While club competitions are important, and Olympics are more important, the FIFA Women's World Cup is the premier soccer competition. Win the World Cup trophy and you've reached the pinnacle of the sport. That's why national federations build their developmental plans and training programs around competing in, and hopefully winning, the month-long tournament.
While the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team (USWNT) has done more than just hope (they've won the World Cup three times, including the last tournament held in 2015), they're also not resting on their considerable laurels.
U.S. Soccer (and MLS) just announced a new partnership with Headspace, an online healthcare company that specializes in mindfulness and meditation and provides specialized, personalized mental training programs that improve focus and concentration, reduce anxiety and stress, improve sleep... in short, top-line meditation training to optimize each player's mental conditioning.
"For a long time the emphasis has been on finding ways to make marginal gains from the neck down," says U.S. Soccer high performance director James Bruce. "GPS monitoring, supplements, strength and conditioning, rehab, pre-hab.... Plenty of research for that part of the body, but limited amounts for the neck up -- yet as we know, that's the most crucial part of the body."
U.S. Soccer didn't enter into the partnership lightly, though. In 20 published studies in leading peer-reviewed journals, Headspace has shown favorable outcomes with interventions that reduce stress, improve focus, increase compassion, and decrease aggression.
Since winning the World Cup is the "crown" of U.S. Soccer's goals, at least in a competition sense, the organization started the process early. Through questionnaires, surveys, and conversations, Headspace worked directly with the players to determine where each individual felt they needed support. For some it was greater focus. For others it was reducing anxiety and stress. Headspace then built individually-customized programs that will take them from January to the end of the World Cup in July.
"Every player received a self-guided mental conditioning pack," James says. "That's a unique part of this program, something that's hasn't been done before to this level, and we believe it will give our team a real edge on and off the field."
On the field performance obviously matters, but "off the field" is also important to U.S. Soccer officials. Their goal is to offer as much support to players as possible in a variety of areas to help create a "holistic athlete" by promoting physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing.
That's especially important in such a high-pressure environment. Like the rest of us, players deal with the daily struggles and stresses of life... but then have to perform on a world stage in front of millions of people.
"Just like performance, the mental side is individual," James says. Every player has different needs. Some struggle to sleep after games because their adrenaline is still pumping. Others want help dealing with the stress of injuries. Others want to improve their ability to stay calm and focused. We use the term 'holistic approach' because we truly believe to get the most prepared athlete means leaving no stone unturned."
And there are longer-term benefits as well: Knowing how to deal with the unexpected, how to stay calm, concentrated, and focused, how to deal with stress... those aren't just player-performance skills.
Those are life skills.
Which is why Major League Soccer has also partnered with Headspace.
Dr. Jamil Northcutt is the MLS VP of player engagement. His team helps players transition from rookie to professional athlete, and from professional athlete to the next phase of their lives. The goal is to help prepare players for the game... and for life after the game.
"Our mission with player engagement," Jamil says, "is to equip players with strategies to succeed. To take a step back, to pause and relax ... athletes are in constant go-mode. They're constantly moving. And they're under constant evaluation and analysis -- from coaches, from fans, and even from themselves. Meditation is a great way to pause and rest their minds and strengthen their mental muscles."
Still, MLS players won't be required to use Headspace tools. "A philosophy I embrace," Jamil says, "is that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. We don't force our athletes to use a resource; we provide resources they can take advantage of when they're ready. We try to provide solutions to problems and issues that arise, and provide solutions that help enhance their lives. It's all about equipping people to succeed -- in whatever way they define success."
Of course, mental conditioning is a key to success in any pursuit. But that's especially true in sports, where the differences in skill, conditioning, etc. among elite athletes are relatively small. At that level, mental training can be as important as physical training.
Which makes mental training the future of athletic performance -- something most people agree with but do little about. Ask any coach if mental training is important and almost all will say 'yes.' Ask if they're actually providing any mental training and the answer is almost always 'no.'
"Once you talk to coaches about how mental training supports preparation and recovery," says Lindsay Shaffer, head of sports and fitness at Headspace, "about how mediation changes the structure of your brain by increasing the gray matter in the prefrontal cortex ... light bulbs go off. Knowing there are things they can do to improve performance and gain a competitive advantage ... that grabs their attention."
So much so that when Headspace delivered training programs to the women's team, head coach Jill Ellis wanted an individualized program for herself as well.
That's in part because the programs aren't designed to be used only when people feel stressed or anxious. The goal is to also provide greater focus and an overall competitive advantage: When you're more confident, more resilient, able to manage pressure ... that positively impacts performance.
In any pursuit.
"Headspace has a vision to improve health and happiness," says Shaffer. "When athletes proactively look after their mental fitness, and share their stories ... that helps us influence culture as a whole. Partnerships like the one with U.S. Soccer help us achieve our vision to normalize meditation by helping us reach audiences and fan bases that we may not have reached as quickly. But that only happens if we truly help athletes reach their performance goals and support them in all aspects of their lives, on and off the field."
That's the real benefit of mental conditioning. Bodies change. Skills come and go. Knowledge, experience, talent ... what you need to be able to do can change over time.
But what you always carry with you -- what you can always benefit from -- is your mental approach: Your ability to deal with stress, to remain focused, to stay calm, to take a step back and determine the best course to take, whether short-term or long term ...
That's why mental training is so important.
Mental skills aren't something you either have or don't have.
Mental skills can be improved.
Even if you're an elite athlete.