Extra Time: World Cup Mind Tricks

11 minute read

This story first appeared in Extra Time, our pop-up newsletter about the 2023 Women’s World Cup. Get it in your inbox by subscribing here.

Calming your soccer brain

Quadrennial events like the World Cup and the Olympics ratchet up pressure like no other. Women soccer players, in particular, have a lot riding on a tournament that comes around once every four years. Unlike the men, many women don’t have lucrative professional club gigs to fall back on. National stardom, sponsorships, and financial futures are at stake for the players who are about to take the field for the 2023 World Cup, which kicks off Thursday morning at 3 a.m. E.T., when New Zealand hosts Norway in Auckland.

What’s more, many of these World Cup players are facing external pressures beyond the pitch, and playing for more than just a soccer victory. The American women went through this four years ago, when they were embroiled in an equal-pay lawsuit with their federation while trying to win a second straight World Cup (the U.S. ultimately succeeded, on both fronts). This time, players from England are fighting for World Cup bonuses. The Canadian women are at odds with their federation over pay. Players from Spain and France revolted against their coaches (Spain’s coach is still around, France’s isn’t).

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The World Cup cauldron is a lot to handle, for any player. (Not to mention for the fans so heavily invested in how their side fares.) So on Tuesday afternoon, I spoke to America’s preeminent scholar on performing under pressure: Sian Beilock, a cognitive psychologist and author of Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To. She took time out of her day running Dartmouth College, where she started as the school’s new president in June, to offer brain-calming tips for World Cup players—tips that we can also apply to high-stakes situations in our own lives—and a quick word of psychological advice for rabid soccer fans who likely need it.

Remember you’re not just a soccer player. “There are lots of different aspects to who they are,” says Beilock. “Put this situation in context. It’s very important. But they also are moms, or friends. So it takes the pressure off succeeding in just this one part of their lives. Like when I have a bad day as a president, I can fall back on the fact that I’m a mom. When I’m mothering my 12-year-old, I remember there are other aspects of who I am.”

The U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) features three mothers: Alex Morgan, whose daughter Charlie is 3; Crystal Dunn, whose son Marcel is 1; and Julie Ertz, whose son Madden turns 1 in August. Madden made the trip to New Zealand on the team plane; Charlie and Marcel will join their moms later on during the World Cup.

Thankfully, the importance of keeping perspective is top of mind for the U.S. women. On Tuesday, the nonprofit Common Goal, which seeks to utilize soccer to advance social good, announced a partnership with the USWNT and Fox Sports to tackle mental-health stigma during the World Cup. Defender Naomi Girma, a World Cup rookie, penned a moving essay in the Players’ Tribune about her former Stanford teammate Katie Meyer, who died by suicide in March 2022. Girma hopes the World Cup campaign helps save lives. “We know how important it is to destigmatize the conversation around mental health, especially for the millions of young people around the country who will be watching this World Cup,” Girma writes, “so FOX Sports will be dedicating 1% of its broadcast coverage to spotlighting the importance of mental health across all its platforms.”

Forget about practice. Not literally. Neither Beilock nor I recommend that World Cup players ditch training sessions and earn a proper benching. Beilock is basically saying, it’s game time. Trust your training. “Now is the time to stop paying so much attention,” she says. “We know that when you start focusing on the step by step of what you’re doing, you often mess yourself up. They should be on autopilot at this point. Just as an example, if you’re shuffling down the stairs, and I asked you to think about what you’re doing with your knee, you’ll fall on your face, right? You know how to do it. And so they should remind themselves they’ve done the hard work, they’ve done the practice. Now is the time to go out and enjoy the moment.”

Self-compassion wins. “No one else is as hard on us as we are on ourselves,” says Beilock. “So remind ourselves that we’re not perfect and that we’re going to be uncomfortable and we’re going to make mistakes and there’s a larger outcome. That can do a lot to take the pressure off.” A few hours before we spoke, Beilock gave a talk to first-year Dartmouth medical students. She encouraged them to embrace discomfort. “It is not a sign that you’re going to fail,” says Beilock. “It’s a sign that everyone feels this way. And it’s a sign that now you’re going to look for feedback. I’m giving you permission to be uncomfortable.”

Beilock got the reaction from the students she was looking for. “I saw a bunch of them sort of sigh, which was nice,” she says.

As for the fans, particularly the American ones who consider a USWNT title a birthright, it’s important to remember that the women’s team is “one of a big bucket of things you root for.” Surely, you have other cheering interests: other national teams? Your favorite baseball team or hoops team or college sports team? Your daughter’s softball team? Her academic success and well-being?

You do, right? “It’s not everything,” Beilock says. A useful reminder for any season, World Cup or otherwise.

First up …

America’s first opponent, Vietnam—the USWNT and the Golden Star Women Warriors play on Friday at 9 p.m. E.T.—has had an inauspicious run-up to the World Cup. On July 13, Spain pummeled Vietnam 9-0 in a friendly in Auckland. Germany’s second string also defeated Vietnam 2-1, in June, in Germany.

Vietnam is making its World Cup debut. Forward Huynh Nhu, 31, has won the country’s Golden Ball as the top player on four occasions and is the only Golden Warrior to play professionally outside the country, in Portugal, for Länk FC Vilaverdense.

Anything less than a U.S. victory would be a major upset. Vietnam is a relatively young women’s soccer squad, having played its first international match in 1997. For more on the Vietnamese team, read this piece by TIME’s Koh Ewe.

Vietnam survived a round-robin playoff against Thailand and Chinese Taipei to qualify for the World Cup. Four years ago, the U.S. opened its World Cup defense with a 13-0 victory over Thailand. The Americans continued to celebrate their goals late in the game, setting off a furious debate back home about sportsmanship.

Vietnam should offer more resistance than Thailand. But if the U.S. lights up the scoreboard Friday, don’t expect much muted joy. The USWNT never apologized for relishing that moment four years ago. Why start now?

About That Ad

You may have come across this viral video out of France. Orange, the telecommunications company that sponsors France’s soccer federation, created a two-minute ad highlighting the athleticism of France’s men’s team. Which seemed sort of odd before a women’s World Cup.

Midway through the video, the creators reveal the twist: the men, it turns out, weren’t responsible for those standout plays. Computer imaging just made them look like male French stars such as Kylian Mbappé. Those were actually highlights of France’s women’s team.

One TikTok post featuring the commercial got 8.5 million views. As Koh Ewe wrote for TIME, the ad neatly dovetailed with academic research published a week ago, which found that “the quality of men’s and women’s soccer performances are actually judged similarly when the gender of the players is obscured. When the players’ gender was revealed to the study subjects, however, men’s soccer performances were rated significantly more highly.”

Marcel, a French ad agency, produced the spot: I tracked down the company’s co-CEO, Pascal Nessim, while he was on vacation in the south of France. He said a creative team at Marcel brought him the idea, which he signed off on. “It’s a magical demonstration that women’s soccer can be as impressive as men’s soccer,” says Nessim. “It’s very important for us to create a transformative campaign. It helps change the point of view.”

But Nessim never expected the clip to catch on like this. He says he’s enjoying his holiday.

World Cup Hard Knocks

It’s now official. On Monday, Netflix announced that it will stream a multipart, all-access docuseries on the USWNT’s World Cup run in the fall. TIME Studios is co-producing the project, along with Words + Pictures and Togethxr. The series will be directed by Rebecca Gitlitz of TIME Studios, a two-time Emmy winner. Connor Schell, the Emmy-winning producer responsible for The Last Dance, OJ: Made In America and ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, is one of the executive producers.

We have cameras on the ground in New Zealand and will be following the USWNT throughout the tournament. I’ve gotten a sneak peek at some of the interviews and footage captured so far: the material is, in all honesty, very compelling. The producers were on hand, for example, when USWNT coach Vladko Andonovski let one of the players know she had made the team. The player sat on the so-called “bubble”—her place on the team was no lock. You won’t want to miss her raw, emotional reaction when she heard the news. We hope to be sharing snippets of the documentary reporting throughout the tournament. (But not too much! Tune in to the Netflix series, in a few months, for the good stuff.)

Recommended Reading

Some other highlights of TIME’s World Cup coverage.

From Yasmeen Serhan: How Women’s Soccer Exploded in Britain.

From Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program: Let’s Start Treating Knee Injuries Like Brain Injuries

Trinity Rodman Is More Than Her Famous Last Name

Elsewhere around the web:

Japan’s women’s soccer team struggles to grow support at home (Bloomberg)

A friendly between Ireland and Colombia got a little unfriendly (CNN)

America’s business owners stare down punishing World Cup timings (Al Jazeera)

Parting Thoughts

– Something to keep in mind as you begin to watch the tournament: unlike the other so-called “flow sports,” like basketball and hockey, soccer coaches can’t rotate their players in and out of games at the international level. In that sense, soccer is like baseball. Once a player’s taken out of the game, she can’t return. Each side can make five subs per game at the 2023 World Cup, with an extra sixth sub reserved for players who suffer a head injury and must be removed.

– While much of the world swelters, Auckland is feeling a bit chilly. American midfielder Rose LaVelle has impressed journalists with her attire: while at least one reporter wore a winter coat during a USWNT training session, Lavelle, a University of Wisconsin alum, practiced sleeveless and in shorts. Lavelle is a key player, but a pre-World Cup injury has worried USWNT observers. Will she be ready to go? If Lavelle’s taking on the cold head up, that seems like a strong sign she’s thriving.

We’ll discover Lavelle’s status soon enough. Finally, kickoff is near. Look out for Extra Time in your inbox this Saturday; we’ll break down the U.S. opener, and surely overreact to the good and the bad. That’s part of the fun. Speak to you then.

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com