Pundit and former Manchester United player Gary Neville told a story recently in the Daily Mail about his one-time team-mate at Manchester United, Cristiano Ronaldo. When Neville asked him once why he seemed to take it easy on his final two runs of a hard eight run exercise, Ronaldo replied “Too much water kills the plant.” Ronaldo took seriously the importance of knowing when to push himself, and when to rest.
The importance of balance in training and in life runs counter to what many of us believe about what it means to be a an athlete in peak form. When we imagine the difficult path young players take on their way to becoming world class stars for example, we see images that wouldn’t be out of place in an Adidas or Nike ad. Parents driving in the dark to take their kids to practice. Kids rapt while watching their sporting idols on a flickering TV screen. Endless hours on a treadmill, running up and down flights of stairs for hours at a time, taking a thousand wrist shots in a row, running, more running, the treadmill again perhaps with a poster of a sporting great on the wall, getting up early, focusing on a dream, going to bed late, eschewing friends or fun, more training, hard work, and then voila! Sporting greatness.
These images are meant to motivate athletes to work harder, but for most elite, world class players, the motivation part isn’t the problem. I was reminded of this when I spoke last week with former (and possibly soon to be) star forward for the Canadian national women’s team, Kara Lang.
Lang, you might remember, was forced to retire in January 2011 at tender age of 24 after several failed attempts to rehabilitate an ACL and knee injury. Despite the early end to her career, Lang’s accomplishments eclipsed those of players who stay in the game for decades. She holds the record for the youngest ever woman footballer to score in a full international, for Canada against Wales in March of 2002 at the age of fifteen. That was the same year she became an idol to youth players when she scored a semifinal shootout penalty in the U19 World Cup to put Canada in the final. Nine years and many incredible footballing feats later, she end her career with 34 national team goals in 89 senior caps.
That’s why many eyebrows were raised when the National Post first reported this past June Lang was working with CWNT head coach John Herdman and a Montreal-based sports business group called B2Ten to make possible a return to the Canadian roster, as early as October of this year for a friendly against South Korea.
While Lang was understandably cautious about the idea of coming out of retirement to play competitive football, the staff at B2Ten sold her on on a vision for a recovery.
“I think the biggest thing for me is when they said, ‘We’re not in the business of bringing people back to how they were before they got injured, we’re in the business of making people better than they were when they were injured,’” Lang says. “I mean, when you hear that, you’re like, okay, where do I sign?”
B2Ten, with whom Lang has been training since this past March, have an impressive track record. They’ve worked with successful Canadian athletes like Olympic medalist Jennifer Heil and figure skater Tessa Virtue. Their approach, in their words, is to take a “…comprehensive analysis of each athlete’s specific requirements. We then deploy expertise, resources and services to eliminate limitations to success.”
Lang says they don’t take just anyone in their program. “I think a lot of people would be surprised by some of the athletes that they haven’t chosen to work with.” Clearly the group, along with Herdman, saw reason to think she could step out onto the pitch again despite her recurring knee problems.
They were up front with Lang that it wouldn’t be easy. “[B2Ten] were like, ‘You’ve got to give us a year, and it’s gonna suck.’ And it does. I’ll be honest. Basically everyday I’m doing all the things I suck at over and over and over again.”
Lang says it’s a slow process, and she’s only gradually begun to work more with the ball. “They know, as soon as we just give you a ball and let you do whatever you want, you’re going to throw everything you learned out the window, because your focus will be the ball, not how you’re moving.”
This appraoch ran counter to her hardwired instinct in training growing up as a soccer prodigy, which was to push herself as hard as possible to improve. For Lang, as with many elite athletes, motivation to train was never the problem; the challenge was learning the importance of balance, both in work and rest, but also between her soccer life and her personal life. Her drive in training caught up with her after ACL problems kept returning.
“I was like, if I can go seven days a week I’m going to go for seven days a week, but it’s only sustainable for so long. And I also was so young that I didn’t maybe speak up when I should have. And so for a long time I was playing under 19 and full women’s team. So I never had a break. When the women’s team would be in training camp and then they’d have a few weeks off I’d go training with the U19s. And it’s just not sustainable, like that will catch up to you.”
Lang says that mentality played a role in her failed rehabilitation prior to her retirement two years ago. “I worked my ass off. I was diligent and committed. But I was doing the wrong things. Which is almost worse. That’s so frustrating because you’re doing all you can and it doesn’t work.”
In contrast, B2Ten emphasize a slower, more repetitive, more precise approach.
“They’re so much about quality, doing things well and with precision, because it doesn’t make sense to do it fatigued. For me, I feel like I need to get a good sweat on, I want to feel like I need to puke to feel like I’m working hard, but with them it’s just a completely different mindset. It’s like your hard work and dedication will show in doing everything right even if it means you do four reps instead of ten.”
Despite knowing what she does now about the importance of balance in training, she doesn’t regret her initial diagnosis or her decision to retire, if only because it gave her perspective on “life after soccer.”
“There are a lot of players out there who didn’t start as young as I did, and grew up dreaming of being here,” Lang says. “And that was something that I missed out on, because it was almost like I just was THERE all of a sudden. I never had that longing…it was almost like the opportunity presented itself before I even had time to dream it up.”
In this archived CBC Radio interview from ten years ago, a 16 year old Lang describes how strange it is to be signing autographs for girls who recognize her on the street. Growing up, she had no idols except the sport itself, which consumed much of her off-school hours. Now she says the hard work of making a comeback has finally given her an idea of what it is to dream to play. “That’s what I’m living now. I feel like I can relate to those young girls who are like, ‘I want to do that one day.’ Because that’s me now.”
Her nearly-three year hiatus from playing also changed her perspective on the sport itself, particularly in her work as a television analyst in Canada.
“I went from watching soccer to where I would only ever watch the strikers and it was only ever a learning experience for me, to becoming like a fan, where you’re watching the whole game, you see the whole field, you look at it from an analysts’ perspective, you’re following formations and things like that. And I think that it’s just a completely different kind of knowledge of the game. I hope that it helps.”
Not that Lang thinks it will be easy to step out on the field after nearly three years out of the game.
“A few times the trainers in Montreal have sat me down because they can see me getting frustrated,” she explains. “And they’re like, listen, this might be very frustrating, but you need to be ready, because when you start training with the ball it’s going to be even worse. Basically what we’re doing, or what we’re hoping to do, is give you a new body. You’re going to feel uncomfortable with the ball at your feet, not just because you haven’t played for so long, but because essentially you’re trying to move in a new body. And you know, getting from A to B for you, you might be doing it more efficiently, but it’s a new vehicle you’re not used to driving. Then you throw a ball into the mix, and if like, you’re movement patterns if everything goes right will be different. So you’re going to feel uncomfortable.”
John Herdman’s trust in Lang, and his emphasis on good sports science and fitness, and his respect for her life outside—and after—football has given her confidence that her return will be handled in the best way possible.
“He’s all about balance and that’s the key to pretty much everything he does. And that’s a big reason why I’m stoked to work with him because he believes in balance both in terms of how much time and energy you put into your training, and also just balancing your life. I think this is the first time in a long time where that team has been able to able to have lives outside soccer because he knows that if, you know, happy players are good players. They’ll produce on the field if they have balance.”
Lang’s lesson in balance should be heeded by those who still believe elite performance is a matter of working oneself to the bone in monastic seclusion. Elite players don’t need to be told to train hard; they do it naturally. They do however need to be told when to give themselves a break, when to sacrifice the short term high of training for their long term health.