Is the U.S. Behind Technically? 4 Questions to Consider in the Analysis of How We Match Up in the Soccer World

[Originally Published on The Special Ones] Anyone who watches the U.S. National Teams with a critical eye has surely contemplated the discussion of a potential technical deficit compared to the rest of the world. On both the men’s and women’s side, the typical American team displays unparalleled passion, courage, desire to win, and most often fields fit, strong athletes. That’s a given when you see a group donning the red, white, and blue. Where does our nation stand with the ball at our feet, though? Before we can answer that question, it is valuable to delve into a deep analysis of soccer technique.

An Even Playing Field for the Women's World Cup

The clock is ticking as the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada approaches next summer.

National teams are preparing, working to identify the players that will give them the best chance for success. Fans are gearing up, some booking tickets to experience the event in person. But there is something gnawing at the enthusiasm within the women’s soccer world. The World Cupvenues all have artificial turf fields.

World Cup Withdrawal

If you are like me, you are suffering from post-World Cup depression.

Like so many viewers around the world, for the last month I have been glued to my television, enthralled by the excitement, skill and tension playing out in Brazil. Now I’m suffering from withdrawal.

If someone had written a script for this World Cup, I doubt it could have encompassed as much drama over the past weeks in Brazil. Heroes were made — like the 23-year-old Colombian James Rodríquez, who scored a tournament-high six goals. And so were villains — the bite seen around the world by Uruguay’s Luis Suárez overshadowed much of his brilliant play on the field.

Powerhouses (Spain) were easily overthrown, while underdogs (Costa Rica) threatened the traditional hierarchy. The flamboyant and emotional host nation was stunned and silenced by the perfectly executed game plan of Germany. Cultures and playing styles clashed, individuals surprised and disappointed, fans screamed in celebration and wept with disappointment, all for a game that transcends the playing field.

During the tournament, some questions came to mind:

Why Is the Beautiful Game So Beautiful?

I’m obsessed with this sport. Beyond my career as a player, and fascination with mastering the skills and athletic qualities to compete, soccer/football/futebol, whatever you call it, has captivated me as a spectator. I often find myself trying to explain and defend the game to the part of the American public who still cannot quite wrap their minds around what makes the sport special. “It’s so boring!” “There isn’t much action.” “I can’t stand all the diving and faking injuries.”

I still contend that soccer is well worth all the hype. The beauty is in the details. The nuances are what make the long games with frequent low scores so fascinating and enthralling. The game is a constant battle of vastly different athletic abilities and skills. Technique, ingenuity, speed, strength, quickness, agility and stamina are on a constant sliding scale as teams compile their best mixture to match opponents. I constantly observe how team tactics can combat individual brilliance, which can come in so many forms, and vice versa. The sheer number of avenues to success breeds a sporting competition like no other.

A low-scoring game allows for more chance of an upset. This World Cup highlighted the importance of last-minute goals and that no underdog can be underestimated. This adds an element of tension unique to the sport.

How Could I Be So Disappointed by the Golden Ball Winner?

I am a huge Leo Messi fan. I think he is possibly the greatest player ever to play the game and I wanted Argentina to win the World Cup solely so that he could add it to his résumé.

I am not one of those who think that everyone on the field must put equal effort and work hard defensively. I don’t mind Messi saving energy for the important moments of brilliance he is able to produce. I watched in disbelief, however, as the minutes of the final ticked away and his effort did not change. And then Argentina was down a goal. Still no change. There was no longer anything to rest for, yet Messi walked and waited for his moment. That moment never came.

As the final whistle blew, I was happy that Germany had won. The greatest player in the world, who I had once seen chase down opposing defenders and win the ball back for his team or lay off the ball on the halfway line and work to get into the box to get on the end of a cross, did nothing of the sort. I don’t care how tired he was, how frustrated. … I cannot fathom walking through the last five minutes of the World Cup final. I think Messi is brilliant and capable of things that no other player on the planet can do. But in my estimation he was not the best player at the World Cup, nor did he deserve to hoist the trophy.

Will the Hype Last in the U. S.?

As I looked on Twitter to see the lineups for Germany-Argentina, I said: Can you imagine what it would feel like to be warming up, about to start in a World Cup final? One of the people I was with laughed and said, referring to the video game, “Yeah, I do it like every day on FIFA.” The sad truth is that, to a lot of Americans, soccer is still only a fun game to play on Xbox, a weird foreign fascination to get hyped about once every four years.

In the wake of the biggest sporting event in the world, which permeates cultures everywhere, perhaps the United States has bounced back most quickly. “SportsCenter” has an abundance of news from other sports to cover, with relatively minimal residual World Cup analysis.

That being said, I have a lot of hope. Despite the Jimmy Kimmel segment, in which a handful of self-proclaimed serious soccer supporters erroneously commented in-depth on Landon Donovan’s performance in the World Cup, I do think our country is starting to fall in love with the game. Walking through Dupont Circle in Washington during the U.S.-Germany game gave me a sense of the passion felt around the world. The soccer jerseys I saw on the metro, worn everywhere and pervasive comments on social media also signified the unprecedented support for the American team. It was important that we emerged from group play, because after all, our society is obsessed with winners.

My hope is that the drama, tension, and excitement has made more people fall in love with the game I have loved for years. Maybe true love takes a while, but this World Cup was surely a good first date.

Success Is in the Eye of the Beholder

I smile and sign autographs no matter what. Most fans don’t seem to care much if we won or lost. They don’t know if I had the game of my life or a complete shocker. They say, “Great game! You were awesome!” Sometimes they even tell me I was wonderful when I didn’t play a single minute. I thank them whether I feel on top of the world or have a lump of disappointment in my throat.

What the fans don’t know is that sometimes after a bad day at the proverbial office, I need them more than they need me. The 11-year-old with the Washington Spirit jersey doesn’t know how I feel as I smile and take a selfie with her. To that girl, I was already successful the second I stepped onto the field to warm up. She isn’t judging my every move or measuring me based on my personal goals.

If there’s one lesson playing professional soccer has taught me, it is to redefine my notion of success. Success is relative, subjective, and often very abstract.

With the exception of the Seattle Reign, most National Women’s Soccer League teams have embarked on a roller-coaster ride results-wise this season. As players, the majority of us come from winning programs. Whether with our youth clubs or college teams, we spent the first 20-plus years of our careers training a mentality of dominance, personally and with our teams. So for most of us, it’s mind-boggling to be fighting to stay above .500 or to be flirting with mediocrity in our performances.

Consequently, I have learned to define success not in the outcome but in the process. It has become about consistently moving forward — not necessarily checking a goal off my to-do list.

I try to turn my attention to more process-oriented thinking. Before I play, I make a personal script and fight to stick to that script. I identify what I need to do — where I should be receiving the ball, the angle I need to take to be able to go forward with my first touch, the technique I need to use to win balls in the air — and only give my attention to those objectives. I know exactly what I need to do to have a good game and I battle to make that happen.

It’s the same with my team. We go into every game with the aim of winning. But soccer is known to defy logic — sometimes you can do everything to prepare and the result still doesn’t go your way. The Washington Spirit has gotten points in our last three games, which is a club record, and obviously a streak we strive to continue. It’s a constant fight for consistency, however. As we scrap to grind out results, put together complete performances, and find the perfect system and player combinations to be successful, our focus is on being better every day.

In the movie “The Amazing Spider Man 2,” a character says, “What makes life valuable is that it doesn’t last forever, what makes it precious is that it ends.” Similarly, what makes success sweet is to have battled through defeat and persevered. What makes personal victory rewarding is that it comes through fighting to create new habits and perfect certain skills. What makes us confident is that we’ve known doubt and decided to ignore it.

I no longer question why those fans feel the way they do no matter what kind of game it’s been. I graciously accept the praise and know that the 11-year-old me would be proud of who I am today. It is all the aspects of the process that I attend to that make me successful, not any one goal I have or have not yet achieved.

From Childhood to a Soccer Career, Much Has Stayed the Same

I often write about change — the constant fluctuations in my thought process and reinvention of myself as a person and a soccer player. My environment and situation are constantly in flux. This year in the National Women’s Soccer League is no different.

Yet somehow, the path of progress is strewn with markers denoting the constants. Maybe more impressive than the ways in which I have changed over the years are the ways I have remained the same as I encounter each new twist and turn of the roller coaster ride that is my career and life.

Here are eight ways I am reminded I have stayed the same since I was 8 years old:

■ I Am, and Always Will Be, a Perfectionist From the little girl kicking my ball against the wall at the schoolyard to the professional player I am today, anyone who has seen me train can attest that I have no tolerance for not getting it right. The evidence is in the many outtakes of my backyard skill challenges on my YouTube Channel.

■ I Have a Competitive Drive For the most part, this is a wonderful attribute. But like anyone who is extremely competitive, there are days that my rage gets the better of me. During preseason training with theWashington Spirit, we had a 4v4 tournament and I was quickly reminded that I have certainly not conquered this rage. After my guttural yell after losing, Ali Krieger turned to me. “Are you O.K.?” she said, but her body language and tone were saying, “You have to be kidding with that reaction.” I ended up apologizing to my teammates for the outburst.

■ I Am Obsessed With Mastery From the first time I tried to juggle a soccer ball (my blowup “Lion King” ball that fell victim to deflation after I got frustrated and bit it) to this day, I am fueled and driven by striving for mastery. I train repetitions of mundane techniques for hours because I am always after that feeling of when it finally clicks. This obsession is often apparent when I am made to stop a drill in training before I or the team really gets it down. A feeling of fury swells up within me and often all I have to do is look at Lori Lindsey to know that I am not alone in my quest for that feeling of mastery.

■ I Am Single-Minded I always joke about how I’m not well-rounded. I am focused on a few, simple things in my life and that’s how I like to keep it. My parents used to urge me to expand my social life (“expand” is a relative term considering I had none) or try other sports. My decision on these matters was apparent on our recent team outing to the bowling alley. Let’s just say I would have hit more pins if I could have kicked the ball down the lane.

■ I Bounce Back Quickly Whether I have a setback or one with my team, I can’t stay bummed for too long. It’s as if my mind has a natural refresh button. Our Washington Spirit season got off to a rough start with a 3-1 loss in our home opener to Western New York. I couldn’t sleep that night. I replayed the game over and over in my mind before actually watching it in its entirety at 4 a.m. All it took was getting back onto the field for that next training session and I had a different feeling. The motivation to be better and the energy of the team were contagious and the first game was erased, just like that.

■ I Love When My Parents Come Watch Me Play From my first soccer game, which had no goalkeepers, to this day, it means the world to me when my family and loved ones can watch me play. When my parents drove down from New Jersey for the Spirit’s home opener, it was the same. It doesn’t matter to me if I’m kicking around in a parking lot or suiting up for my professional team or with the U.S. women’s national team. Having my loved ones present to share my passion is everything to me.

■ I’m Sensitive About What I Do I have always craved and sought constructive criticism. As a person and a player, I need honest feedback to strive to be better than I am today. But that doesn’t mean I am not extremely sensitive at the same time. I care deeply about what I do and put a lot of time and energy into it. So when it doesn’t go as planned, the reality hurts. A lot. Whether it’s following our team’s first win against Kansas City or our loss on the road to the Seattle Reign, sometimes I dread watching clips of my performance. I have to be careful to strike a balance when I break down every aspect of my play — critique when it’s called for but also acknowledgment of what I’ve done well.

■ I’m Sentimental The reason I first started writing a journal was so that I could record everything I did and every thought I had at the time. I’ve always had a deep sense of gratitude and appreciation for what I’m experiencing, both the wonderful and difficult times. It is my attempt to make permanent what seems so ephemeral and it comes in many forms — a quote that captures how I felt in a moment, a song that reminds me of living in Sweden, and my writing exploring how I continually change but at the same time always stay the same.

Another Preseason, With a New Perspective

Sometimes I wonder when I watch veterans like Christie Rampone and Heather O’Reilly — does it ever get old? What does each game, meeting each new teammate and warming up for each training session feel like to a player like that?

It dawned on me recently that I am now in that veterans category. I’m starting a season with my fifth professional club. And, no, it doesn’t get old, ever. Each time I embark on a new voyage.

Seeking New Landscapes I can be at home in New Jersey, in Russia, Sweden and now in Washington. The landscape — the situation — is not what matters. Every preseason is somewhat the same, no matter which side of the world it’s on. You meet a new set of people, are exposed to a fresh slate in terms of results and are pushed mentally and physically to prepare for the grueling demands of a full season of games. The beauty is while it’s always much the same, each time it can also be vastly different.

Having New Eyes As I begin preseason with the Washington Spirit, I look ahead with excitement at what’s to come in the 2014 National Women’s Soccer League season. Beyond the grind of weeks of double sessions — legs aching and sore, mind saturated with tactical ideas — is a full season representing a new club with new teammates led by a new coach. Most important, I finally have a teammate who sweats as much as I do. Thank you, Lori Lindsey!

A new perspective has led me to identify three ways my approach has changed since being a rookie:

■ I’m Not My Absolute Fittest I’ve always come into preseason at the peak of fitness, ready to push my body to its absolute limit and make a statement on fitness testing. Playing in Sweden opened my eyes to a different approach. There, the players take their short off-season off(imagine that!). Then they have a long preseason to build back into match fitness as a team. It’s nearly impossible to arrive at preseason in top fitness and then to maintain that throughout the entire season. It’s vital, however, to enter the relatively short and intense N.W.S.L. preseason with a solid base to be able to absorb the training load and avoid injury. My approach in this off-season was to work to get better as a player, not to prepare for preseason. Preseason is the preparation.

■ I Don’t Need to Be Best Friends With Every Teammate Playing for a college soccer team is the ultimate fakeout. I literally had 20 best friends who were all about my age and lived within two miles of me. So, naturally, I expected that every team would feel that way. It’s not that I don’t want to get along and share mutual respect with every woman on the Spirit, but I no longer feel the need to bond in quite the same way. I have some great friends on my team, and I enjoy time off the field with the group. But sometimes it’s nice to have friends who have different jobs and interests and can take the discussion away from the latest team drama and tactical concepts.

■ I’m Not Taking Total Responsibility for My Performance Because I’ve played in so many different environments and often trained on my own for months at a time in the off-season, I have often felt responsible for my own performance. Don’t get me wrong, what I produce on the field is absolutely dependent on my focus and work rate, and I will never allow those aspects to waver. But I’ve come to the point where I need help to get to the next level, and I am ready to put my development in the hands of others. I am trying to shift my focus away from myself and onto being a positive and valuable member of the team. I have bought into Coach Mark Parsons’s approach and will trust that he will provide me with the environment and feedback to improve and succeed. Similarly, I will gladly turn my physical development over to the strength and conditioning coach Kevin Boyle. I will always invest the same desire, eagerness and high standards for myself, but now I’m ready to accept help when it comes to the final product. I believe that if I invest my energy in the team, the team will buoy me.

Once again, I find myself learning to strike a new balance in a familiar situation. When I step onto the field at the Maryland Soccerplex to warm up for our home opener on April 13, I will be facing a clean slate once again. Yes, for me this is a new landscape, but my new eyes are what make all the difference.

Do You Know Your Calling?

photo 2As I am about to enter my fourth year writing about my soccer journey from the United States to Russia to Sweden and back home, I am often struck by the feedback I’ve received. Readers have related how some of what I have written affects them, and their comments have also given me new topics to ponder. They have all led me to consider why I do what I do.

About a month ago, I got a message from Kathy Takahashi, an avid soccer fan and player of 38 years. In considering the various stresses I face as a professional player, she wrote: “There has to be something more enduring than simply love of the game. In pondering this, one word keeps coming to mind: calling.”

I considered what Kathy had said. What does it mean to have a calling? Does everyone have one or only a select few? How many people never find their calling? Or how many do, but it is disguised in a way that they don’t realize?

I have a group of friends who often have conversations about their jobs and whether or not they are happy. A lack of fulfillment is often the cause of stress and a catalyst for conversation. I follow the discussion, but as I sit there, leg muscles aching with a sense of satisfaction from my day’s work, I realize I have nothing to add. I’ve taken for granted that although I have my ups and downs, I know I’m doing what I’m truly meant to be doing.

Recently, I’ve started training with a couple of experts in the Washington area, and I wake up early every morning excited to get to work and motivated about what they are helping me achieve. I leave each technical session with Kris Ward with a renewed sense of how much better I can be. And I walk out of the gym after having worked on my strength, speed and explosiveness with Chris Gorres of Explosive Performance feeling exhilarated because I am unlocking my athletic potential.

My friends discuss a simple formula to identify positive work (and life) situations. Think of the times at which you feel the greatest sense of achievement, productivity and joy. Then, using specific examples of those times, break them down to the most generic form of the activity or action that caused the wonderful feeling of success. This is the type of situation in which you can identify your calling and find fulfillment in nearly any field. I considered the application of this concept to my own life.

I love to take a grand vision, a brilliant final product, and break it down to the basics — the most doable steps to achieve it. The idea of progress, maximizing potential, and doing so in a methodical way are almost addicting feelings to me. I am obsessed with the daily steps that give life to a far-off goal. That is why I always say how much I love the journey, and not just the destination.

Takahashi also told me about her work. “And, in many ways, it wasn’t really about me, but rather about something bigger than me,” she said. “I want my work to matter; I want it to make a difference in the lives of others; and I want it to last.”

I agree that part of one’s calling involves the feeling that there is meaning beyond mere personal achievement. Every young player who refers to trying a challenge from my YouTube channel and every bit of feedback I receive about these articles are gratifying because they emphasize my connection to people through this sport, and the influence I can have by simply sharing my journey with others. I want people to feel, through witnessing and reading about what I do, that all dreams are attainable if you have a realistic timetable, and approach things consistently and efficiently.

Kathy said: “Maybe both fear and passion are part of calling. The fear of failure and the pain I might encounter in doing something so far out of my comfort zone terrified me, but the joy I experienced in the work itself was what kept me there.”

I agree. A calling doesn’t mean it comes easy and doesn’t mean it isn’t terrifying to go down that path. A calling resides in the things we are drawn to do for some reason outside logic and understanding. It is the processes about which we are passionate that come naturally to us. It is through our calling that we can make the most positive impact on the world around us. My calling happens to be not only playing the beautiful game, but attempting to share the nuances of my journey with those around me.

I happened to intuitively know my calling when I was 9 years old. Some of my friends are discovering theirs at 27. And other people may find theirs much later in life. Some are able to make theirs a source of income, others find it in a hobby and still others’ calling is to be a parent or loved one. There’s no right answer to Kathy’s question, but everyone does have an answer. It comes in what excites us and terrifies us and makes our life worth living.

Do you know your calling?

Yael Averbuch, 27, a native of Montclair, N.J., will be playing this coming season for the Washington Spirit of the National Women’s Soccer League.

 

A Souvenir and a Memory

MONTCLAIR, N.J. — As I cleaned out my room before moving to Washington, I found a small piece of red fabric crumpled among some keepsakes. I have stacks of journals that catalog my thoughts, hopes, fears and dreams, as well as anything and everything that reminds me of my various adventures over the years. You could say I’m more than slightly sentimental. Writings, photos, objects and song lyrics all transport me in time.

I held the red fabric in my hand and decided, for the second time, that it was one of the best gifts anyone had ever given me. The first time I thought this was in 2008, after the final game of my career at the University of North Carolina, when I opened a card from Casey Loyd (née) Nogueira and the red flag fluttered out.

I’m a controlled person — in both my actions and emotions. I seldom lose my cool. I remember screaming at the top of my lungs when the ball hit the back of the net during the N.C.A.A. national championship game my senior year. Tears filled my eyes, and I started sprinting. No idea where. Anywhere. Everywhere. I fell onto a pile of my teammates and hugged them and continued to scream.

In training, the aim was always to hit the red flag. Casey and I would show up at Finley practice fields in Chapel Hill, N.C., an hour before training started so that we could work on free kicks. If you hit the red flag, a roughly 2-inch-by-2-inch tag that hung in the top corner of each side of the net, you automatically won.

In that final game, we were down, 1-0, against Notre Dame and time was running out. Maybe this is it, I thought. Maybe it’s just not our day. Then we got a free kick from the spot that was one of Casey’s specialties. I knew this from the hours we spent at Finley. As it landed perfectly where the red flag hung in our training nets, I lost my mind.

At first I was bothered that Casey always wanted to join me in those training sessions. I like to practice free kicks on my own. I can get more reps and take them from exactly where I want to take them, with no one in the way. So I was mildly annoyed when Casey asked if she could come with me early to training, especially because I had to give her a ride.

Over time it became a fun ritual, though. We would go early to the field and enjoy the time when it was just us and the bag of balls before everyone else showed up and the structure of training took over.

There are some times in your life when you put in work and do all the little things right, and have nothing but faith that they will somehow pay off — maybe even in an unintended way. I have never felt more a part of a goal as the free kick Casey scored in that championship game. It was the goal that put us back in the game, renewed our hope, and allowed us to eventually win, 2-1. I finished my college career a national champion.

It was one of the most special moments of my career. What I learned at U.N.C. is that success is never an accident. Winning is not about what happens the day of the game, when you leave it to chance. Some moments come unexpectedly. And some moments are born from a notion, a vision, that one day the tedious minutia that might be a pain today, will be incredibly worth it down the road.

Thank you Casey. I keep this little piece of red fabric to remind me to have faith in that minutia.

A Long and Winding Road

Sometimes when I’m facing uncertainty or upheaval, I try to think back to what I expected life to be like as a professional soccer player when I first made that my goal. The truth is, I didn’t think much about the actuality of the profession. I remember when W.U.S.A., the first women’s professional soccer league in the United States, folded my father let me know that he would help to support me financially while I continued to pursue my dreams if after college there was no way for me to make a living playing and training. I think about that conversation often and how fortunate I am to be employed doing what I love.

Being a professional soccer player has afforded me invaluable opportunities and adventures. But with the pros (pun intended) come some cons.

There is a lack of stability that goes hand-in-hand with the lifestyle. I am in a continual tryout where I must prove myself. The discrepancy between where I am and where I want to be all too often bares its angry teeth and brings me to tears. I barely get settled in a place before upheaval strikes again and it’s time to move.

Love the journey.

Sometimes I wonder how I can possibly love this journey when the journey seems to be my most formidable opponent. It certainly can feel a lot less lovable than when I first coined that motto and jotted it down in my journal.

I waited by the phone on Jan. 2, eagerly anticipating a call that would inform me to which N.W.S.L. team I would be allocated. Would I be staying close to home or moving across the country? Would I live in market only during the season, or want to stay all year and make it my new home? Who would be my next teammates?

In the phone conversation with Commissioner Cheryl Bailey, the next chapter of my life was revealed. Once again, the excitement of a fresh start has me loving the journey. I am thrilled to be a member of the Washington Spirit! I will finally be moving out of my parents’ place and hoping to forge some stability in this tumultuous lifestyle. While I will no longer have my mom there to make my lunch, Spirit Coach Mark Parsons has been assembling a fabulous team and I have a lot of friends in the D.C. area.

In the next few weeks I will pack up and move. I will be take my belongings — my U.N.C. pillow and Kopparbergs/Goteborg F.C. drinking glasses among them — but also the cumulative effects of my previous experiences and emotions. At times the journey has dragged me down, devastated and exhausted me, but I am never left jaded. My intrinsic inspiration keeps my spirit resilient and fuels my relentless fire.

At times I may wonder how to love the journey, but it is this inspiration that makes the journey worth loving in the first place. All I need are a few momentary reminders. They come in the form of the excitement of a fresh start with the Washington Spirit; the courage it takes to not believe anyone who doesn’t believe in me; my disappointment that I’m not as fast as Sydney Leroux or as quick as Megan Rapinoe turned to sheer gratitude after seeing a woman in a wheelchair; a stack of essays that an under-11 girls’ soccer team wrote about me and my career.

How can I not love the journey?

Midfielder Yael Averbuch, a native of Montclair, N.J., is part of the player pool for the U.S. women’s national team and now a member of the Washington Spirit of the N.W.S.L.

 

Genius or Insanity?

“Here’s to the crazy ones — the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules, and they have no respect for the status quo. …” — Steve Jobs “Christen! Knee over the ball!” Christen Press talks to herself in the third person on the field when her finishing isn’t up to par.

Ali Hawkins, a fellow Tar Heel, ran every fitness session barefoot because that’s how she had trained growing up in Southern California.

Heather O’Reilly rips off her shirt as a personal reward part way through the beep test (a grueling fitness test). She claims it helps her mentally to reach a few more levels.

Christie Rampone never listens to music while running so that she can hear her breathing and be fully in touch with how she feels.

Casey Loyd (née Nogueira) sometimes didn’t warm up at all, or decided to dance instead of stretch. But she could break into a full sprint and rainbow a defender at any moment she chose.

“… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify, or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things. …”

The life of Steve Jobs makes me consider the fine line between craziness and genius. Like many who rip holes in the status quo, he was single-mindedly focused on a vision that, at times, only he could see. Many of my teammates at North Carolina, the professional level and now on the U.S. national team share the craziness that extreme drive and passion induces.

In a physically and mentally intense training camp such as the one we just had with the women’s national team, players’ quirks and bizarre rituals become apparent. We are unique — from what we choose to eat, to how we conceptualize what we do, to our compulsive nature when it comes to training and competing. But exceptional individuals are just that: exceptions to the norm.

“… They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. ...”

I studied psychology at the University of North Carolina. In my Abnormal Psychology class, we learned that when certain personality traits cause serious impairment of function, then they become considered symptomatic of a disorder. But what about when some of those same traits lead to high achievement? Then we call it genius.

If you study the D.S.M. (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), you may notice that the distinguishing factors of several personality disorders — impulsivity, notions of grandiosity, preoccupation with ritual, perfectionism — also exist in the majority of high-functioning individuals. In this case, these traits do not lead to dysfunction and are not destructive. They are extremely potent tools for success.

Sometimes you have to do crazy things to push your personal limit or the limits society dictates. Nothing about greatness is normal. And neither are the ones who achieve it.

“… Because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.” — Steve Jobs

Soccer and Logic Don't Often Mix

signing

MONTCLAIR, N.J. — In 500 words, I’m about to logically explain why I do not subscribe to logic.

When we are children, we believe that anything is possible. As we grow up, the world begins to be shaped by rules.

You are a girl, so at a certain age you should no longer play soccer with boys. You are not fast or aggressive enough to succeed playing for the women’s soccer program at the University of North Carolina. That trick with the ball is impossible. You shouldn’t devote all your time and energy to soccer because you will burn out from the lack of balance. All of this is logical, but all of this is wrong.

I’m laying in the same bed in my parents’ house in which I slept as a 9-year-old. I’m 27. No home of my own home; I have a job that is incredibly unstable; and I get paid to play a game. I am on a continual mission to find fulfillment from a journey with no destination. None of this is logical, yet all of this is right.

Throughout my career, I’ve had to make tough decisions. I opted out of playing for my high school team to train with boys’ teams. I decided to play for a college program that didn’t suit my playing style, and that I knew would be an incredible challenge. I chose to leave my hometown team, Sky Blue, after two seasons in Women’s Professional Soccer (W.P.S.) to play for the Western New York Flash.

Then, in the absence of a women’s professional league in the U.S., I traveled to Russia and then Sweden to continue my career. When the N.W.S.L. was announced, I decided to stay in Sweden instead of terminating my existing contract to return for the inaugural season of the new league. Most recently, I decided not to re-sign with my team in Gothenburg, Sweden, and return to the U.S. to play in the N.W.S.L. for the 2014 season.

“If you do what everyone else does, you will get what everyone else gets.” This clichéd quotation has become my truth. None of the situations I’ve faced have correct answers. And I don’t live by logic because passion has the power to trump logic.

Logic tells me what I’m supposed to do. Logic tells me to put a timeline on my goals. Logic tells me to compare myself to other players. But I say that logic is for those bound by fear. It explains the world if you don’t have the guts to explain it your own way. Everything extraordinary — passion, faith, love — goes against logic.

Sometimes you need to let yourself believe in the possibilities rather than protect yourself with the realities or patterns that have come before. If you buy into what’s logical you’ll only prove those previous patterns right. It’s when you step outside the norm that the most extraordinary things can happen.

When I lace up my boots there is no room for logic.

Messi or Ronaldo?

After Cristiano Ronaldo’s third goal against Sweden in the World Cup qualifying playoffs in Stockholm, the camera panned the crowd. The Swedish fans had a look of despair. It wasn’t even anger or frustration, simply pure despair. It was what I imagine the ancient Greeks looked like in myths when tragedy struck at the hands of the gods — pained, but resigned to the fact that the destruction was not the work of an Earthly power.

It is the same look that I have often seen on the faces of defenders in Spain’s La Liga, as Barcelona’s Lionel Messi glides past a perfectly shaped defensive line in one slaloming dribble. There is nothing to be done but accept the circumstances in awe.

There are players that seem to defy the human realm of ability. Even on the world’s biggest stage they can dominate with seeming ease and alone change the course of a game. So who — between these two gods among men — is the best in the world: Ronaldo or Messi?

As a psychology major and an elite athlete fascinated by the concept of mastery in sports and in life in general, I often contemplate greatness. Similar to intelligence, I surmise that there are different genres of athletic greatness. An athlete can be physically superior, with incredible speed, agility, balance, explosiveness, strength; technically great, with the ability to pick up skills quickly and make complex movements habitual; visually and spatially great, with an uncanny sense of where to be and when, and knowledge of where others are; and last, an athlete can have a tremendous capacity for the drive and discipline to train not only substantially, but in the best way possible

My experience has led me to believe that every athlete falls somewhere on a spectrum of ability when it comes to those qualities. With that innate ability as a starting point, every area can be focused on and improved to a certain extent. Whereas I may not be blessed with the same speed or agility as some of the top female soccer players in the world, I have gifts in the other areas. I have a good sense of how to train and can spend hours on a task without getting bored or distracted. This is as much of a talent as a good time in the 40-yard sprint.

And so my opinion on the Ronaldo versus Messi debate is formed. …

Ronaldo makes more sense to me as a player. He does moves that we all learn as youngsters, albeit combining about 47 of at a time. He makes runs that we have seen drawn up on chalkboards. He finishes using the techniques that coaches have players practice in drills. He does all of that better than anyone else. Ronaldo has proved himself effective in multiple environments, with different teammates and under different managers. Messi has yet to do this to the same extent.

Ronaldo has obvious physical gifts, but his greatness has been honed through purposeful repetition. This is something that is logical and familiar to me. When I watch Messi, I see something more innate, something almost beyond what can be verbalized.

Messi’s movements are not trained in the weight room or with an agility ladder. His dribbling is not composed of moves that can be taught by a coach. Even his finishing is often not something he could have trained with repetition on the practice field. He is, by all definitions of the word, an instinctual athlete (not to say, of course, that he doesn’t work exceptionally hard in training).

I cannot say that Ronaldo or Messi is better than the other. They both illustrate the inevitable combination of an inherent gift with the characteristics and circumstances that enable them to excel. There is no single ingredient that creates greatness, just as there is no single definition of greatness.

I am simply more in awe of what Messi displays, because it is beyond my logical comprehension. He brings the game to life in a way that challenges my imagination. I appreciate both of their talent, but if otherworldly, inexplicable greatness is a determining factor, Messi gets my vote.

In Sweden, the Fika Experience

fika photoCoffee is a way of life in Sweden. It is not simply a beverage you grab to go, or something used for a jolt in the morning. Coffee is an experience. Particular aspects of Swedish culture have made me aware of how inherently American I am. I am never satisfied — always looking to do more or find methods to do things better. In many ways, this is a wonderful quality and has been the backbone for my career. But I’ve learned to couple this with a bit of Swedish mentality, which also can be extremely beneficial. I have learned this through coffee.

What I’ve come to enjoy about Swedes is that there is rarely any rush or agenda behind their coffee drinking. A coffee is taken (as they say) after every meal and is often included in the price of the meal. Most Swedes drink their coffee black, or with a touch of milk and/or sugar. It is not convoluted by cream, excessive sweetener or flavoring.

This experience is similarly wholesome — typically not marred by any planned purpose or urgency of any sort. As an American, I had been accustomed to getting coffee to boost my energy during a day packed with activities. Or sometimes I would plan to meet over coffee to discuss business or catch up with friends. In Sweden, I’ve come to relish the art of what is called fika. Fika, as a noun, refers to the combination of coffee and usually some sort of sweet snack. But fika, as a verb, is the act of partaking in a Swedish social institution.

My soccer career has been nothing short of a roller-coaster ride. Because I am so heavily invested, every success or momentary failure can wreak havoc on my mind and spirit. I have learned in some ways to thrive on the tumult, but in other ways the upheaval takes a huge toll. The fika experience is a time of stillness amid my roller-coaster ride. I used to go sit in a coffee shop to write, or check things off from my to-do list. But the true nature of the fika is to enjoy time and company with no plan or purpose. To fika is not to do, but simply to be.

At times, living abroad was tough. It can be excruciatingly lonely to uproot your life and settle in a new place. In addition, the second half of our season at Kopparbergs/Goteborg was difficult, to say the least. We had a number of disappointing performances, a team wracked with injuries and illness, and our coach (Torbjorn Nilsson, who is highly respected and who coached at the club for six years) announced his intention to quit with a few games left.

I recently arrived home from Sweden with a day to spare before being thrown into yet another emotionally turbulent environment: camp with the U.S. women’s national team. The life of a professional soccer player does include ample free time, but I realize more and more that the mind is never at rest. When I’m off the field, I often replay training or game situations again and again or visualize future ones.

These situations have led me to appreciate some things I typically might overlook in a more comfortable situation or when everything is running smoothly. I have learned to thoroughly enjoy the company of good people, for no other reason than to enrich my life and feel the joy of their companionship. I have learned to shut off my inner drive and personal angst temporarily. And I have learned, over a cup of coffee, for even a brief time to stop doing and to enjoy just being.