No time like the present for Portland Thorns' Meghan Klingenberg
In 2015, Meghan Klingenberg was at the pinnacle of her sport. As the starting left back, she helped the United States to a FIFA Women's World Cup championship.
Seven years later, though she has been outside the national team for two World Cup cycles since, the Portland Thorns defender is in a much better place than she was back then.
Now 34 and in the homestretch of her seventh season with the Thorns — who play their final two regular-season home games on Wednesday, Sept. 21, against Racing Louisville and Sunday, Sept. 25, against Chicago — Klingenberg seems to be enjoying soccer more than ever. That's no accident.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic changed the world, Klingenberg has turned her focus from results to continued improvement — what she describes as a journey toward mastery.
"I read a lot of books about how to stay in the now. How to be present. How to continue on the road to mastery, whatever the subject is. For me it's soccer," she said. "I meditate a lot. I journal about soccer a lot, about things that happen in my games and how I feel during the match and what I solved what I didn't solve."
Through a friend, Klingenberg was connected with Jason Goldsmith, a performance coach who works with a lot of golf pros. Initially, Klingenberg turned to Goldsmith for meditation techniques, but they hit it off.
"He's helped me change my mindset and the way that I think about the game," Klingenberg said. "He doesn't know anything about soccer, but it doesn't matter. He knows about like what type of mindset you have to be in for sport. We talk a lot about that and how to stay present. And if I get outside of that, how do I bring myself back?"
Klingenberg said working with Goldsmith and reading books on mastery has shifted how she approaches her job, replacing a fear-driven approach obsessed with winning and losing to focusing on enjoying the process.
"I didn't know it when I was younger, but I had a lot of anxiety because of soccer because it was always about winning or losing. I had a fear of not being able to win. I feel like that greatly reduced my ability when I play from a place of fear," she said. "So now I play from a place of like joy, and I can feel myself being the player that I want to be and getting better again. So that's pretty cool."
Among the tools Klingenberg uses to be in the moment are breathing exercises. "When you're counting your breaths in and out you can't be anywhere but right there," she said.
She's also learned to widen her vision. In soccer terms, that means trying to see the whole ballet taking place as a match plays out.
"What's really cool is that if you're in the middle of a match, you get to watch how your team is interacting with the other team and then basically move the pieces to see how you can break it down in the moment," she said. "I try and do that in the middle of the game, as it's going on, not waiting for stops not waiting for halftime, but actually figuring it out as we go and then communicating it to the rest of the group."
A quad strain kept Klingenberg on the sidelines for several weeks this season. She approached it as a learning experience. "An injury is a time of reflection. It's a time for improving other things," she said.
One way Klingenberg tries to prevent injury is wearing a Q-Collar. The device fits around an athlete's neck and is the only FDA-approved device for limiting brain trauma.
"It's not necessarily about concussions. It is about the impact over and over," she said. "What this really mostly takes care of is making sure that you don't have those low-impact things happening over and over."
Klingenberg loves the culture of support the Thorns created under Mark Parsons and have built upon in Rhian Wilkinson's first season as head coach. And, she loves playing for the Thorns fanbase. While some clubs in Europe now draw more fans than Portland, she believes the connection between Thorns players and the supporters is unmatched.
"I love how soccer is something that can bring together people from all walks of life. People who maybe have nothing in common, come from totally different parts of the city totally different childhoods and they can sit next to each other and connect over something that is a sport that brings everybody so much joy. There's something really special about that," she said.
Joy is not the word she uses to describe her World Cup experience back in 2015.
"After the World Cup, I was really excited and happy. It felt amazing, of course. But the entire tournament was full anxiety. My hamstrings felt so tight the entire time. My stomach was in knots and I was having digestive issues," she said. "It was, essentially, just getting through it, still able to perform at a really high level. But there's no world in which anybody can perform at a high level for an extended period of time feeling like that. It takes a really big toll on your body. I hated the way that I felt."
When she took up meditation, Klingenberg said she noticed a marked decrease in her anxiety. That experience inspired her to continue to research mind-body connections.
"I felt like all I was doing before was seeking and now I'm just relaxing in what is, and that is a really lovely place to be," she said.
As the Thorns head into the season's most meaningful matches, Klingenberg's experience on the field is valuable. But, her perspective might be as valuable to the younger Thorns as her ability to deliver a perfect cross.
"As a veteran player, I really believe that my biggest, most important role that I could play this postseason is to remind our players that it's the exact same game (as preseason)," she said. "That if they continue on this journey, and they continue playing for fun and they continue doing what we need to do like we've been doing this entire season, then it's going to be just fine."
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