What is it that Every Athlete Wants?

Feb. 07, 2019, 7:19 p.m. (ET)

Content Courtesy of Harrow Sports and Ashley Hoffman

This is a question that the U.S. Women’s National Team has been tasked with answering ever since our team retreat in December. The first time we were asked, we came up with answers such as: success, happiness, mastery and excellence. At the time that I was brought onto the team. I also thought, I want success, happiness and mastery. That is what we are all working for isn’t it? To become the best athletes we can and for that to be validated with successes, hopefully on the biggest stages of sport. 

These answers I learned were too shallow. I now look at it this way. When I look back at my 2018 undefeated college season at the University of North Carolina, I look back fondly at finally receiving the validation and holding that National Championship trophy in the air. However, I get goosebumps when I think about the depths we had to get to on the day to day. The heart that each teammate put into their pre-game speeches, and the challenges solved together in the heat of competition, when it mattered the most. Those are the memories I cherish the most, not the accolades that were born from it. 

At the end of the retreat week my interpretation of what we as a team, with the help of our amazing Sports Psychologist Peter Haberl, concluded was that every athlete ultimately wants to control their mind. To a point that our bodies, minds, and souls are fully into a competition that pushes us to our absolute limits. 

Peter works with our team on mindfulness. This is a training of our minds to allow us to be fully engaged in the task at hand. You often hear whether you are an athlete or not “control what you can control,” and it is as simple as that. However, that requires as much daily practice as my hit or ball control. 

Achieving the first part of what all athletes want, an out of body feeling in competition that lets us just play without thinking, can happen without mindfulness practice, but when you are an elite level athlete, why leave that up to chance? I am very bought in on this arguably new buzz word, but understandably so as I have been warned about the “mental game” of sports for as long as I can remember. My mom, a very successful field hockey player, stressed the difference between mentally tough athletes and mentally weak athletes since youth league. I did not realize the true significance of what that meant until we started working with Peter, and learning of mindfulness. 

How does this relate to my most recent tour to Chile and Argentina for our first FIH Pro League game? Actually a lot. The first two practices matches versus Chile went smoothly for me. I felt connected to my teammates and I thought I performed my job well. I felt that floating feeling that you only get when you aren’t thinking you’re just playing. The third game however, I just couldn’t reach that feeling. I was in my head. Or as my coach put it when I subbed off the field for the first time, I wasn’t there, and she didn’t mean physically, she meant mentally. 

After reflecting with her later she said she knew immediately when she witnessed my center back give me communication and my lack of response like I normally do. The voices inside my head were louder than her in that moment. In mindfulness we are taught to notice our emotions, thoughts and feelings and then switch back to the present moment. For example, if I am nervous for a game, I can notice that those feelings are present, but also know that they have no control over my actions unless I let them. Our aim after noticing certain feelings is to take what we call “towards moves.” A towards move would be noticing the nerves and then deliberately communicating more, an action. This third game I let everything out of my control, control me, I took “away moves.” At halftime I ended up being disappointed in myself, and instead of finding a solution or asking for help, I stayed wrapped up in the past. So as you would expect the third quarter was worse and after the fourth or fifth unnecessary turnover I was pulled. 

This was the last game before the first FIH Pro League game versus Argentina. I could have put it behind me right away, bargaining with myself saying “everyone has an off day,” but I didn’t. We got back to the hotel and I brought out my notebook and watched the entire game over. I rated the four quarters based on my mental toughness. On a scale of 1-10, the subsequent quarters were ranked a 4,3,2,4. Four in the first quarter because I was thinking too much about what I thought I had to do, instead of just reading the play but I hadn’t let my emotions get the better of me yet. The second and third were ranked lower because I wasn’t playing well, so I let frustration and embarrassment effect my actions. The fourth I rated a four because by that point I had decided to use my anger in “towards moves” and just put the work in physically. After that I wrote down everything I could recall from memory, moments I let myself get annoyed, moments of insecurities or big times I messed up. Things that were said to me that were helpful and not so helpful. This allowed me to come up with alternative actions or positive thoughts I will go to the next time I am in a similar circumstance. 

Reflection, for me, is an important part of getting better. Sometimes it’s short, sometimes it takes hours, but always after I close my notebook, I look forward, never backward. In hindsight, I am happy that this happened to me at this time. It was a huge learning lesson and I feel confident now that the next time I am in my head, I will be able to recognize the signs better and instead of taking “away moves”, I will take “towards moves”. 

Everyone does have good and bad days, but as an athlete we can't afford to leave it up to chance. We want to control the wandering mind, so we can focus all our energy to the task at hand. Thankfully this happened to me during a friendly match, not a FIH Pro League game, but this lesson was no less vital. My advice to someone if they feel they are ‘not there’ during a game or competition is, first: don’t freak out. That’s the first “away move”. Instead ask yourself, “what can I do to impact this play right now?”, then do it. Focus on actions. For me, communicating to my teammates around me heightens my awareness and makes me feel more connected to the moment. Try that. 

My mental toughness, as my mom puts it, is no where near where I want it to be. It’s a daily practice and sometimes a struggle to yield the smallest results, but when it comes to the games that really matter, I want to to be physically and mentally prepared to the best of my ability.