Having gone to school to understand sport through the lens of psychology, I developed an appreciation (and, at times, a disdain) for research. If done well, it sheds insight and, hopefully, yields more thought-provoking questions. The real merit, though, is how these insights can be applied beyond the confines of the laboratory.
Sport Science is no different. If done well and disseminated appropriately, coaches and athletes (hopefully) reap the benefits. Those benefits range from developing tangible performance improvements (think V02 max, hydration) to emerging policies (seminars, sport psychology) that enhance the overall experience of sport better for all parties involved. To what degree? I have no idea.
There are, however, variables that aren’t as quantifiable. But that doesn’t mean that they’re not as easily understood. What many refer to as “the intangibles” are anything but and that’s they are the human spirit in living, breathing form.
Need an example? Look no further than Megan Rapinoe.
She is in the midst of an incomparable run, one in which the intangibles outshine the statistics (and her statistics indicate she is second-to-none).
I’m not sure what to call it - moxie, mojo, swagger, chutzpah, burning the inner fire, or maybe even The Force – it’s evident she’s harnessing 100% of it.
I, like many other Americans, only tune in for soccer during the World Cup. Additionally, I, like many of my fellow Americans, cannot get enough of the chaos that is the 2019 World Cup.
Granted, the sample size I’m pulling from is a handful of games, but I am well aware of the proverbial target on the backs of the US squad. Since their 13-0 drubbing of Thailand, the pressure has escalated and noise turned near deafening, making for the perfect storm of distraction. Yet still, Rapinoe continues to weather it.
After the forward netted two goals against Spain, Coach Jill Ellis didn’t reference shop talk, strategy, or any other technical jargon:
“You can have all the tactics in the world, but that essence of self-belief, that’s critical. Pinoe (Rapinoe) and other players have lived in these moments. It’s fair to say they actually want those moments. When the game is on the line, you want to feel that this is a changing moment that you’re in. I think that’s part of what they’re really good at in terms of embracing that moment.”
After defeating Spain, the U.S. squad was set to play a quarterfinal match – though many considered it a final - against France in Paris. The magnitude of the moment was evident for both sides. For France, it was an opportunity to advance further than they have ever gone in World Cup and an opportunity to do that in Paris. For the U.S., it was an opportunity to fortify their already seemingly unshakeable confidence with the world watching.
Rapinoe, well aware of this, didn’t try to downplay it either. Nor did she dish out some trite response, the kind that are so ubiquitous amongst athletes in press conferences:
"I hope it's just a total s---show circus. It's going to be totally awesome. I think this is what everybody wants; hopefully a complete spectacle. I hope it's huge and crazy. That's what it should be. This is the best game. This is what everybody wanted. I think we want it, seems like they're up for it…”
Rapinoe went way beyond acknowledging what was to come. Instead, she took it five steps further and seemingly demanded that the French bring everything they had. They responded and so did she by scoring two goals to defeat the French squad.
Rapinoe’s two goals were far more impactful than statistics alone could reveal. She harnessed all of the energy, all of the pressure, 100% of the uncertainty and made it her moment.
I hope this U.S. squad – one clearly united by unwavering belief - continues on their trajectory and wins the World Cup. As of now, their spirit has reminded of why I love sport. Every single time greatness has beckoned, Megan Rapinoe continues to heed the call.
What I’ve learned from Rapinoe is the ripple effect she’s had on the field which emerged from her unrelenting willingness to embrace everything about the World Cup. Everything. Yes, all of it. Each game literally becomes the “biggest of her career” and yet, she still doesn’t miss a beat.
Rapinoe has repeatedly welcome it all with open arms and, in that, she’s played with total freedom. It’s every athlete’s dream and because she’s so immersed in it, she’s playing an entirely different game than everybody else. It’s difficult to quantify, but that doesn’t mean it’s not apparent.
No matter what sport science feeds us nor however much technical knowledge a coach or player holds, Megan Rapinoe’s run reminds me that the human spirit stands above all.