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Mind over Muscle

Written by MIKENNA PIEROTTI
PHOTOGRAPHED BY RAYMOND THOMPSON JR. 
Women's Soccer

The WVU Women’s Soccer team is a powerhouse. Since the program’s inception in 1996, the Mountaineers have blown away the competition, making an appearance in the last 17 straight NCAA tournaments — the country’s seventh-longest active streak. In 2016 this elite team advanced to the NCAA College Cup for the first time in program history and finished as the National Championship Runner-Up. They work hard. They play smart. And today, they have a few secret weapons in their arsenal — smart tech. Coach and program founder Nikki Izzo-Brown says junior forward and rising star Sh’Nia Gordon is a great example of what happens when you mix a player in top-form with this cutting-edge technology.

A WINNING FORMULA
The key components of a great soccer player? “You have to be very competitive, with a great first touch, have to be physically fit and have a thorough understanding of the game and its tactics,” Coach Izzo-Brown says. Gordon’s strengths include all of these things, and she’s wicked fast. “With Nia, one of the things you’re going to see is her speed on and off the ball. She has the ability to create space and then to penetrate that space with her pace,” she says.

HEADSPACE
Every athlete has her or his own rituals and traditions for getting in the right mental space before a game. Gordon’s? A little prayer, some imagination and YouTube videos on her favorite players. “I think about who my opponent is and all the moves I want to make. I try to recreate the field in my head and all the things I want to do. That gets me in the zone,” she says.

BODY LANGUAGE
The average soccer field is about 360 feet long and nearly 240 feet wide. That’s a lot of distance to communicate your intentions to other team members. But, Gordon says, the Mountaineers have developed mostly non-verbal cues. “We have a special connection. We don’t really need to talk a lot to each other. That’s just from us practicing together every day. I know exactly where my teammate wants the ball based on their strengths and weaknesses,” she says.

KNOW THY OPPONENT
With the aid of technology, Gordon is able to review and analyze her opponents’ movements on the field before and after a game. As a right forward, Gordon is particularly interested in exploiting any weaknesses in the left back line of the opposing team — defenders whose role is to keep Gordon and her fellow forwards from scoring.

KNOW THYSELF
Coach Izzo-Brown says the key to a successful, cohesive team — other than work ethic and intensity — is to make sure the players know their jobs inside and out and fulfill their responsibilities. As a right forward, Gordon plays nearest to the opposing team’s goal and is more likely to be responsible for scoring.

SMART TECH
The Mountaineers are more than great players. They’re equipped to know their own bodies, their natural strengths and weaknesses, how much they can push themselves and what makes them stronger players. And they have the tools to amass similar data on their opponents.

GPS SYSTEM
GPS System
Monitors each athlete individually and shows how hard they are working down to the heart beat and mile-per-minute achieved on the field. Helps the coach (and the player) know when an athlete is recovering, if they can push her to work harder and if she’s staying healthy.

SMART WATCH
Smart Watch Primarily serves the athlete on the field, allowing players to track their max heart rates and if they are performing in practice at the same level they would perform in a game. Also allows the staff to monitor the athletes’ sleep and recovery.

IPAD 
iPad
An iPad, loaded with footage of each game, allows the athletes to see how they practice and perform in games. The staff can turn a 90-minute game into 20 minutes of “touches” — moments when the athlete comes into contact with the ball. Allows the athlete to see what she’s doing on the field and recognize the areas she needs to improve.
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