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World-Class Athlete: Do You Have What It Takes?
The following excerpt is from the book, Soccer Dreams, (a top seller in sports journalism on Amazon) which describes Leah Lauber’s true adventure following the US Women’s National Soccer Team, as a 12-year-old fan and Junior Reporter in during the history-making of the 1999 Women’s World Cup. Although the article is now dated and written mainly for children, the lesson itself is timeless in describing what it takes to be an athlete world class.
Do you have what it takes to be a world-class athlete? Do you know what is needed? Well, if you don’t know, keep reading!
I recently attended a US Women’s National Soccer Team training session at the Seminole Sports Training Center near Orlando, Florida as the team prepared for the Women’s World Cup, which began on Saturday and runs through July 10.
The US Women’s National Team is a great team. In 1998, their record was 22-1-2, losing only to Norway. Team USA won the Women’s World Cup in ’91, came third in ’95, and won the ’96 gold medal in the first ever women’s Olympic soccer competition.
When we got to the pitch, the team was already warming up and stretching. They worked on individual skills such as juggling, volleying and heading.
They then played games with small sides such as 4 vs 2, playing to keep possession of the ball. The purpose was to transition to defense as quickly as possible once a player lost the ball.
Next, they worked on the fine art of “finishing,” or scoring goals. They worked on several ways to attack the goal from different angles.
What impressed me the most was that the best women’s team in the world was training so hard! After training I spoke to some of the players.
“We know every other team plays their best when they face us, so we have to be as good as we can be,” defender Brandi Chastain said.
Goalie Briana Scurry added, “You have to work hard to stay the best.”
“In order to achieve your goals and get where you want to be, you have to keep practicing,” said forward Danielle Fotopoulos. “I always train throughout the year with a club team or do whatever I can to improve myself.”
When the players were younger, they sometimes had to miss parties, dances and sleepovers, so they could play football. Most of us would consider those sacrifices, but they are not, they chose to play for their love of the game.
The rewards are great for these world-class athletes: traveling the world as a team, getting paid to play and competing in the Olympics.
“That was a dream come true for me,” Scurry said of winning the gold medal at the 1996 Olympics.
“I had been dreaming of being in the Olympics since I was very young, so it was an amazing feeling for me. My family was there, my friends were there, we won it at home (in Atlanta), so just the most amazing experience.”
What is the best thing about being on the National Team? “I get to play the sport I love every day with my best friends,” Chastain said.
“The relationships and the friendships, we’re just a big family here,” Scurry said, “I can count on the team for anything.”
Although they take their sport seriously, it’s not work, work, work all the time for this team. During a water break, the team members laughed, joked and threw water at each other. When the coaches called them to resume, it was straight back to work. When practice ended, the players still had to attend a team meeting and work out with weights.
“We try to work hard some days and other days it’s easy. It’s not hard work every day. It’s a high level of concentration every day, but not physically hard, because we would only wear the team out,” Coach Tony DiCicco said later. “Playing wouldn’t be fun and playing has to be fun.”
Of course, the fun part of football is playing the game, achieving what you have practiced and defeating your opponents.
The next day, the team attacked Brazil in an exhibition match.
I had passes which allowed me to be on the pitch during the game to shoot photos and to interview the players after the game (The other photographers there looked at me as if I was just tagging along with my dad , but actually, my dad tagged along with me!
At that time, Mia Hamm had already tied the record for most international career goals at 107. The players, the media, and more than 10,000 fans, expected her to break the record that night. She had a chance to do that early in the game, but the goalkeeper saved. Right at the end of the first half, Mia shot and scored the record breaking goal. I was standing 15 feet away from her! AWESOME!!! After the referee blew the whistle for half time, Mia was interviewed by ESPN. As she went into the locker room, I stuck my hand out and gave me a high five!
During the second half, the United States scored two more goals. The last goal was a set play just as they had practiced the day before: one player crossed it from the left over the goal to another teammate who headed back into the middle, where Tiffeny Milbrett converted the an easy shot from five yards out. That’s what practice is all about!
After the 3-0 win over Brazil, I was with a pack of reporters and used my tape recorder to capture Mia Hamm’s comments about her record-setting 108th goal.
“It was a great ball from Cindy Parlow’s one-touch pass. It touched outside because I was running forward. I didn’t touch it very well, and I thought I was leaned back, but I probably hit it through her legs, so I was lucky this one came through,” he said.
“It means a lot to me at the moment, but it will probably mean even more when I stop playing and look back on my career. I love “the fact that I can be here and share it with my teammates – they are a big part of all these goals,” said Hamm. “The fact that they all ran out on the field was fantastic. They were telling me how proud they were of me.”
She signed my Mia Hamm shirts, as well as my copy of her book, Go for the Goal. I also had a binder signed by most of the other players.
Coach Tony DiCicco was sitting on the steps eating pizza so, between slices, I asked him to sign the binder as well. I laughed when his assistant said, “This is the head coach of the best women’s team in the world, eating pizza on some stairs.”
After he finished his late lunch, the coach talked about what makes a national team. “I’m looking for players with character, players I can trust when we’re not together as a team, they’re going to work hard even on their own,” he said. “I also look for players who have a special quality. Maybe they are fast, maybe they are leaders, maybe great headers on the ball, but they have to have a special quality. When you have all the qualities put that together, you can kind of piece the puzzle together.”
So now you know what it takes to be a world class athlete. If you want to become one, get to work!
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