Thursday, December 12, 2013

Level of Intensity

Most of the clubs we played against gave it their all in the first half.  When they found out they couldn’t dominate us, they lost their poise and character.  It’s not that we play harder in the second half.  We play the same all the way through the game.
--Ray Nitschke, former Green Bay Packer and Hall of Fame Linebacker

Sportswriters will occasionally write that a winning soccer team has the “killer instinct” or are “great closers.”  As proof of that, they’ll write about how the team turns their intensity up a couple of notches during the last minutes of a game to secure the win.

Nothing could be more misleading.

The truth is that soccer players win because they learn to attach the same level of intensity and effort to every minute of every game.  They learn to downplay the importance of critical moments and treat the game like the pickup game they played in the backyard as a little kid.  It’s the loser who tries to ratchet their intensity up and play the last half as if it was the most important half of their lives.

In my talks with different players, I’ve found that if you measured intensity of effort and desire on a scale of one to ten, most of them get their best results when their intensity is around a six.  If their effort drops too low, they tend to get sloppy.  They might not focus on their target or think too much about what is going on in the game.  But if their level of intensity and effort gets too high, they get tight and too negative.  About a six is just right.

Players tell me frequently how well they play when they’re doing some kind of noncompetitive event, such as, playing in the backyard, practicing, going to a tournament just for fun.  In this format, they play without worrying about the score.  If they make a mistake or two, they shrug it off.  Not surprisingly, they play very well, often better then when they are in a “real” competition.  They’d be better off if they could bring the attitude they bring to fun, noncompetitive soccer.

It is not always easy to get there because our culture trains people in some less-than-helpful concepts.  One is that if you are not succeeding, you have to “try harder.”  This may be useful in a sport like cross-country running.  It may be helpful to a student who needs to put more time into studying.  But it gives the impression that the right sort of effort is one that leaves you red-faced and panting, on the brink of collapse.

No one plays well if they are red-faced and panting.  You have to play with detached indifference.  You shouldn’t try harder you should try your best, try smarter.

For example, Mike Mussina is a pro baseball player who moved to the New York Yankees a few years ago.  At his first spring training with the Yankees, reporters asked him if he was ready to pitch for the Yankees, implying that pitching for the Yankees, in New York was much more difficult than pitching anyplace else.  They said, “Mike, Yankee Stadium is going to be different. They’ll be much more pressure that what you are used to.”  Mike told them that when he was a little kid and started pitching, his Dad painted a strike zone on the back of their barn.  Every day as a little kid, he’d throw at that strike zone, pretending that he was pitching in the big leagues.  Now, when he pitches professionally, he pretends that he is pitching to the strike zone on the barn.  Mike said, “It doesn’t really matter what stadium I’m in or what jersey I’m wearing, I just pitch like I’m in the backyard, throwing at the barn.  That’s what I’ve always done, and that’s what I’ll continue to do.”

Mike refuses to allow some outside force to affect the way he was going to play.  He knew the level of intensity at which he played his best.  He was going to consistently pitch at that level regardless of where he was or who he was playing or even what people said.

Soccer players have to be the same way.  They have to find their most effective level of intensity, effort and focus and stay at it, whether they are playing in the backyard with their sister or shooting a penalty kick to win the World Cup.

Thoughts to Play By:

* Most soccer players their best when their intensity and effort level is about a six on a scale of 1-10.
* Try your best, try smarter, don’t try harder.
* Find your most effective level of intensity and stick to it consistently.  Your intensity and effort level should not be affected by any outside forces or by anything that happens in the game.

adapted to soccer from Bob Rotella.