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Mantra Top #Athlete Series: Christen Press

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The StandOut Forward: 2015 World Cup Champion, The U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team, and Star of the Chicago Red Stars Christen Press on Vedic Meditation, Feeling Like You’re Falling Short, Having Big Goals and High Standards, the Power to Choose Your Response, and the Life Purpose of Serving Others.

INTERVIEW BY: Chris Lucas

Q: You’ve had sustained success at a high level within the soccer world. Has there ever been a point where you wanted to stop?

A: I never had a moment that I thought I would stop playing soccer. But I definitely had a moment—a long four-year moment at Stanford—where I really struggled with my relationship with the game and trying to understand my identity and what part soccer played in it. I got wrapped up in that college sports culture where if you win you’re a “winner” and if you lose you’re a “loser.” I have a lot of big goals for myself and I hold myself to extraordinarily high standards, so while it might look like success from the outside, I always felt like I was falling short in college. It was definitely a moment in my life that was transformative, but difficult.

Q: But you didn’t stop, and now you are clearly playing at the highest level with even more pressure to be defined by the wins and losses. How did you get past that pressure in college and enable yourself to enjoy the game in a way that’s authentic to you?

A: It was a long journey back to being able to enjoy soccer from when I graduated. In January 2012, a few things happened simultaneously. The women’s league folded, so I couldn’t find employment playing soccer in this country, and I moved to Sweden. I left my family and friends being able to watch all my games, and was just playing in a completely different world where I didn’t know anyone and no one cared what I was doing. That was really freeing for me. I was so present because I didn’t have the opportunity to look forward or backward because everything was happening so quickly. It brought me to a present and conscious kind of living that allowed me to rediscover my love for soccer. At the same time, right before I left for Sweden, I learned Vedic meditation. I absolutely think that changed my perspective on soccer and my life.
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Q: Can you walk us through Vedic meditation for those who aren’t familiar? How do you get set up for meditation; is there a routine you go through in order to get ready to meditate?

A: Vedic meditation is one of the oldest and most widely practiced types of meditation. It’s a twice-daily practice where you sit down for twenty minutes and they give you a mantra—which is just a word in sanskrit that should have no connotations for you, it’s just a sound—and twice a day you go over your sound for twenty minutes. When you are meditating, thoughts come in and interrupt and infiltrate your mantra and your transcendental state. The lesson is that’s OK! You’re gonna have
stressors and thoughts; you could be thinking about what you’re having for dinner or why you are getting a divorce. It impacts your meditation differently, but at the end of the day a stressor is a stressor, and meditation teaches you to take the power away from it by not giving it any attention. For these twenty minutes, all you’re doing is repeating your mantra. For me, it’s less about the benefits of a transcendental state than the lesson that I have the power to control how I react to whatever is happening in my environment. In Vedic meditation, it’s a seated position with your back supported and no support for your head (so you can’t be laying in a lounge chair for example). Sitting up on a seat or a sofa, or on the ground with your back supported, is perfect. Your legs and hands can be however they feel most comfortable; your hands don’t have to be the traditional hand open, thumbfinger touch; use a natural position that allows you to relax without falling asleep.

Q: You mentioned it gives you the power to choose your response. How have you seen that show up on the field?

A: I think there are two main ways that meditation has impacted my sport and my profession. The first thing is generally I am happier, I have less stress, and that just makes me a better person and better player. When everyone gets as close as possible to their best self, everything is fruitful from that point. Actually, meditation has allowed me to find a new focus on the pitch. I think back to my college days. I was a terror on the field, my teammates will tell you, and I yelled at everyone and was constantly stressing out about the shots I missed or why that person passed there instead of here. I was in my head so much. Not only did it make me unhappy, it distracted me. What meditation taught me is that all those thoughts are completely unnecessary. There’s nothing constructive about me worrying about the shot that I missed. The only way that you can let that go is by refocusing. That’s what meditation is, it’s constant refocusing. I kind of made my mantra about the ball. I just come back to “Where’s the ball on the field?” and I think this loudly. “Where’s the ball on the field?” and then, “Where should I be?” By the time I fixate on the ball and reposition myself, I’m back in the game. I do this constantly during the game.

Q: In your goal against Australia in the 2015 World Cup, you lose your defender by stopping short to lose your defender, and it left you open to score. It had to take an immense amount of presence to thing “Where’s the ball” instead of “I might get the ball,” right?

A: Yes. It allowed me to be more ready, more perceptive. You sense it outside of your streaming consciousness, and you are only allowed to do that when you are super focused. I think about that goal a lot in regards to meditation because that game was so chaotic, and I was completely overwhelmed. It was my first-ever world championship, and Australia was way better than we thought they’d be, and it was back and forth. That moment that I scored was the only bit of calm that there was in that whole game. I slowed my run down, refocused, and put the ball where I knew I could, and there was no distraction and there was no chaos about it. Then came the next kickoff and it was just back to chaos! When you are playing with your instincts, that’s because you are not thinking. And that’s what meditation is about. It’s not thinking, it’s about playing, it’s about perceiving, it’s about being present, as opposed to being in your head.

Q: How do you balance that intense focus on your game with what comes after your soccer career is over? What’s next?

A: I think that’s a new thing for me. I still don’t know if I’m making space for what’s next. I think I’ve been pretty focused on soccer in a way that I haven’t built up other things I need in my life. It hasn’t hurt me or made me have less of a life, but I’ve been so single-minded in my goals with soccer, that I’m completely unprepared for soccer to be over. In the upcoming years, you start to build outside of the game—building a house or starting a family. What I’ve learned is that people have this fear about a capacity, they only have so much of a day, or they don’t want to learn a third language because they’ll forget the second one, and I just don’t believe in that at all. I think the brain is endless. You have the capacity to learn twenty-five languages and have twenty-five jobs, it just depends on what you want. Once I start to lay down the foundation for what’s next, I think it will only make my sport and my life much richer.

I’m a funny athlete where I get up and go to practice and I’m so happy and love what I do, and yet I come home every day and I think, “Why is my job soccer? What is my larger purpose? Who am I helping? How am I contributing to the world?” I constantly want to be helping people and serving others. No matter what I do after soccer I will be doing a job that is directly helping others. I love working with children, and I volunteer at an elementary school in Los Angeles for English as a Second
Language (ESL) students, because I speak a little bit of Spanish. The injustice in the world is so crazy and if every single person fought just one injustice in their life, we would be able to get them all. My goal and my post-soccer career will one hundred percent be to fight my bit of injustice in the world for kids.

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