The mental exercises of Washington Spirit star Ashley Hatch, both on and off the field

(Video: Alexa Juliana Ard/The Washington Post)

The pressures and stress of being a professional soccer player are immense. Matches often come down to one goal, and winning can be decided by inches.

Ashley Hatch, a forward for the Washington Spirit and one of the best players in the National Women’s Soccer League, uses mental exercises to get into the right head space and prepare for win-or-lose situations.

In 2021, Hatch won the NWSL Golden Boot award for being the league’s top regular season scorer and helped lead the Spirit to its first NWSL title.

Mental preparation helps her feel more in control before a penalty kick and cope with disappointment, whether it’s missing a goal or not making the roster for the U.S. women’s national team.

“When my mind’s right, sometimes even if I’m not feeling physically my best,” she said, “I feel like I can push through hard times, and I can play even better.”

Here’s how to handle high-pressure situations like Hatch, whose mental routine starts long before she steps onto the field.

Washington Spirit star Ashley Hatch utilizes breathing techniques to stay calm during a penalty kick. (Video: Alexa Juliana Ard/The Washington Post)

Staying focused is paramount before taking a penalty kick.

Players are expected to score with the eyes of hundreds or thousands of screaming fans on them. “In those situations, our heart rate tends to be going super, super high,” Hatch said.

To find calm, the 28-year-old will at times turn to a breathing technique she calls “sigh breath.”

“You breathe in all the way, and you hold it, and then breathe in one more as high as you can, and then you completely let it go,” Hatch explains.

Repeating the same routine before a penalty kick also helps her feel in control. Hatch bounces the ball three times, places it to the left side of the penalty kick circle, backs up a few steps, waits for the referee’s whistle, takes a deep breath and then strikes the ball.

Hatch goes through the same steps at games and when she practices her penalty kicks.

Another breathing technique Hatch practices at times is box breathing, said Matt Moore, a mental performance coach who works with Hatch.

In box breathing, you inhale for four seconds, hold your breath for four seconds, exhale for four seconds and then hold your breath again for four seconds, Moore said.

Other times, Hatch just takes slow, deep breaths.

Ashley Hatch uses her journal to reflect on her game performance and how she can improve. (Video: Alexa Juliana Ard/The Washington Post)

Visualizing situations on the pitch and writing reminders in her journal helps Hatch build confidence to execute on the field.

Rehearsing a vision in one’s mind involves “using all your senses to kind of re-create what you would feel or what you would anticipate you would feel,” she said.

For example, before Hatch steps onto the field, she’ll ask herself, “What does it taste like? What does it smell like? What does it feel like? What are you hearing?” Sometimes she even looks up Google images of fields she’s never played in. This way, Hatch said, whatever environment she steps into doesn’t feel foreign.

Hatch uses journaling to reflect on her progress as a player. She writes down the things she felt she did well and what she can do better in the future. Oftentimes, there are reminders about her positioning on the field when she isn’t in possession of the ball. For example, she’ll remind herself to “stay high,” meaning that when her team is attacking, she wants to be close to the goal.

“Like little cues that I can recall in the game, if I’m not doing those things, and I need a little bit of a reminder,” Hatch said.

For the past four years, Hatch has been working with Moore to help her navigate the mental performance side of being an elite athlete.

The two meet about once a week either on a video or phone call for an hour and have been working heavily on mindfulness — staying focused on the present.

Hatch said she tries to meditate every game day and two to five times during the week. She either uses the Headspace app or puts on a timer for five, seven or 10 minutes. She normally starts with her eyes open, breathes a couple of times, then closes her eyes and continues focusing on her breathing.

“When I meditate, it kind of centers me and grounds me,” Hatch said.

These practices have also helped her cope with disappointment.

Hatch had expected to be selected as part of the 23-person Women’s World Cup roster for the U.S. women’s national soccer team. But in a surprise to herself and many soccer pundits, she didn’t make the cut.

Hatch told The Washington Post in an email that she was “devastated and heartbroken” at the news. But, she added, situations like these are “moments where life really gives you the chance to practice what you preach, to really lean into your values and beliefs.”

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