LA Galaxy

Photo by Jeff Skeirik

Soccer is called, “The Beautiful Game.” The origin of the term is disputed, but when the legendary Brazilian soccer player, Pelé, titled his autobiography, My Life and the Beautiful Game, the phrase became a ubiquitous description for soccer.

Part of what makes soccer beautiful is the certain kind of magic that takes place in the open structure of the game. Unlike other sports such as football and hockey, soccer’s clock never stops. It runs for two 45-minute halves. Even when there is a player down, there are no time-outs. Then at the end of each half, the referee declares additional “stoppage time” on the clock to compensate for any interruptions in play due to injuries or disputes.

In addition to this freedom of time, there are few physical restrictions. With the exception of minimal shin guards and cleats (and gloves for the goalkeeper), the players (two teams of 11 each) are unencumbered by bulky equipment. They wear no protective gear, and there are no bats, no mitts, no sticks—just 44 feet and a ball. With such simplicity built in, both physically and philosophically, there is room for the kind of spontaneity and synchronicity that feels magical.

Soccer is a game of opportunity rather than being a fast-paced, high-scoring game. The pros might argue with me, but as a spectator, the pace is more meditative than driving, more fluid than strategic. The vast majority of advancements across the field don’t result in a goal. But when the opportunity presents itself, the players better be ready. It takes a combination of skill and focus to place the ball in the back of the net. The conditioning and training individual players and the team participate in is intense. I had the opportunity to go behind the scenes and spend the day with members of the LA Galaxy soccer team to learn more about what it takes to play this game well and even become a soccer legend.

LA Galaxy

LA Galaxy and the Beautiful Game

LA Galaxy was one of the original eight teams that started Major League Soccer in the US in 1996. To this day, LA Galaxy is one of the league’s most-decorated, with five MLS Cups, four Supporters’ Shields, and two Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cups. The club has appeared in a record nine MLS Cups, and won the Western Conference regular season title eight times. In 2007, they signed English soccer legend, David Beckham, changing the face of U.S. Soccer with the most high-profile transaction in MLS at that time. LA Galaxy was also home to legend Landon Donovan, who remains the most-scoring player in the league.

In 2017, LA Galaxy faced one challenge after another. By the end of the season, they had failed to advance to the MLS Playoffs for the first time since 2008, the year Bruce Arena arrived in the position of head coach. The 2017 season started without Arena, who had moved on to coach the U.S. team in their run for a spot in the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Curt Onalfo, the head coach of LA Galaxy II (the minor league team) was promoted to Arena’s vacated spot, but departed halfway through the season as the team was visibly struggling. It didn’t help that seven key players suffered injuries that affected their ability to play.

After Onalfo departed, he was immediately replaced by accomplished and respected coach, Sigi Schmid, who happens to be the team’s original head coach. In the off-season, Schmid rolled up his sleeves and rebuilt the team as devoted fans stood by and watched, saying goodbye to some of their favorite players in the name of rebirth and recovery. The 2018 season opens with a reconfigured team and a fresh start at StubHub Center in Carson on Sunday March 4 against Portland Timbers. The team has been training intensely in preparation.

LA Galaxy

Soccer as a Meditative Game

One of the things I have always loved about The Beautiful Game is its meditative nature. Patience and stamina are required skills. Emerson’s famous words, “The journey is the destination,” applies here. A trip down the pitch is often most inspiring in the artistry of a perfect pass, exemplary footwork, the confluence of circumstances that may or may not conclude in a point on the scoreboard. But when it happens, the physical and mental endurance pay off.

Pierre Barrieu, Director of LA Galaxy Sports Performance, feels confident heading into the 2018 season. He says, “We have a hard cardiovascular conditioning regimen. From my experience, the players who complete this kind of intense training eventually benefit not only from the fitness standpoint, but from a mental standpoint as well. It gives them confidence and they feel that they have an edge over players who haven’t trained so hard.” He went on to say, “I never dissociate the mental and physical because they go hand in hand. The higher the level of play, the more focus is required.”

The Frequency of Peak Performance

Player Sebastian Lletget has a lot to say about the importance of mental acuity and the role it plays in his own recovery. One of the sport’s rising stars, Lletget was called up to the U.S. National Team against Honduras in March 2017 and ended up with a Lisfranc fracture of his left foot, in which the metatarsal bones are displaced from the tarsus. The injury and subsequent surgery kept him off the field for the rest of the season. “This game is 95% mental. Five percent is physical and that’s important, but 95% of this game is between the ears,” he explained. “This is why we have psychologists and things that we have to do prior to games in order to get attuned to that frequency of peak performance.”

I asked him about the nature of the mentality. Is it confidence, focus, presence? He said, “You gain all of those things before you even hit the field. The game starts long before you step on the field. It starts when you get in your car to drive to the stadium, not just when the whistle blows.”

LA Galaxy

Photo by Jeff Skeirik

Mindset Beyond the Game

What Sebastian is telling me is that there is a mindset that extends way beyond the actual game. Baggio Husidic, who happens to be the team’s sole vegan, concurs. He says, “Soccer is such a small part of my life if you look over the whole picture. My compassionate way of living and eating and thinking is for the longevity of my life, the environment, and to leave a good picture for my son and future generations. From the outside in, it might look like I live a vegan lifestyle for peak performance, but it just happens that my lifestyle and mindset benefit my game.”

My own 21-year-old daughter conquered some chronic health issues by adopting a 100% plant-based diet. One of the myths of veganism is that it’s hard to get enough protein. Baggio explains, “I think the protein question is just something people are used to asking. My breakfast alone has 20 grams of protein. My main sources are lentils, beans, nuts, and seeds. That alone provides more than enough protein. The thing I do have to watch with a plant-based diet is my Vitamin B12 level. I have zero deficiencies, and I have one of the lowest cholesterol levels on the team.”

I asked him about endurance as if it would be more of a challenge for him. It’s actually just the opposite. “The biggest difference for me is endurance. A big part of that is recovery. I eat so many antioxidants and anti-inflammatory foods, and that’s pretty much the key to recovering the muscles. I recover very well. Without the dairy and meat in my diet, when I go to sleep, instead of digesting it’s actually detoxing and recovering my body. I get plenty of sleep and deep sleep.”

LA Galaxy

Photo by Jeff Skeirik

Recovery and Diet

Brooke Ellison, the team’s Sports Performance Dietician, shared with me how complex it is to feed the team. “My approach is very personalized. Soccer is a demanding and dynamic sport. I do have to take into consideration the different positions and the demands of each positions. I’ll talk to a midfielder differently than I talk to a goalkeeper, for instance. Right now we are in preseason and the load is pretty heavy for every single player. Our daily approach right now is the same. As the season starts we switch to a more targeted approach in which I consider recovery days, game days, pre-game days. I can craft their personal nutrition based on the data I see in the GPS or the heart-rate monitor. I work with the Sports Scientist to custom make their pre-game drinks or post-game shakes. It gets very specific and highly scientific.”

The GPS she is referring to is system that is widely used in professional sports to map an athlete’s performance: speed, distance, acceleration, deceleration, and body load. This kind of data has become an integral part of training for peak performance. It helps Brooke help individual players reach their fitness and performance goals. She says, “I am able to work with our sports scientist to develop a personal plan specific to what they want to achieve, for instance, body composition, or to be more explosive, the list goes on…”

LA Galaxy

Photo by Jeff Skeirik

Hydration and Performance

Hydration is an obvious question for a soccer team’s nutritionist. Much has been written about the negative effects of dehydration, not only on physical health, but also cognitive performance. In order to reach peak mental and physical performance, it is crucial that both the body and brain be hydrated. Ellison says, “Every single day, I have them weigh in when they arrive at the stadium and then when they come back after practice, so I can monitor their fluid loss. I know my heavy sweaters, right off the bat. And then I can focus with them about electrolytes and foods that will help them hold on to water. I use a refractometer and test their urine the day before a game to test their hydration level. Then I have them adjust to make sure they are ready for the game the next day.” I asked her to identify the minimum amount of water these athletes should be drinking daily during a season. Her answer was easy, “Six 16 ounce bottles.” That’s 96 ounces a day, or the equivalent of three Big Gulps.

LA Galaxy

Photo by Jeff Skeirik

Mindset and Success

In a 2014 article published in Psychology Today, writer Jim Taylor, Ph.D., talks about Mindset as an essential contributor to athletic success. He found that the elite athletes he worked with— both professional and Olympic—consistently used different mindsets to perform at their highest level consistently. I see this this in the LA Galaxy players that I interviewed.

Venezuelan defender, Rolf Feltscher, says, “The most important part of the sport is the mind. You have to train the body, and that’s true, but you have to be more in shape with your mind.” When I ask him how he trains his mind, he says, “I am happy when I stand up, when I am grateful. You have to be grateful all the time. And you have to give back.”

LA Galaxy

French footballer, Romain Alessandrini, joined the team last year. One of the brightest lights in an otherwise dim season, he earned the club’s MVP status. When I asked him if he meditates, he said, “No but I try to figure out how to be better. I try to give everything at every training and every game. For myself, the mental attitude is 80% of my performance.”

Sebastian Lletget summed up the importance of mindset and the power of presence for a soccer player. “The moment and the opportunity opens. For the duration of 90 minutes, even during halftime, you have to be super present. You have to be so in frequency with the game. Time and time again, nothing happens in the game. You build up for so long, and then finally it opens up and there’s an opportunity: you are right in front of the goal and if you are a split second short, you miss it. You have to be perfectly there in the moment. It’s all about being focused and present.” Now he’s sounding like a good yogi.

More about the LA Galaxy

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All photos by Jeff Skeirik/Rawtographer