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Rose Lavelle: Recovery and the mental game in soccer

For Rose Lavelle, a proactive approach to recovery has been key to success in the NWSL and with the USWNT. It will be more important than ever this summer.

When Rose Lavelle got the call to join the U.S. Women’s National Team as a senior at Wisconsin, she thought her college coach would be thrilled. Instead, Wisconsin’s Paula Wilkins told Jill Ellis, then the USWNT head coach, that Lavelle was not ready for the next level. Lavelle said she was stunned.

“Why did you just throw me under the bus to the national team coach?” Lavelle remembers asking Wilkins. She recalls that, in the moment, “I, like, sent daggers” to Wilkins.

Lavelle was not taking care of herself, Wilkins explained. She needed to pay more attention to nutrition, and to recovery. A hard thing for a college student accustomed to having top-notch facilities and anything she wanted to eat, anytime, within a mile of her college housing.

But Lavelle acknowledges the encounter was “a big turning point for me,” and forced her to start caring for her body both on and off the field. It was the demarcation between her life as a student who played soccer and her career as a professional soccer player. Lavelle, who had been a standout at many youth levels but was frequently injured in her attempts to play for the USWNT, made the team and went on to play in the 2019 World Cup and the Tokyo Olympics. She was the number-one draft pick in 2017, getting picked up by the now-defunct Boston Breakers before a stint with the Washington Spirit followed by her move to the OL Reign last season.

Lavelle is now in the lead-up to her second World Cup. But she is struggling with a knee injury she sustained in a friendly USWNT match against Ireland on April 8. This week, OL Reign coach Laura Harvey said Lavelle had suffered a “setback” with the injury, and could be off the pitch until the World Cup. She has played just twice for the Reign this season, and four times with the USNWT.

AUSTIN, TX – APRIL 8: Rose Lavelle #16 of the United States looks to the ball during a game between Ireland and USWNT at Q2 Stadium on April 8, 2023 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Brad Smith/USSF/Getty Images).

Recovery, then, will be the name of the game through the summer for Rose Lavelle

On an unusually sunny (for the PNW, anyway) May Thursday at Starfire, the OL Reign’s practice facility outside Seattle, Lavelle led a group of reporters brought together by IcyHot Pro, one of her sponsors, through her daily recovery routine. It consists of a Pilates class, a stretching and strength training routine designed to activate her muscles, a meditation session, and, of course, an application of her sponsor’s signature product in one of its many forms to the sore muscles that result from all the work. It’s safe to say that she has come a long way from getting a lecture from her coaches about taking care of herself.

She acknowledges, however, that taking care of her body as a professional athlete is a 24-7 job in addition to the actual playing of the game. “It’s constantly on my mind,” she said. The meditation, she said, is most useful to her in that it gives her time to focus on something other than soccer. “It can get exhausting to always have that on your mind,” she said, and “to never switch off.” When your body becomes your career, Lavelle said, “there is an added pressure, and it’s not just fun and games all the time.”

Add adulting to the mix, she says, and it’s been a wild ride since she left the Wisconsin campus. As a college student, Lavelle said, she was accustomed to having everything she needed to succeed as both a student and an athlete within a mile radius: classrooms, dining halls, athletic fields, treatment and training spaces. “Going to a Big 10 school, we had incredible facilities,” Lavelle said. “And then I went pro, and I played for Boston for the first year. And the setup wasn’t amazing.” Figuring out what she could outsource and establishing her routines took up a lot of energy that she never needed to expend as a student. And it took a mental toll. “On top of just preparing for a game, you’re dealing with your life on top of that,” Lavelle said.

She had to go from loving soccer and having it be a fun part of her life to making it a career, which Lavelle said are not mutually exclusive concepts, but soccer as a career requires much more focus. “I have to make sure I’m doing everything that I can to be successful when I step on the field,” she said.

Lavelle began seeing a sports psychologist around the time she turned pro, after incurring a hamstring injury in her rookie season in Boston that kept her out of the sport off and on for about a year. “Anybody who has been through a long-term injury knows, for how hard it is physically, it’s 10 times harder mentally,” she said. “I wanted to make sure that I was doing everything to make sure that my mind was in the same place that my body was.”

The work on her mental game has paid off, Lavelle said. “I always say, I don’t want to get too high on my highs or too low on my lows.” She elaborates, saying that she feels that confidence ebbs and flows. “Sometimes I’m feeling really confident, like, oh, I’m never going to come down from this. But then sometimes, I’m in a rut, and I’m not feeling myself. She helps me through that, to make things not feel like the end of the world.”

Beyond that, Lavelle does what she calls “mental training”: a mix of meditation, visualization, and journaling. “It’s such an important part of being a professional athlete,” she said.

That importance was put into stark relief by the publication last year of the Yates report, which revealed systemic abuse and sexual misconduct within the NWSL that reverberated throughout the sport at every level. Changes are still taking place in response to the report, but an increased focus on athlete mental health within the league is noticeable to Lavelle, who said more tools and resources for managing mental health had become available to athletes in the wake of the Yates report.

“Something very sad and terrible happened,” Lavelle said. “But I think that change, and good, has come from it. It’s the silver lining of something really terrible that should never have happened.” Lavelle said that her teammates had shown her the importance of checking in on each other, keeping the conversation open about mental health, and working on the mental game alongside the physical. “I feel like it lets people feel comfortable in sharing that maybe they’re not having the best day or week or year,” she said. “And that’s OK, and they can take all the time they need.”

Playing healthy, Lavelle now knows six years into her professional career, is about finding that balance of the fun and carefree athlete she was in college and youth soccer, with resources and facilities at her fingertips, and the physically honed, mentally sharp player she must be as a professional. Staying level, with the help of her sports psychologist, her recovery routine, her Pilates and her stretching, her meditation and her journal, she says, is foundational to success as a pro and to longevity in the sport. If she is to recover and play in the World Cup, she knows what she has to do.

Check out our NWSL hub page for more news, analysis, opinion and unique women’s soccer coverage. And don’t forget to follow FOR(E) on Twitter, FanSided’s home for women’s sports.

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