How USWNT’s Carli Lloyd rejuvenated her body, mind for Rio 2016 after setback
- James Galanis plans to make USWNT's Carli Lloyd the best player in the world through mind and technique training.
The final of the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup was more of a coronation than a contest. It began when Carli Lloyd sprinted into the box unmarked and converted Megan Rapinoe’s corner kick in the third minute. Lloyd struck again in the fifth minute, and again twelve minutes later when she launched the shot heard round the world from the centerline.
There might be only two individuals who weren’t spellbound by the performance that captivated a nation. The first is the star at the center of the USWNT's first World Cup title since 1999, whose hat-trick was the quickest in World Cup history and paved the way for the 5-2 victory over Japan. The second is her mentor and coach who watched the action 6,000 miles away while on vacation with his family in Greece.
When James Galanis heard his phone ring, it was around 4 a.m. He was still awake. Only an hour had elapsed since Lloyd hoisted the Golden Ball Trophy—awarded to the best player of the tournament.
"You predicted all of this," Lloyd told Galanis.
"No," Galanis replied. "It's not me, it's you. Your will has taken you to this level."
"And I'm not stopping." Lloyd said.
She was already looking ahead. "So,” she asked Galanis before rejoining the celebration. “When are we getting back to training?"
That conversation embodies the transformation Galanis has witnessed since he first met Lloyd 13 years ago. It’s a narrative that has been well chronicled. How Lloyd had been cut from the U.S. U-21 National Team. How she was on the verge of quitting the sport when her father sought out Galanis and told him, “my daughter needs you.” How Galanis, a former professional soccer player from Australia who moved to the United States in 1997 and founded Universal Soccer Academy in Lumberton, N.J., agreed to put Lloyd through a skills and fitness evaluation.
His assessment was blunt.
He told Lloyd that she was very skilled and "savvy" with the ball, but also that she full of excuses and appeared comfortable coasting at 80% effort. When Galanis recalls Lloyd’s conditioning, he summarizes it in one word: Poor.
Despite those shortcomings, Galanis saw Lloyd's potential. He mapped her career in such audacious strokes that he says no one, including Lloyd, believed him. “Not even my wife did,” Galanis explains in his deep Aussie drawl. “She was looking at me like this guy is crazy.” He laughs.
Galanis wasn’t joking. He was prophetic.
The objective for Phase One (2003-2008) was to get Lloyd's "foot in the door" by re-earning her place on the U-21 team and then making the senior national team. Lloyd notched the winning goal in overtime against Brazil to secure the gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. She bettered that feat in 2012—netting both goals in a 2-1 victory over Japan in London. The performance secured another gold medal and capped Phase Two (2008-2012): become an established starter and a regular contributor. Phase Three was loftier. Become the best player in the world.
You already know how that ended.
It's why someone changed Lloyd's position on Wikipedia from midfielder to president of the United States. Why Lloyd appeared on HBO's Hard Knocks and squared off against Vince Wilfork in a field goal kicking contest. Why you've probably seen Lloyd featured in Nike, Comcast and United Airlines commercials amongst others.
"My life has changed," Lloyd says. She's had so many speaking engagements and other appearances since the World Cup, that she started keeping a pocket-sized calendar to track them all.
Lloyd's visibility since the World Cup is also ironic considering that the work and training at the foundation of her journey was done "When Nobody Was Watching." The phrase is so ingrained in Lloyd's story that it's the title of her upcoming memoir. The phrase is so central to Galanis' philosophy that during a conversation in May, he says it four times within one minute while describing Lloyd's training.
But where do you go once you’ve reached the summit of your sport and everyone is watching? That was the welcomed dilemma Galanis faced the next afternoon after the World Cup final while sitting on the beach in Greece. How do I get the best player in the world to the next level and make her hungry?
The question did not take long to solve. He would plot another point. Become the best player ever. If all goes to plan, Phase Four will conclude at the 2020 Olympics. Lloyd will be 38 years old.
For this new dream to become a reality, for Lloyd to have the same impact on the game for the next four years, she understands she cannot simply maintain her fitness level. Amid the increased attention and media obligations, her commitment to nutrition and training has not wavered. It's intensified. She signed endorsement deals with KIND Snacks and Whole Foods. She eats organic and opts for grass-fed meats. Galanis says she’s even “rigged” almost every room of her house and car with cases of water, “so there is no excuse for her not to stay hydrated.”
Lloyd adopts a similar outlook while away from home. Just because there’s no gym around doesn’t mean she takes a break. She did sprints on the beaches of Oahu and ran hills in Santa Barbara, Calif. She climbed the stairs of a 40-story New York City high-rise. Twice. (Galanis made sure she got permission from the front desk first.)
Lloyd's preferred training grounds, though, are around her home in Southern New Jersey, often on an empty field. That seclusion is sometimes fleeting. If Lloyd posts a video on Instagram during a session, fans have shown up within 10 minutes.
The one venue that's not a mystery is the Evesham Township Recreational Facility. It's better known as the Blue Barn for the hue of its brick walls and has been a staple of Lloyd’s training for the past 13 years. Galanis says the only drawback is that the facility is closed on public holidays, which for Lloyd are not days off.
That's no longer a problem. Last July, a crowd of 300 held a surprise homecoming for Lloyd at the Blue Barn. They dedicated one of the indoor courts "Carli Lloyd Court.” Lloyd also received a key to the facility from the township’s mayor.
"They are for real," Galanis says. "They told us if you guys want to come at 3 a.m., just let us know and we'll switch off the alarm."
Galanis knows that the Blue Barn—which hosts weekly rec-league basketball games—might seem like an unlikely location to train a world-class athlete. So when someone asks him, "Why are you still training her [Lloyd] here?" he's quick to respond.
"Damn right we do," he says, "This is the best place for her. The amount of touches you get from knocking the ball off the wall and back can't be duplicated out on the field. Also, when you are dribbling on the basketball court the ball is moving really quick so you have to adapt. When you go back to grass, it's almost like everything is happening in slow motion."
This spring, it was Lloyd's training that briefly slowed down. The culprit was a Grade 1 MCL strain she sustained on April 25 while playing for the Houston Dash in the National Women’s Soccer League. The diagnosis was three to six weeks of recovery.
Although Galanis admits there were a few tense days waiting for the MRI, he tried to frame the injury as an opportunity for Lloyd to "rejuvenate her mind."
It is more than the obsessive quality of Lloyd's training that instills confidence on the pitch. "What you may not know about Carli—and what I respect the most about her as a great athlete—is her mental game," USWNT's goalkeeper Hope Solo wrote in her case for Lloyd as Sports Illustrated's 2015 Sportsperson of the Year. "Having a strong and continuously improving mentality is what separates great players from legends."
Galanis agrees. Ask him what helps Lloyd thrive in pressure situations and he'll immediately cite the fourth pillar of his methodology: mental toughness.
"It is a neglected piece of sports," he says. "We prepare the body through eating the right foods and drinking the water and stretching, but how about preparing our mind to make decisions, to think ahead, anticipate things, to be ready for battle? Carli has taken the whole visualization thing to another level."
Before each match, Galanis provides an objective for Lloyd to concentrate on during her mental preparation. Before the first match of World Cup group play against Australia, it was "play simple and win tackles." Before the next match against Sweden it was "Get forward. Be available. Visualize getting into the box and linking passes."
The prescription before the final was less tactical. "Go make this game yours," Galanis told Lloyd. "No mercy. Let everything you have been through in your journey take over." She did.
But despite the transcendent performance in the final, Lloyd's most impressive quality and maybe the secret to her continued growth is what she doesn't do.
Discuss the past.
"To be honest with you, I have never heard her talk about the World Cup and the three goals with me," Galanis says. "She just talks about the future and never about what she has done. In her mind it is like she hasn't achieved anything."
Lloyd trains with the fervor and commitment of someone who is still trying to prove they belong on the U-21 team. She feeds off an "underdog mentality," that Galanis fuels by concocting training sessions so difficult that Lloyd is uncomfortable and often fails. The lesson? There's always room for improvement. Complacency is anathema.
It’s why Lloyd texted Galanis one word in all caps after the USWNT’s 1-0 victory against France on Saturday: NEXT. Lloyd had scored the only goal of the match and her second of the tournament in the 63rd minute.
It’s why when asked in May if she had time to reflect on the significance of her achievements over the past year, Lloyd’s answer was as straightforward as Galanis' initial assessment that set their journey in motion.
“Not a whole lot,” Lloyd said. “I haven’t had that much time to sit down and put my feet up. That is just who I am. I don’t want to become complacent. To continue to improve you have to turn the page.”
Perhaps then Lloyd should hold off on publishing her memoir.
She has more chapters to write on the field.