Sunday, May 21st, 2017 – AFC Ann Arbor 2 Detroit City FC 0
A lot of my recent reading has centered around the subject of mindset. The basic theory is that your thoughts and attitudes shape your actions and that making small changes to the way you think can have a tangible impact on the outcomes in your life. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl describes his experiences as a prisoner at Auschwitz and posits the view that each person at all times has the ability to control of his or her own attitude, regardless of external influences. He observed that, in general, those who attempted to maintain at least a tiny shred of a positive outlook had a higher survival rate than those who gave into nihilism and despair.
It goes without saying that the horrors of a death camp are in an entirely different universe than the week-to-week challenges of a sports team, but the same principles uncovered by Frankl in that waking nightmare can be applied by any person in any difficult situation, no matter how trivial.
Two weeks into this season we’ve already pored over dozens of possible changes to City’s lineup and tactics in an attempt to get some grasp of what’s going wrong and how the team can get back on track. Last week I talked about the need for each individual player to become more part of a cohesive unit, but something else struck me when I watched Sunday’s match play out as so many have in recent memory: the divergent mindsets between City and its opponents.
DCFC’s reputation as a big lower-division club was built over the years as it stacked up wins at Cass Tech and its outsized support turned the place into a cauldron that caused visiting players to visibly lose their composure. Consequently, every single opposing team now comes to the match with their very best in the hopes of knocking City from its perch. This is why their players celebrate goals exclusively in front of the Northern Guard rather than their own fans. That giant-killing mentality seems to fuel each and every one of them.
It’s not a controversial statement, however, to say that City hasn’t played like giants of late, at least not since the Open Cup run of a year ago. On paper the talent is there, but something is just off. They look tight, afraid of making mistakes. Dealing with adversity has been a problem too. In each match this season they’ve come out and looked like the better team for the first 30-50 minutes, but when the other team makes adjustments and a couple things go against them they seem to get a little lost. This in turn noticeably affects their playing style as short passes are eschewed in favor of long balls, challenges become more reckless, and on the whole things just look generally panicked and hurried.
If I’m right and the team mindset isn’t where it should be, it’s up to the coaching staff and the leaders amongst the players to reframe things. If I can offer one suggestion it would be to co-opt the strategy from the teams they’ve struggled with: view yourself as the underdog going up against the big bad bullies that need to be knocked down a peg.
Practically speaking, do the things that frustrate you when they’re done to you: get in the way of crosses and shots, work hard in the midfield to win the ball and make smart passes to keep it away from the other team once you get it, make runs at the back line, pressure the defenders and keeper when they have the ball.
The mental aspect of the game is often discussed, but I think it’s more important than most people realize. We’ve all heard the stories of visiting teams standing in the tunnel at Cass, already shaken by the atmosphere. They’d lost before even setting foot on the field because their heads weren’t in the right place.
Mastering one’s state of mind is just as challenging as any on-field feat, and can have just as significant of an impact on the outcome.