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A Mistake, a Mindset, and the Best Two Seconds of the 2014 World Cup

by Jack Bowen


There’s a consensus amongst soccer fanatics that U.S. goalie Tim Howard’s save near the end of the first half against Portugal was the best—by far—of the 2014 World Cup.  But there’s something much more interesting and relevant that preceded this save just 2 seconds earlier.  Something more “big picture” than his acrobatic, off-balance, double-hop on his off-foot, sprawling reach while falling to the ground save.

Howard made a mistake.  A major mistake, as far as the life of a world-class goalie goes.  A “really, really horrible error,” according to one sports writer.

I’m sympathetic to goalkeepers, being a water polo goalie myself, and recognize the great detail and skill it takes to prevent a ball from going into such a massive goal, especially as it knuckles and swerves through the air while approaching from various angles.  But, two seconds prior to Howard’s most-amazing save, a Portugal player struck a ball from a considerable distance ending up in close proximity to Howard.  Howard misplayed this shot, getting just a finger-tip on it, causing the ball to careen off the post and back into play.  It is this rebound—a rebound that never should have occurred—which led to the magic.

Before getting to that, it’s worth taking a moment to get to know Tim Howard.  His approach to sport and to life will help inform what happened during the 2-second interlude between shots.

In a 2013 podcast with Positive Coaching Alliance CEO Jim Thompson, Howard revealed some gems.  Primarily this one:

Over time you develop the ability to overcome mistakes mentally…This is one of the toughest things we encounter…The great ones know that to dwell on a mistake is only going to lead to another one.

This may not be new to many.  But he follows it up with something subtle, yet, I believe, the key to his success: “It’s not a ritual, per se.”  Instead, it’s a mindset—a mindset required of someone taking on such an exceptionally challenging task as professional soccer goalkeeping.  Goalies train exhaustively to hone their fundamentals and technique because, in the milliseconds of an approaching shot, they have only their physical habits to rely on.  Likewise their—and 
our—mental habits formed over time, be they favorable or not.  As Aristotle wrote centuries ago, “Virtue is a habit,” and it’s these habits that drive our actions when in times of crisis.

Because, in this situation, Howard didn’t have time to go through a ritual of moving past the mistake.  He literally had to bounce back up from the ground following his “horrible error” and find a way to prevent an immediate threat.  This is a habit of mind.  A big-picture approach to life and to the game. You can watch that clip below:

In this same interview, Thompson asks Howard to reflect on why he refrained from celebration in a professional game earlier in his career in which Howard did the unthinkable and scored a goal from his own goal box.  Howard mentioned two relevant things here.  First, as a goalie, he immediately recognized the embarrassment and humiliation his feat had likely caused the other goalie and he didn’t want to “show him up.”  But, additionally, in the same way an athlete cannot afford to dwell on poor play, he cannot allow positive highlights to distract him from the present moment.  “Your mind can just as quickly drift and dwell on a great play,” he shared, “and the next play something wrong could happen if you’re not focused.”

We see that Howard’s “mental rebound” resulted, in large part, from an overall approach to the game.  And in this very same game, as a U.S. player’s shot approached Portugal’s goal, Portugal’s goalie raised his hand to signal an “offside” call to the referee before the ball even reached the goal line.  Here, we see the manifestation of a less favorable habit of mind and approach to the game.

In the interview with Howard, he and Thompson repeatedly revert back to the concept of being present and truly living in the moment as Howard does in his own approach to goalkeeping.  Howard acknowledges that this approach certainly does “spill over into everyday life.”  And this is exactly what we want from our sports.  And, for all of us here in the United States, it’s exactly what we wanted from Tim Howard during those profoundly important two seconds of the World Cup.

Tim Howard: Separate Good From The Great

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Jack is the author of 4 books, including his latest (co-authored), Sport, Ethics, and Leadership (July, 2017).  His other books include San Francisco Chronicle bestseller and Amazon Top-500 selection, The Dream Weaver and, If You Can Read This, featured in the New York Times, USA Today, and NPR. Jack has coached water polo at Menlo School for the past 21 years where they have won the league championships 18 times. Finally, he spoke at TEDxStanford in 2017 on the topic of awe and in 2020, at TEDxGunnHighSchool, "The Unexamined Sport Is Not Worth Playing".  Jack graduated from Stanford University with Honors in Human Biology and earned his Masters Degree in philosophy, graduating summa cum laude.

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