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Beating the Odds

Olympic-Style Effort

“Practice being excited.” — Bill Foster

Today we’re privileged to interview Heather O’Reilly, a U.S. soccer Olympian. Heather is renowned for the quality of her practice; she treats every contact like it’s her first and her last. Though she is speaking of soccer, her comments can apply to anyone who is trying to become great.

Q: You have a reputation for putting a lot of attention into your
practices. How fair is that to say?

A: Coaches have always told me that I am such a good practice player.
Some players are talented enough to “bring it” to games, but I always played my hardest whenever I was out there. When I was a kid, playing hard at practice was just natural: I would want to leave it on the field every time. When I got older, it was more of a intentional focus that I knew that I had to bring to get where I wanted in soccer.

Q: We’re talking about making EVERY contact count, no matter how basic the drill, right?

A: Exactly, I firmly believe that you can always choose your attitude and your effort. I am not the most skilled player out there, but always brought those two elements, because that is what you can control every single day.

Q: Where did you develop that kind of approach to practice? Is it your
background? Some incident that you once saw?

A: I have a competitive family, so I think I owe a lot to my brothers for making me the player that I am. Because they fostered that “I want to be the best in everything” attitude. I brought that attitude to practice, every drill I wanted to be the best.

Q: Was there ever a time when you realized that something about your work ethic set you apart?

A: When I was younger, I played center midfield and thought that that meant I could run everyone on the field and play all the positions. And I tried to! But I was emotional out there, I would cry if we got scored on the middle of the game. I was so intense and so passionate that I would just lose it. The parents of my teammates used to call me the steam engine, because they could see it building up, and they could tell that I was going to explode and lose it. It took years for coaches to teach me to channel that frustration into positives. But I noticed at that time that it all meant a lot more to me than it meant to the other girls. I might have taken it too far, but I always played with passion and I think that’s why I got where I am today.

Q: Do you every notice players that don’t train as hard as you and
wonder what they are doing?

A: Of course, I still do. I am not always the most skilled player, or the biggest player, but I pride myself on doing the things that I CAN CONTROL. And that means bringing my work ethic every single day. There is no way that I would be on the U.S. national team if I didn’t have this quality. There are players that match my skill level out there. But I think people recognize that work ethic is contagious, and it is a real positive to have players like that on a team.

Q: How much of your success is due to talent and how much is due to
your incredible focus?

A: It’s a tough question. I mean, there is no doubt that I am very lucky to be blessed with athletic ability. My family is athletic and I think that gave me a strong foundation right off the bat. But that athletic ability would not take me very far alone. You need the entire package. Much more of my success is due to my determination, work ethic, confidence, and will.

Q: What stories if any can you tell about things that have happened
in practice and how they gave you an edge in a game?

A: For the 2004 Olympics, I was a bubble player and I was fighting for
a position on a team which was made up of many of my soccer idols. It was a challenge to remain confident in myself. I was playing forward, and was working on skills that weren’t my strong suits, like posting up and laying balls off. And I wasn’t having much success with it. I became very frustrated and emotional. Greg Ryan was the assistant coach at that time and we had a chat about how things were going. And he told me something that seems so basic but truly means so much. He told me to be myself. He said sure, work on the things you need to improve on. BUT NEVER FORGET how you are different, and what you bring to the table. And from that point on, I never forgot to bring my attitude and my work ethic to every single practice. Because that’s what separates me.


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