VANCOUVER - Leaving no stone unturned in the bid for Women's World Cup glory, Canadian coach John Herdman has looked to his players to train their brain.
A key goal is to feel comfortable being uncomfortable in the high-pressure cauldron of the world soccer stage. That's where mental performance consultant Alex Hodgins comes in.
"Whether it's an Olympic Games or a World Cup, that (stress and pressure) is pretty much a guarantee," said the 31-year-old Hodgins. "It's just how you manage that and can you be comfortable in those moments and understand that it's pressure, but get excited about it and go towards it as opposed to fearing it and then having that influence your behaviour."
It's all part of Herdman's "four pillars" philosophy: physical, technical/tactical, mental and social/emotional. There's a lot more to winning a soccer tournament than just putting the ball in the back of the net.
Hodgins is the guru in the Canadian team's Mind or Brain Room, using sports psychology and neuroscience to teach the players self-awareness and how to manage their focus and attain a sense of control.
The neuroscience involves hooking his players up to a computer and asking them to stay consistent in completing a task while being distracted or working through "stressers." The software shows the brain reacting in real-time so players can learn how to control it.
"What we're trying to do is just teach them how they react mentally ... How quickly they get stressed and then how quickly they can manage that and get back into a calm state," said Hodgins.
An athlete in the zone has a calm brain rather than a reactive or aroused brain. "And it's a sense of control that leads to that calmness."
"So all we're trying to do is have them aware of how to take control of the moment and when a stresser comes, how to regain control quickly so they can be at their best under their own control."
Easier said than done, when playing before 50,000 screaming fans in a do-or-die game like Sunday when Canada, ranked eighth in the world, plays No. 19 Switzerland in a round-of-16 game at B.C. Place Stadium.
Herdman also uses Hodgins' services. The coach tweeted a picture of himself hooked up to a computer, saying "a calm brain is a good brain."
Said Hodgins: "We have 11 players on the field but he's a key performer for the team so he needs to be as clear and in control and managing himself as well as any player to ensure that we get the best out of him. He lives his philosophy, I guess is the best way to describe it."
As elite athletes, the Canadian women know what their task is and are constantly pushing themselves to get there. They understand that frustrations will only hinder performance.
"You might get a few minutes of really energized adrenalin-focused performance but that can't last. To sustain a performance, you need to manage that frustration."
In addition to the neuroscience, Hodgins also uses psychology and provides the players cues or so-called anchors to help centre them.
Hodgins clearly enjoys his task and plans to continue working with Herdman and the team post-tournament.
"It's such an incredible group of women. They are inspiring," he said.
Hodgins, who did his master's degree in sports psychology consulting at the University of Ottawa, has been full time with the women's team since September 2013.
A former soccer goalkeeper and hockey player himself, as well as an avid golfer, he found his niche after reading a book on the mental side of golf.
"Something just clicked for me ... my passion just started at that moment and I found a master's program that suited me on the applied side."
Hodgins moved to Vancouver after school and hooked up with Herdman via a mentor. The Canadian coach wanted a full-time mental coach, someone who could build rapport with the players and interact with them daily for maximum input.
Hodgins usually works with the players individually, but will also hold short workshops with Herdman ahead of a game to get across a message or "mindset." He'll also speak to the players if he sees certain behaviour setting in.
On game day, his belief is less is more. Some players like to speak to him the day of a game but usually he observes. At the World Cup, he watches action from the stands.
Other top women's team may have sports psychologists or mental trainers on hand but Hodgins believes that Canada is leading the way in using neuro-feedback.
Pro teams like Toronto FC are also looking to learn about their players' brains. The MLS club has both a director of sports science and director of cognitive development.
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