the hours I spent on technique, playing pickup games and carefully keeping my body in balance to reduce the risk of injury, I missed out on certain elements necessary to take my game to the highest level: improvements in strength, explosiveness and speed. Now I try activities that push me far out of my comfort zone, like boxing, or playing basketball as a warm-up. I feel extremely uncoordinated on an almost daily basis, but I can sense myself getting better.
Another ally in my process has been a daily fitness plan created by my friend Kris Ward. Because of these workouts, which might include anything from repetitive sprints to interval runs on the field or a treadmill to even a long bike ride, I’m doing more running without the ball than I’ve ever done — and that is all on top of my soccer training and lifting. On some days I’m working out for as many as five hours.
Set your mind to succeed, and your limits will fall by the wayside. Each off-season I’ve been able to take my training a bit further, to accomplish workloads I previously thought were impossible and maximize my results. I’ve become a master of pushing through discomfort. I shut out the inner voice that pleads with me to stay in my warm bed when my alarm interrupts a deep sleep. I ignore sore muscles as I push them further each day. I even defy common sense as I bundle up to train or play pickup soccer in the snow.
I’ve devised ways to train no matter what. I search out racquetball courts, gyms and parking garages where I can bring my soccer ball for a workout at any time of day and in any kind of weather. I do exercises and stretches in my living room, hotel rooms, playgrounds — wherever they need to be done to accomplish my day’s work.
You can always work a little harder than you think is possible, but recovery must be a part of any training plan. Many times, athletes are great at knowing when to push, but they are not as skilled at knowing when to rest and recover, to let the training soak in and work. I cannot always be my own best judge, but these days I have help. With technology, I can measure and assess my body’s recovery status and readiness. Each morning, I am able to ascertain which areas of training are ideal for me to target and which I should try to avoid taxing that day.
Set long-range goals, but focus on the process. Constant improvement is one of the few aspects of my career I can control. My main goals this off-season are to improve my strength and speed and to reach a new level of fitness. These goals can feel overwhelming and unwieldy, especially when I make my own schedule and control my training program. Each morning I wake up knowing exactly what I must do that day to bring me one step closer to my goals, even if that means laying on my couch and resting. I try to maintain that focus one day at a time. On a typical day, I play small-sided games with a talented group of both men’s and women’s players. Three to four days a week I head straight to the weight room after playing. On top of that, every day (with the exception of one rest day a week), I do a fitness workout later in the evening. The time between all of this is dedicated to recovering for my next workout or my next day of training.
I am excited about how I am painting my blank canvas this off-season. Obviously, I am hoping it will lead to a successful season with my club, F.C. Kansas City, and maybe another chance with the national team. But I’ve learned to enjoy the process and to appreciate the training just for the sake of striving for improvement.
For those of us who truly embrace the off-season, it can be one of the most meaningful parts of our playing career — a time like no other to take personal responsibility for improvement and to savor the joy of just playing.