Christen Press is very good at soccer. Soccer hasn’t always been good to her. She’s been transparent about the stress it used to cause her, how she would beat herself up and yell at her teammates over the game as a college player at Stanford. She’s gone so far as to say flat out “I did not enjoy playing soccer” when she was in college. “The awful days,” she’s called them. It’s hard to imagine Press that way now, soft-spoken as she is when she comes through the mixed zone.
It’s not a secret that Press has used Vedic meditation to help manage her stress, a process she’s described as a twice-daily practice of sitting down for 20 minutes and focusing on a mantra, which in turn helps her control how she reacts to her stressors. She’s spoken several times about how the practice has helped her find a measure of peace. But she doesn’t do it to be a better soccer player, at least not in a linear cause-and-effect way.
“I don’t think I really think about those things like going hand in hand,” she said after the United States’ Olympic qualifying semifinal against Mexico, a game in which she put an emphatic exclamation mark on her role with the team. Her chip from inside the box was an audacious bit of skill, thrown off with deceptive casualness in the heat of the moment. Press said that it was a combination of instinct and considered thought for her, putting together everything that made her decide a chip was her best shot selection. “Sometimes the game slows down a bit, especially in the box,” she said, astonishing when you consider the game clock doesn’t have time to tick off two seconds before she’s chipping her own rebounded shot.
EVERY GOAL TODAY HAS BEEN INCREDIBLE.— U.S. Soccer WNT (@USWNT) February 8, 2020
CHRISTEN PRESS OUT HERE STILL ON pic.twitter.com/wwfYpNmymX
“I think Vedic meditation teaches you it’s the long game, and it’s not necessarily about a result,” she said. “So I think if you go into the practice thinking, oh I want to be better at transitioning mentality, so I want to be scoring more goals, it’s not going to work. You kind of practice Vedic meditation to learn about yourself and learn about the world and connect with the universe and your humanity and the benefits just flow naturally from there.”
Press is the only one who can say for sure if she’s found that universal connection, and what that might feel like, particularly for someone who’s recently gone through a tremendous loss, as Press’ mother passed away in 2019 only months after a cancer diagnosis. But a more local connection, one with the other 10 players on the field, that’s become quite evident, spotlighted by Press’ golden ball award for most valuable player at Olympic qualifying.
That wasn’t easy to come by either, though. Press said that being subbed into a game, particularly when the stakes are high, used to be disconcerting. “You’re supposed to be fresh but you feel like you can’t suck in a breath,” she said. “I think that focus and consistency are very challenging to bring in this environment, especially when you’re playing multiple positions and multiple roles…. It’s so challenging coming off the bench because it’s like kind of getting shot out of a rocket and the game is like, everyone’s so emotional and they’re in it and you’re not really feeling that until you’re on the field.”
Clearly, Press has done a lot of work to be able to make such a mental adjustment on the fly considering her ability to immediately impact games. When she subbed on against Mexico in the semifinal, it took approximately five minutes for her to score. After the game, Press agreed that subbing on was like trying to merge on a freeway where the cars were all going 100 miles per hour. On hearing that comparison at practice the day after the semifinal, Megan Rapinoe seemed nonplussed. “That’s interesting she says that because I feel like she’s a Ferrari getting on the freeway,” said Rapinoe. And indeed, against Mexico, Press went from zero to 60 like she was racing Vin Diesel for pink slips.
There is a certain Alex-Morgan shaped gap in the US’ offense that Vlatko Andonovski has been attempting to fill, with varying levels of success. Press is now a key part of that equation, varying between starter and sub over the course of qualifying. But her performance didn’t vary at all, regardless of the minutes she actually got. She mostly stayed wide, pulling defenders away from the goal, sometimes searching for the open teammate in front of net, often taking on challenges herself. Press has an extraordinary ability to dig out space for herself to shoot, particularly at an angle in very tight quarters. It’s a jab-jab-haymaker combo with knockout timing that has served her well – you may know it’s coming, but plenty of defenders have been helpless to stop it.
Press hasn’t necessarily ramped up the intensity over the course of Olympic qualifying, but that’s only because she’s been playing at this level for some time now. It often seems as though she’s playing like not just her starter spot, but her entire national team career is at stake. So you could be forgiven for thinking her stress levels have increased from college – but Press says she has a handle on it, saying several times that she hopes even better performances are yet to come from her.
That does seem inherently contradictory to her other statements about not searching for a result and learning to let go of the expectations she holds for herself. Press has spent a lot of time in one of the most competitive sporting environments on earth, a place where by necessity there has to be a lot of comparison to a standard, a fact which doesn’t escape her. “I think in Western philosophy and especially in sport, you get a sense that you have to want to be the best in order to be the best,” she said after the final game against Canada. She had just received her golden ball trophy for most valuable player in the tournament, a trophy which she passed to her beaming father in the stands.
“I actually think that a lot of things about this sport feed your ego and the ego is evil,” said Press, acknowledging a question about how wanting and desire can become destructive. “So I actually think all the time that my job is to strive for excellence, to strive to be a great teammate, to be kind, and to be humble no matter what happens for me. And sometimes that is challenging.”
In 2015, Press wrote an article for The Players’ Tribune just before the World Cup. She ruminated on greatness, and existing in a constant state of pursuing greatness. How can you be content if you are always in pursuit of something, always restless, always looking forward to what comes next? Press’ answer was simple and short: you can’t. So you have to accept that existing in this state is all there is. “I’ve actually had to let go of that,” she said, “And just think that I want to be my best and that I never will be. And so then you have to find contentment in striving to do so.”
Christen Press may have found peace accepting that she will never truly be great, by whatever metric she uses for greatness. But by the standards of what the US women’s team needs her to be, she already is great. Or as Megan Rapinoe might put it, Press is a Ferrari among the Ford Fiestas, lapping everyone on the race course, and fans are definitely at peace with that.