Control the Controllables

anxiety control controllables fear May 18, 2020

Note: This article was published in Soccer Today on May 18, 2020. 

Jim Thorpe - 1912

When Jim Thorpe woke up on the second day of competition during the 3-day decathlon in the 1912 Olympic games in Stockholm, he must’ve felt extremely confident.

Thorpe, voted the greatest athlete of the first half of the 20th century and arguably the greatest athlete the United States has ever produced, had already won gold in the pentathlon a week prior. In fact, he won four of the five events.

On the first day of the decathlon, he ran the 100-meter dash in 11.2 seconds. That record would stand for another 36 years. What’s even more impressive is that Thorpe ran it in a downpour.

But on the second day of the decathlon, somebody had stolen his cleats.

Imagine training for four years for the Olympic games, and the only piece of equipment you need to compete in your event is stolen.

So what did Thorpe do? He and his coach rummaged around and eventually found two discarded shoes in the garbage that Thorpe could wear.

The problem was that the two shoes were not a pair. One was considerably bigger than the other, forcing Thorpe to wear multiple socks on one foot in order for the shoe to fit properly.

Thorpe then went out and won the high-jump event and left the field gasping when he won the 110-meter hurdles in another record time.

He finished in a pedestrian 3rd- and 4th-place in the pole vault and the javelin, his two worst events. Then Thorpe toed the line, still in his mismatched shoes, for the decathlon’s final event – the 1,500m race.

He obliterated the field, running it in 4:40.1, a time that no other Olympic decathlete would beat for another six decades.

Thorpe didn’t let a pair of stolen shoes stop him from performing at his best. He accepted his situation, found a way to make the mismatched shoes fit, and he got after the task at hand.

When I speak to athletes about “controlling the controllables,” I tell Thorpe’s story. And that story is maybe more applicable now, during the COVID-19 crisis, than ever.

Too often, we as athletes, coaches, and parents, waste time and energy worrying and complaining about things that are beyond our control.

For players, things that we cannot control include when and how we are going to get back onto the pitch, the fallout from the dismantling of the DA system, and what the professional leagues and the NCAA are going to do moving forward.

Putting our energy and focus on things we cannot control makes us feel anxious, uncertain, and fearful.

On the other hand, putting all of our focus and energy on things we can impact – what sports psychologists call “controlling the controllables” – makes us feel empowered. It removes all of the noise that doesn’t matter and allows us to focus only on what’s important. Here are a few examples.

Things You Can’t Control: Your Size

When Barcelona star Lionel Messi was growing up, he was diagnosed with a disorder that stunted his physical growth. This growth hormone disorder left him considerably smaller than the other players, and required Messi to stick himself with a needle every night for three years, starting when he was 11-years old.

“I was so small,” Messi once said, “that when I went onto the pitch, or when I went to school, I was always the smallest of all.”

Imagine if Messi obsessed about his ailment and lack of size, especially during a time in everyone’s life when we are particularly sensitive about our physical appearance and want to fit in with our peers.

Messi didn’t waste any time feeling sorry for himself, or complaining about how unfair it was that he was not growing like the other boys. Instead, he focused on what he could control – his skills, work ethic, and attitude.

Things You Can’t Control: Your Current Situation

Another example of “controlling the controllables” comes from Liverpool star Mohamed Salah. Salah grew up in a small Egyptian village, fell in love with soccer when he was seven, and dreamed of playing at the highest levels one day.

When he was 14, Saleh finally got an opportunity to make his dream a reality when he received an offer to play for the Arab Contractors club out of Cairo. The only problem was that it was four and half hours away from where he lived.

That meant Salah had to leave at 9am, jump on a bus and sometimes transfer to up to five other buses in order to reach the club by 2pm for his 2-hour training session. Then he was back on the buses again at for another four-and-a-half-hour ride home, sometimes arriving as late as 10:30pm, only to repeat the process the following day.

It was a 9-hour commute. Salah did this five days a week for the next four years of his life.

“I was coming from nothing,” Salah said. “A 14-year-old kid with a dream. I didn’t know it would happen, I just wanted it to happen so badly.”

Salah knew he couldn’t control where he lived at that point in his life. He couldn’t control the fact that his club was over four hours away. But when he rolled off that bus in Cairo for practice, he was in control of everything he did on that pitch. And he made the most of his opportunities.

Like Salah, many players today cannot control where they live or their family situation in this COVID-19 crisis. Some are lucky to have parks still open or backyards to get work in. Others are not so lucky.

Some have a slew of brothers and sisters who serve as built-in training partners, while other players are the only child.

But ask yourself, what can you do that is in your control to make you a better player today? Are you wasting time and energy complaining about what you can’t do, or are you “controlling the controllables” and getting creative about what you can do?

Things You Can’t Control: Your Playing Time

“Imagine this: You’ve scored more goals than any human being on the planet—female or male. You’ve co-captained and led Team USA in almost every category for the past decade. And you and your coach sit down and decide together that you won’t be a starter in your last World Cup for Team USA.”

This is not a hypothetical scenario. These are the words of Abby Wombach in her famous graduation speech to Barnard College in 2018.

Wombach was at the tail end of her illustrious career for that 2015 World Cup, but decisions about playing time are in the hands of the coach, not the player. Even a Hall-of-Famer like Wombach.

So did she pitch a fit, sulk, and complain to the media about how unfairly she was being treated? There are many soccer fans who would’ve been sympathetic. Some might’ve even thought that kind of reaction would have been justified.

No, Wombach chose to “control the controllables.”

She decided to lead her team from the bench – in her attitude, her effort, and her play as a reserve.

Teammate and Hall of Famer Julie Foudy recently said to Soccer Today, “I would argue that they don’t win that World Cup if Abby hadn’t accepted that role the way she did.”

I realize that Wombach’s situation is different from most players worrying about playing time. Most of us are not on the tail-end of a Hall of Fame career.

But the rule of “controlling the controllables” still applies. I tell my athletes, I don’t care if you are the last player off the bench and only playing five minutes of proverbial “garbage time.” Play those five minutes as though they’re the only five minutes you’ll ever play. Play with passion. Make those the best five minutes of your career.

After all, what’s the alternative? Your chances of getting more playing time only increase when you display every ounce of effort, commitment, and focus during the moments when you’re on the pitch.

Complaining about playing time – something outside of your control – is a waste of time and energy. Sulking, moping, and displaying poor body language is only going to damage your coach’s opinion of you as a player. That behavior will only garner you less playing time, not more.

Final Word

There are so many things beyond our control in this COVID-19 crisis. Focusing on the things we cannot control, worrying about what the future may bring, and complaining about our current situation is a loser’s game.

When you find yourself reflexively worrying about things beyond your control, or you hear your teammates and coaches doing it, think about Jim Thorpe’s stolen shoes. Think about Messi taking nightly injections, and think about Salah during his daily 9-hour commute.

Instead of wasting time and energy on the noise, do what the great ones do. Adopt the mindset of a champion.

“Control the controllables.” It is a winning strategy in soccer, and in life.

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