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Goalkeeper uses brain power to stay sharp with Games berth on the line

01/27/2012 04:00 EST | Updated 03/27/2012 05:12 EDT
VANCOUVER - The game was eight years ago, but Karina LeBlanc has no trouble remembering.

Mexico recorded its one and only victory over Canada at the 2004 Olympic qualifying tournament, denying the Canadians a trip to Athens. LeBlanc was in goal that day.

"We know in '04 they got the better of us," said LeBlanc. "I remember that feeling. It's still quite fresh in my mind."

The Canadian goalkeeper won't lack motivation when the hosts take on Mexico in a do-or-die semifinal game at the CONCACAF women's Olympic soccer qualifying tournament Friday night.

The winner will get a berth in this summer's London Games. The loser will go home and spend another four years before trying to qualify for the next Olympics.

Canada has a 16-1-1 record against Mexico at the top women's level.

The 31-year-old LeBlanc grew up in Dominica, a former French colony and British territory in the Caribbean that is now an independent nation, and moved to the Vancouver suburb of Maple Ridge, B.C., when she was eight years old.

The veteran 'keeper is seeking a second Games appearance. She was also between the posts in the 2008 Olympics, where Canada finished fourth, and has represented Canada at four FIFA Women's World Cups and two Pan American Games. At the most recent Pan Ams in October, she stopped two penalty shots against Brazil to help Canada win the gold medal.

In this tournament, she started two of the three preliminary-round games, registering two shutouts before allowing a late goal in a 5-1 win over Costa Rica. The goal came after a Costa Rican player was allowed to field a long cross on the edge of the penalty area, move into the middle while being poorly marked, and roof a shot.

But the Mexicans will represent her first real test of the tournament. While the images of the 2004 loss remain in her mind, she will also rely on other forms of brain power to help her Friday.

LeBlanc and the rest of the Canadian team have been using the services of Dr. Ceri Evans, a psychiatrist who offers a different twist on the positive-thinking approach often espoused by sports psychologists.

"In sports, there's so many different opinions on it," said LeBlanc, a University of Nebraska grad who holds a business administration degree. "You just tell your brain, 'Okay, I'm fine' and stuff like that. I think that can only take you so far. At the next level now, you have to control your entire body. So I think it's a combination of both (improving the mind and body.)

"You want the positive talk, but you also want the whole science behind it. For me, as an athlete, the more I know about my brain, the more I understand that I can control it."

Evans, a New Zealander who earned 56 international caps for his country in the 1980s and '90s, also studied as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. He also helped New Zealand's All Blacks win rugby's World Cup last year.

Canadian coach John Herdman used Evans' services while in his former position as head coach of New Zealand's women's team.

The two have had a long association since Herdman helped Evans through his coaching certification.

LeBlanc said some players have had electrodes connected to their heads to get a better reading on their brain activity, but she has not yet had an opportunity to do so. Evans' ultimate aim is to help players get a better sense of everything in a given place. For example, in addition to a door, they see the space in front of it.

The approach is different from other mental exercises where athletes are taught to focus exclusively on a task at hand like, say, a goalkeeper zooming in on a ball, said LeBlanc.

"It's actually quite tiring," she said. "It's just, basically, laying there and allowing yourself to be in that moment, truly be in that moment, and being aware of everything around you."

She describes the effort as meditation designed to make the brain totally aware.

"It's been very interesting to see the different ways and levels that you can control your brain," said LeBlanc. "It's interesting in the sports arena, especially when the pressure comes on, how we can try to control ourselves to make it not be more than it is."

There will be no shortage of pressure Friday. But LeBlanc has relished the rare opportunity to play a major international competition at home in front of family and friends at newly-renovated B.C. Place Stadium.

"Just being able to play in a stadium like this, for anybody, no matter what level you've played at, it's pretty cool," she said.

Notes: Defender Lauren Sesselman, sidelined the past two games with a knee injury, has returned to practice and Herdman is hopeful she'll be able to play Friday. ... The stadium's entire lower bowl will be open for the game as tournament organizers anticipate the largest crowd of the tournament, including a boisterous contingent of Mexican fans. During the preliminary round, only one side of the lower bowl was open.

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