Is Mental Strength really understood: The Donovan Decision

Picking Landon Donovan was expected by everyone, including me, even if he wasn’t expected to start every game. His role as elder statesman and the experience he has gleaned from the previous 3 world cups makes him invaluable in the locker room and as a spark off the bench. Many countries do this as part of the team building formula. But as former national team coach Bruce Arena, Donovan’s current coach in Los Angeles, said earlier this week: “If there are 23 better players than Landon, then we have a chance to win the World Cup.” I am expecting the USA to lift the trophy based on this move.

Remember this goal!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

There are notable exceptions – Michael Ballack was too much of a head case to be selected for Germany as he neared retirement – but by all accounts Landon Donovan was not. No such luck for Samir Nasri, the wonderfully gifted but moody French footballer. He has been left out of France’s World Cup squad. France’s coach, Didier Deschamps, explained his decision with bracing honesty: “He’s a regular starter at Manchester City. That’s not the case today with the France team. And he also said he’s not happy when he’s a substitute. I can tell you that you can feel it in the squad.” Deschamps went further, anticipating his critics by conceding that Nasri was more talented than some players he had selected: “It’s not necessarily the 23 best French players, but it’s the best squad in my eyes to go as far as possible in this competition.”

Talent v unity: an old story, but not an issue in this this case. It seems that Donovan was not committed enough because he took time off. Why can you take time off for physical injuries, but not mental injuries?

You would think that Klinesman would be sensitive to this as Germany has had several goal keepers commit suicide over pressure they felt in their careers. The tragedy of Robert Enke is most well known. It is a great irony that in a game where we routinely talk of  confidence on the pitch, psychological support off it is so appallingly neglected.

In the last several years, Landon Donovan said and did things that were, for a major athlete at the top of his sport, remarkable. In 2012, he talked candidly about the mental strain of a long career in sports and the difficulty of staying motivated. That fall, he said he needed a break from playing, which he had done professionally since signing with a German club in 1999 at age 17. In December, after his team, the Los Angeles Galaxy, won the Major League Soccer championship, Donovan took an indefinite leave from the Galaxy and the U.S. national team, which was about to begin the final round of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup. During his hiatus, hetold a journalism class he was “exhausted from the weight of the last 15 years … really the past 28 years.” He entered therapy and meditated. He played pickup soccer in Cambodia. He spent time with his family. After four months, Donovan returned to his team “excited and committed,” and certain that he had done the right thing for his physical and emotional well-being.

“We have a sort of stigma that being in a difficult mental place is not acceptable,”Donovan told reporters a few days after his return.

No matter how much or how little he played, Donovan wouldn’t have been a distraction in Brazil. Instead, Klinsmann has created controversy out of thin air, and risked alienating American fans in the process. The coach said that the best player in American soccer history didn’t make the squad because of a “little step.” It seems more likely that Donovan was omitted for another reason: the coach’s big ego.

It’s a strange thing, to watch a hero die. First came the shock, the denial, the OMGs and WTFs that exploded through our Twitter feeds last night when we found out that Landon Donovan wasn’t traveling with the United States men’s national team to next month’s World Cup in Brazil.


This entry was posted on Tuesday, May 27th, 2014 at 00:05 and is filed under Coaching, Program Management. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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