AUCKLAND, New Zealand — The expectations surrounding the U.S. women’s national team have long been stratospheric. Anytime a major tournament takes place, it’s win or else. At the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, walking away with the trophy is the only acceptable outcome for the USWNT. Those expectations apply to coaches as well as players.
With the U.S. set to stay in New Zealand and Australia for — it is hoped — 40 days, a premium is placed on managing the accompanying stress. That means taking the brain and body away from soccer and focusing on something else, anything else, even for a few moments. So how do the players unwind? Can they unwind?
It’s been said that an idle mind is the devil’s workshop, and that seems to be the approach of the USWNT. On the surface, there seems to be no shortage of team activities. There is training, of course, but there are also meetings on teamwide, small-group and personal levels. There’s video to watch as well, be it about the U.S. or upcoming opponents. If that feels like there’s not much free time, it’s a dynamic that the players expect.
“I think people realize we’re not here on vacation,” said defender Crystal Dunn. “We’re here to get a job done. We’re here to work and be at our absolute best for this tournament.”
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There is some wiggle room within the team’s schedule, though, even as the definition of downtime can become blurry and often be in the eye of the beholder. Some players’ ideas of relaxing don’t exactly sound like, well, relaxing.
“There’s downtime within the structure,” forward Lynn Williams explained. “We are so lucky to have so many recovery modalities, and there’s allotted time if you want to take advantage of that. There’s also treatment time if you want to take advantage of that. But if you don’t, and you feel like you need to go walk around or you feel like you need to see your family, there’s time for that. So it is structured in some ways, but there’s a good chunk of time that you can fill with whatever you feel like you need to do to be your best self.”
Recovery, the process of regenerating the body in between practices and games, is an opportunity to ease the mind as well as the body. It could include the cryochamber, a solitary activity that’s like an ice bath, but quicker. Going to the training room to get aches and pains taken care of adds a social aspect as well.
“It’s very interesting that even your downtime and your personal time is still tied to performance,” said midfielder Andi Sullivan. “That’s something that we deal with as athletes all the time, but it’s seriously heightened, obviously, at this time period. So it’s funny, even when you’re like, ‘I need a rest or a mental break,’ it’s still in order to bring your best self on the field.”
Granted, for Dunn, the concept of “free time” has taken on a whole new meaning since the birth of her son, Marcel, in May 2022. The amount of time she has to herself has basically shrunk to near zero. In New Zealand, she estimates that she’s able to spend about two hours a day with her son, although she acknowledges that there are times when tough choices have to be made.
“There might be some days where I’ve got to choose treatments over family, and I think that’s just the balance that I’m going to have to find,” she said. “Obviously, this is my first time dealing with it, but I think it’s OK as a mom, I’ve learned to just be like, I need to take care of myself. And sometimes that means letting my child be in the hands of others, and that’s OK with me.”
That still doesn’t feel like it quite reaches the level of unplugging completely, however. The lounge in the team’s hotel helps satisfy that need, with Williams noting that she’ll often go there with Dunn to hang out.
“[Dunn’s] always knocking on my door just to hang out in my room. I’m like, ‘It’s 8 a.m., Crystal. Go away,'” Williams said jokingly.
Now that the World Cup has begun, players will go to the lounge to watch games and soak in the tournament. Forward Sophia Smith acknowledged that bonding time with teammates is vital.
“I think it’s very easy to get so focused on the task that you forget that you’re at a World Cup and this is cool and this is fun and something that you should be present and then fully experience,” she said. “So we all try to remind ourselves of that and to just be present and to enjoy the little times together, whether it’s at meals or hanging out in the recovery room, whatever it may be. We definitely try and be present and enjoy it.”
A few activities take that enjoyment up a notch and provide a welcome diversion from the pressures of the tournament. The impromptu coffee klatch is one.
“A lot of us are big coffee drinkers, so that is always the socializing, kind of decompressing time to go get coffee and hang out with people,” said defender Emily Fox.
(Her preferred drink? “I just get an iced latte or a flat white, so nothing crazy.”)
There’s also the unofficial book club.
With Becky Sauerbrunn not on the World Cup roster, Rose Lavelle is the name that springs to mind when one thinks of the unofficial team bookworm, although there are others. Smith is an avid reader as well. She’s been reading the “A Court of Thorns and Roses” series, although the sheer size and number of the books led her to buy a Kindle rather than haul them across the Pacific. This is more of an individual activity, though, and it’s not quite the situation in which players meet to discuss what they read. That said, it’s not so much Oprah’s Book Club but Sophia’s Book Club, as Smith is very much the instigator.
“We don’t all read the same books at the same time,” Smith said. “Someone will read one and I’ll tell you it’s good and then you’ll read it. But yeah, I’ve gotten people to join. I’ve gotten Ashley Sanchez and Trinity Rodman, who were not readers at all, to read now, and I’m really proud of that.”
Reading isn’t Rodman’s only downtime pursuit. She’s also a gamer, having brought her PlayStation on the trip to engage in games of Fortnite.
Sullivan admitted she’s taken on an old-fashioned, pre-internet pursuit that she calls “physical puzzles” — the 500-piece jigsaw variety as opposed to a digital version.
“I don’t really know that much about puzzles, but they’re fun, so that’s been a good thing to pass the time while you have only a few minutes here and there,” she said.
Anything to relieve stress as the tournament’s demands pile up.