Beyond the very extreme of fatigue and distress, we may find amounts of ease and power we never dreamed ourselves to own; sources of strength never taxed at all because we never push through the obstruction. – William James (1907)
Last Sunday, 26.7 million viewers were awestruck by the soccer played by the U.S. against Japan in the women’s World Cup Final. The U.S. team came out with intensity, confidence, and execution that resulted in four goals in the first 17 minutes. The team played as a cohesive unit allowing all of the players to thrive. (And while I now turn to one particular player, it should be obvious that none of the individual highlights are possible without the support of the team.) Three of the first four goals came from Carli Lloyd in the 3rd, 5th, and 16th minute. Lloyd was magnificent: aggressive, assured, strong — a finisher. Her play during the entire tournament was outstanding and built on successes from the previous two Olympic Games. But success at this level didn’t come easily to Lloyd. It never does, for any athlete, but Lloyd’s trajectory is particularly interesting and instructive.
Twelve years ago, during her college playing days, Lloyd was cut from the U.S. under-21 team. She was told by the coach (Chris Petrucelli) that while she was talented, there were too many holes in her game for her to make the team at that point. In a great article by Jeff Carlisle, Lloyd admits that being cut was devastating to her. And instead of fighting, she felt more like giving up. In fact, Carlisle writes, Lloyd told her parents that she was going to finish her final year at Rutgers, quit soccer, and get a job.
And, in fact, this could have happened. It does with many players who simply decide that the work is too hard and not worth it. Which is okay… unless you really want to see how far you can go.
Luckily, Carli’s dad decided to try one more avenue. He asked youth coach James Galanis whether he would be willing to train Carli. Galanis, who specializes in player development, agreed. When he first met with Lloyd, Galanis saw a player who was unfit, uncommitted, and not mentally tough. It seemed to Galanis that Lloyd was full of excuses, anxieties, and poor training habits. But he saw potential. And so he asked her how good she wanted to be. How far did she want to go?
This is the crucial question before we start any mental or physical training. How good can you be? How far do you want to go? If the motivation is there, then it’s a matter of developing the right habits. Too often, people believe that “grit” (passion and perseverance for long-term goals) is mostly a matter of personality. I argue that it is mostly a matter of habit: what you say to yourself, what you do on a daily basis….
Lloyd answered Galanis that, yes, she would put soccer first and do the things that he asked to restructure her game. What followed was years of retraining — physically, nutritionally, mentally, tactically — to help Lloyd develop into a national caliber (then world caliber) player.
She’s done some things over the course of the last 12 years that not many athletes would do, from sacrifices in her personal life to changes in her eating and sleeping habits, and never switched it off. She put in the work and I was happy to see her rewarded on the biggest stage in the biggest possible way. ~ James Galanis, NYPost (July 6, 2015)
Galanis adds that “as [Carli’s] getting older, she’s understanding the game more and her tactical awareness has evolved. She keeps getting stronger physically and she’s only stronger mentally. She’s still got a lot of years left in her.”
Which brings us back to the quote by William James, a founder of American Psychology, at the beginning of this post. We have an ability to “push through the obstruction,” but we often need guidance and support to do so. Lloyd needed Galanis and his coaching skills to help her develop her grit. She put in the hours on the pitch. And she put in her hours for mental training.
Lloyd has repeatedly talked about her mental toughness program. She has learned a disciplined approach to training and how to react better when things go poorly. Prior to her games, she follows a routine to get her to the optimal level of focus and preparedness. This routine includes music, visualization, and meditation.
Several months ago, Lloyd was training alone back home in New Jersey when she allowed herself to fantasize and visualize about the World Cup. This mental rehearsal was particularly optimistic:
“It’s kind of funny,” Lloyd said Sunday night following the U.S.’s 5-2 World Cup victory over Japan. “I’m running and I’m doing sprints and it’s hard, it’s burning, and I just completely zoned out [at the practice in NJ]. I dreamed of and visualized playing in the World Cup final and visualized scoring four goals.
“It sounds pretty funny, but that’s what it’s all about. I think at the end of the day you can be physically strong, you can have all the tools out there, but if your mental state isn’t good enough, you can’t bring yourself to bigger and better things. And for me, I’ve just constantly been visualizing, constantly been growing confidence with each and every game and I was on a mission.” (USA Today, July 6, 2015)
I’ve written about visualization several times in this blog and know that it is crucial to athletes’ success. But what is most important in Lloyd’s story is the lesson that grit and mental toughness can be developed. The fact that passion, persistence, and perseverance are important to achieve excellence should not surprise anyone. But the need for behavior, habit, and support to improve these is too often not emphasized. We tend to see our sports heroes as superhuman — different in some fundamental way. But as we see with Carli Lloyd, she earned her toughness and skills through gritty behavior in the context of support and guidance — a sure recipe for growth with no limits.