Sport in a Pandemic: Crisis or Opportunity? Chapter 2

Ashley Clark, End of Pre-season

Empty Stadium, Pre-Performance Plans

Introduction

With COVID turning the soccer world on its head these past few months, Ashley and I decided to write a series detailing how we would help her turn this crisis into an opportunity.  This season requires a change in thinking to maximize her continued growth as a player.  Clearly the old ways of getting ready for the season weren’t going to be the ideal choice, so we decided to embark on a path where we worked to tie structured mental training into the physical, technical, little tactical training opportunities she would have with her team. 

Ashley plays on Le Havre, 1 of 12 teams in Division 1 in France.  See Chapter 1 for more info on Ashley and how she began this mental training journey:  https://www.thrivesp.com/sports-in-a-pandemic-crisis-or-opportunity/

With the pre-season coming to a close, we both have been taking time to make sure Ash is sharp and ready to start the season strongly.  With this chapter Ash and I have worked to hone and direct her self-talk into purposeful, repeatable actions.  In this way we are working to limit confusion and frustration during the ever-changing training sessions, odd pre-game situations, and various positional needs.  In 2017, I conducted a group case study (published in The Soccer Journal) with a group of 30 pro players in the MLS and USL, which demonstrated that of the nine mental skills assessed, Self-Talk was the lowest scoring of the nine.  To learn more about that study Click here:   Self-Talk seemed the best next step for Ashley.

Ashley

Hi, it’s me again!  Life has begun looking a little more normal when it comes to training since we’ve been having scrimmages on Saturdays.  Actually getting to play after four months has been really huge!  My first scrimmage was August 1st, this was the first time where we would see what a typical match day during this time of COVID-19 would look like.  We had to wear a mask, of course, on the bus as we traveled to a neutral site to play our opponent.  We also had to wear our mask going into the locker room, and to check out the field before the game.  Basically any time we left the confines of the field, on went the mask.  Additional disruption occurred during the pre-game experience because our team was split up into different locker rooms where only five girls could be inside each space at a time.

The week before our scrimmage, in working with Derrek, we spent time considering the challenges for these Saturday friendlies because I wasn’t sure what position I was going to play, or even if I would start, due to our team’s health and fitness level.  So we implemented imagery sequences paired with keywords/phrases that I could use depending on where I was placed.  We came up with keywords for four different positions that I could see myself potentially playing. For example if my coach puts me as a left-winger (my normal position) the keywords I would lock into for my self-talk are “be on line” or “pocket”, “1 vs 1 or connect”, “find runner” or “take the shot.”  All depended on game situations, thirds of the field, etc.  In training I had been playing a bit as a holding mid, which is all new for me, so we kept those cue phrases much more general.  Things like “check shoulders” during possession and “get behind the ball” when we lost it.

With these short phrases locked in, I find it makes it much easier to switch on quickly during transition and find a way to be successful.  When it came time for match day, those keywords really helped me because for the first half of the match I started as the right winger and in the second half, due to an injury to a teammate, I played as a defensive center mid (which as you know I had never played before in my life).  Using these pre planned cue words and phrases that I’ve been adding to my toolbox I was able to be successful during transitions and help our team during the match.  It really cut down the time I might have ordinarily spent dwelling on the last play.  This in turn proved to my coach that I am a versatile player.

A week later during the next scrimmage I was able to use the same tools because I played defensive center mid the whole match and did well for our team!  I’ve learned as a pro that being able to think on your feet and adapt to situations goes a long way not only as a player but also as a person.  You never know what your team will need.  If your coach can turn to you as a resource for any position knowing that you will work hard and have a positive attitude about it, you will show that you are a dangerous player in any position.  I think especially during these COVID times, with so many unknowns, everyone can relate to the not knowing what is next, just like I felt when I didn’t really know what to do as a defensive center mid for my team.  However, as long as you have a good attitude, manage your self-talk, be purposeful in your on-field actions, and work with what you have, you can always find a way to positively impact the game or training sessions.

Continuing to sharpen the mental side of my game is helping tremendously so far this preseason because COVID-19 has already added another level of stress and unpredictability. My confidence and purpose on the field has risen even though the situation around me has been less than ideal.  I even feel like I can sort of play as a #6 now, although only simply, but at least that’s better than leaving my team hanging.  Amazing how effective “check shoulders” and “get behind the ball” can fuel my speed in training and transition moments during games.  I feel like increasing my use of self-talk and being purposeful with my internal dialogue has quickened up my decision making as pre-season comes to a close, which is helping me become an even sharper, more fluid player who can think on her feet.

We have a few more scrimmages left in the month of August and our first official match in the highest league in France is September 5th, so I have to keep working.  I can’t wait to continue to share my journey with y’all!  Keep working hard and becoming better every day in any way you can!  Stay safe and healthy!

Mental Training Tips from Derrek and Ashley:

1). Instead of being distracted by the challenges COVID is presenting us with, take a breath and relax.  You can’t change it, so find a way to adapt and help your team.

2). Recognize that pre-planned self-talk cues will direct your attention to effective choices during play.  Without these pre-planned phrases players tend to dwell on mistakes or previous plays during transitions.

3).  Pair your positionally specific self-talk phrases with your mental imagery work to help lock in a sound plan of action before you take the field for training or games.

Be purposeful in your approach and enjoy getting to learn and grow in your game!