U.S. women’s soccer: On the emotional roller coaster

My heart was beating quickly and this unnerving sensation developed in the pit of my stomach. Had I also seen giant orange buoys and held the distinct belief that I might just throw up, it could have been the start of any triathlon. Instead, I was safely in my post-workout clothes on Mark’s couch glued to the ESPN feed. I had planned my three-hour bike ride complete with bagel and smoothie grab in plenty of time to catch the USA-Brazil Women’s World Cup quarterfinal match. My reward? An emotional roller coaster.

By now, you surely have seen the dramatic comeback for the American team in extra time of overtime along with the win in penalty kicks. Just in case you missed it, or can’t get enough of Abby Wambach’s game-saving goal: [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JOAJn8h6VAI]

Admittedly, I was prepared for the end of the U.S. run after the 120 minutes plus stoppage time was completed, sadly slipping into that cynical journalism training which teaches that the improbable comebacks never happen. (Unless of course you’re on deadline). But  Wambach’s goal jolted me out of my comfort zone. Then came the penalty kicks and I found myself excited, nervous and sitting on the edge of the couch. I was clapping and cheering for each potential U.S. goal and offering keeper Hope Solo encouragement. Yes, I realize that they couldn’t hear me, that I had no impact on the outcome. But for once I turned off my brain and just enjoyed being swept up in the game.

See, in some swaths of American sports journalism, a premium is placed on the appearance of impartiality. There is no cheering in the press box. No wearing of team colors while conducting interviews. We are to be dispassionate observers and report the facts, not caring about who wins or looses.

Granted, Sunday afternoon I was not writing a story about the Women’s World Cup. It was not my job to be fair or offer critical analysis. I didn’t need to put anything into perspective or frame the controversies that clouded many parts of the game. (Seriously, does one practice unstrapping out of a stretcher as if just completing a successful pilgrimage to Lourdes?) But it’s difficult for me to turn off the journalist face. Only this time, something about the gutsy play of the U.S., something about my own projects and training, put me in the right spot to reconnect, really reconnect, with the little girl who started out as a sports fan.

What did I learn from the U.S. women’s soccer team Sunday afternoon?

  1. Yogi Berra was right. The former New York Yankees catcher known for his unique twist on the English language made famous the phrase, It ain’t over ’til it’s over. Note the U.S. won this game not in overtime but in the extra time of overtime. Run through the line. Play until you hear the whistle. Keep going until someone forces you to stop.
  2. Fitness pays off. As the EPSN broadcast progressed, the fitness level of the American team became a major point of the commentary. The team paid special attention to training, strength, endurance and physical metrics in its World Cup preparations. While their fitness certainly helped them physically (particularly since they played 45 minutes down a player), it was their ability to mentally grind through the pain and fatigue that put them in a position to stay in the game. You get to that point by not only putting in the work along the way but by trusting your training.
  3. Attitude is everything. Granted, I have no idea how the women of the U.S. team actually approached any part of the game, but the emotion was real and what seemed most beneficial was the ability to use that emotion for powers of good, rather than as wasted energy. (Note to self on this for my next triathlon.) A belief in your ability along with joy and passion combined with respect and trust in your teammates creates success even out of the most dismal looking circumstances. How you show up — and how you continue to show up — matters.

Inspired, awed and joyful. Not a bad way to start the week. What happens next, how I use these lessons, is now all up to me. It’s a play land of possibility, and the little girl in me who is a mad sports fan is all sorts of fired up about it.

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