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It's mental! How to end a long winless streak and break the cycle of self-pity

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Losing isn't just about tactics and talent; it's about attitude as much as anything. Take it from someone who has been there...

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We started the season with high hopes. Nobody around the team questioned whether we would be good, but the rather how good. The locker roombuzzed with music and chatter before the first game. We laced our boots like knights fastening their helmets.

Then we went out into the cold March air and lost, 3-0.

The next weekend followed a similar pattern: optimism and excitement led to despair. The next week, too. Three weeks, zero wins. Tying our cleats changed from an honor to a punishment. We went from believing we could go 30 games without losing to wondering if we would ever win again.

Winless streaks can become downward spirals for teams. They are as mental as they are tactical.

Everyone around the team grows miserable; people lose sleep and energy, they don’t train as well, they lose belief in their ability. Good players suddenly seem average.

The biggest part of breaking a winless streak is breaking the cycle of self-pity. Soccer is all about confidence and energy. Winless streaks don’t generally come because of some issue with tactics or talent.

On a normal training day, practice will start at 10 a.m. for most teams. Players will have to arrive somewhere between 9:00 a.m. and 9:30 a.m., depending on the team. When a team is playing well, players will show up before the designated arrival time. The locker room will be bustling with guys pouring coffee and eating breakfast. Players will put on their training gear a little earlier and spend more time in the weight room or on the training table.

During a winless streak, though, everything gets pushed back. Players stay up later because the sooner they go to bed, the sooner they have to deal with the realities that await at practice. They hit snooze on their alarm. They linger in their kitchens, moving the spoon in the cereal bowl. They stay under the warm, protective water in the shower a little longer. Everyone shows up to the locker room closer to, if not exactly at, the designated arrival time. The locker room feels tangibly different.

I’ve seen this in various places throughout my professional career.

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The team starts to split. Most of the guys hate that the team has been losing, but a couple savor the struggles. There are a few players who feel neglected by the coach and know they will only play if the team loses. They go home happy after a loss and show up more excited for training. The change in demeanor can often be obvious and infuriating for the regular starters. Players, then, start to look out for themselves and struggle to find the camaraderie needed to get through difficult times.

It becomes a dangerous cycle.

These are the sort of intangible elements - the ones you don’t see on TV - which fuel winless streaks like the recent one from the Philadelphia Union, which on Sunday won its first game since August, and the growing issues with the LA Galaxy. They can happen in any team.

Frustrations begin to manifest on the field. The self-belief wavers. The average bad breaks - awkward bounces, poor refereeing - don’t feel like normal occurrences, but revenge from a strange God you didn’t know existed. Instead of rebounding and finding a way to overcome the adversity, you feel defeated. You look around and see the unmistakable look of 'not again'  in everyone’s glossy eyes. Instead of rallying the energy needed to recover, you feel depleted.

The biggest part of breaking a winless streak is breaking the cycle of self-pity. As strange as it sounds, everyone from the training staff to the coaches to the players needs to show up in the morning with a smile. Get to the locker room earlier after a loss. Look everyone in the eye when you see them, shake their hand and give them a warm grin. Put on your training gear sooner. Make a gesture to show you are ready and excited to get back to work.

Soccer is all about confidence and energy. Winless streaks don’t generally come because of some issue with tactics or talent. The margins are so fine in soccer, particularly in MLS, that results can swing either way from week to week. Basic probability says a team should win from time to time. A winless streak like the one Philadelphia just endured comes from a deeper place, an internal issue that depletes a team’s overall attitude. I’m not saying coaching or player talent doesn’t play a role - a loss is generally a symptom of something - but prolonged winless streaks aren’t just physical occurrences; they are deep mental and emotional states.

After our third game without a win to start that season, our coach called a team meeting. Several of the players spoke up and tried to present a solution. Then one person interrupted the flustered conversation and said, simply, “Guys, stop stressing, we are fine. We’re a good team. We’ve been playing well. The tide will start to turn.” Nobody had anything else to say. Everyone left feeling better.

We won our next eight games.

The first step to breaking the physical struggles on the field is to unlock the death grip on the emotional chains in our own heads. Once players relax a little, the world becomes a whole new place.

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