The Portland Timbers are Mentally Tough

USA TODAY Sports

A conversation with Brian Baxter, a sports psychologist concerning the Portland Timbers, their mental toughness and their leadership.

You could compare the 2012 and the 2013 seasons in a multitude of ways. Some of those ways would be quantifiable, like stats, and some of those would be qualitative, like the "eye ball test." One of the obvious changes between the three seasons was a change that has moved the Portland Timbers from a first half team to a second half team.

No longer are fans dreading the final 15 minutes of the match. They no longer wonder when Portland will give up the go ahead goal or draw in the final minutes. This season the team continues to play for the full 90 minutes and have three times now come back from deficits. Of those times twice it was from two goals down.

The question I wanted to answer was why and how did Portland change. Now, I am not too qualified to answer questions concerning sports psychology and so I turned to Brian Baxter. Some of you may remember the piece I wrote about a year ago concerning the late game collapses and how the leadership of the team was on the sideline and not on the field.

Brian is a sports psychologist from Sports Psychology Institute Northwest (SPINw) [check them out at www.spinw.com]. He also played soccer at the college level and is a Portland Timbers season ticket holder and a soccer coach, who holds soccer camps every summer [see www.baxtersports.com for more information].

Editor's note: Brian and I met in a noisy environment and so I was not able to record the conversation. Therefore a lot of the quotes I will be attributing to him are paraphrased to the best of my ability to keep his voice.

A lot has changed since the last time Brian and I talked, but after going back and re-reading the article there were two quotes from him in our first conversation that he and I addressed in our second. They are as follows:

"In soccer you need a leader who echoes the coach but has their own leadership abilities. The Timbers need a leader who isn't exactly like Spencer but can step up and hold other players accountable. When the pressure is on a leader helps to be a unifying force, someone the players can look to for on-field motivation and guidance."

And:

"In Soccer once you become reactive instead of proactive you are dead. Good teams can salt the game away but it is not by sitting back and bunkering. It is by possessing the ball and passing it around."

Leadership

One of the areas Portland was lacking last year was a true on the field leader. Their motivational leader was on the sideline rather than in the game. While it was great to see the players loved John Spencer and that they would run through walls for him, it lead to a team that appeared lost on the field during critical times.

Fast forward to the start of 2013 and you have already seen a change in the team's attitude during times of adversity. The Portland Timbers are no longer playing not to lose but are playing to win. You could say the change is due entirely to the change in coach but that would be discounting the change in the leadership on the field.

As Brian put it:

"Jack had the right personality for year one; a veteran with a calming influence and a solid player for a young team. In year two his strengths were not utilized but Spencer tabbed him Captain for Life so he continued as the Captain."

When Brian was referring to Jack's strengths he specifically meant his set pieces, which were taken over by Kalif Alhassan and Franck Songo'o in year two.

Brian then goes on to describe Will Johnson:

"Will Johnson not only has the leadership skills but he has the technical skills. His technical skills also influence the game in a way that helps other players have a deeper confidence in their captain."

Caleb's own words back up what Brian is saying about Will. When he described Will and the reasons for picking him as Portland's captain he said:

"I look for a captain that's a presence, that's respected and that can perform, obviously, with their play but also can lead through being vocal at times, and he does that."

Will is a player who has fire, a no nonsense attitude and is someone the other team does not like to play against. So far this season he has thrown Gatorade bottles off the pitch, laid someone out after the opposition got chippy and scored two goals to earn the Timbers a point on the road. He is the kind of captain this team needs right now.

I just want to reiterate something Porter stated and that is that the change of captaincy is in no way a condemnation of Jack as he was perfect for Portland's first season. At least for me he will be fondly remembered as the Timbers' first captain.

Reactive vs. Proactive

In 2012 and 2011 Portland became very reactive in the final 15 minutes of the game. This led to a lot of late game collapses and points lost. In 2013 there has been a reversal of attitude and fitness in the last 15 minutes. This could be attributed to the new fitness coach but it can also be attributed to "The Process."

As Brian pointed out during our conversation, Caleb Porter has continually called this year a process. The end goal should not be focused on but the process in getting there should. This is something that has been created and championed by Nick Saban (See here and here for more in-depth explanations).

Brian defines "The Process" as mental toughness or "focusing on the present moment (executing the current play) instead of the past (an earlier mistake) or future (the result) is the essence of a mentally tough athlete. When the "process" is followed consistently, it gives the best chance to get the result you want."

How does this apply to the Portland Timbers now? Brian suggested that if you go back and watch each of the first 5 games you will see that Portland does not change their style of play based on the score. They continually play the same style of soccer no matter what the score is and no matter who the opponent is. The style will always pass, then move and repeat this over and over again (Well, maybe the Colorado game should be thrown out).

The most successful teams (Barca, Real Madrid, Bayern and Manchester United come to mind) in the world don't change their play style when playing other teams. They play their own style because they know in doing so they will win out, which would be termed proactive. Even if a team does score on these teams they continue to play their style because they know it will result in goals and points more often than not.

Portland has embraced the "process" in that if they continue to play the style Porter has implemented they know they will score. All of this points towards a team that will play until the final whistle and will not let off the gas and thus can and will continue to come back from 2 goal deficits.

What do you think of the change between the 2012 Timbers style and the 2013 style? Are they Mentally Tough?

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