McLeod: Mindfulness would have completely changed my career

  • Erin McLeod, one of Canada’s most capped players, featured at four World Cups

  • The veteran keeper has also endured major off-field difficulties

  • McLeod tells how mindfulness, and moving to Iceland, has given her a new lease of life

Think of Erin McLeod and you’ll doubtless form a picture of one of her generation’s foremost goalkeepers.

You’ll think of the four FIFA Women’s World Cups, the 118 Canada caps and the Olympic bronze medal. You might even know that she’s an artist and philanthropist, and that she has gained renown for her work as a motivational speaker and eloquent advocate on LGBTQ+ issues, human rights and female empowerment.

What you’re unlikely to realise is that these achievements belie a life and career blighted by pain and self-doubt. Beyond several serious physical injuries, McLeod has contended with identity and self-worth issues, an eating disorder, bouts of depression and a painful divorce.

Now 37, the veteran has not played for her country in well over a year, missed the FIFA Women’s World Cup France 2019™ with injury and is unsure of her prospects of being selected for next year’s Olympics. Yet it was a positive, serene and, thankfully, happy McLeod who spoke to us from Iceland, where she has been playing with Stjarnan.

The on-loan Orlando Pride keeper is, as she told, enjoying her football more than ever. She is also excited about sharing the techniques that have facilitated this new lease of life through a mindfulness programme that launches today.

Erin McLeod in action at the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup. Erin, you’re speaking to us from Iceland. Can you tell us how that move came about and how you’re enjoying it there? Erin McLeod: It’s been a crazy year in so many ways, but I’m grateful for so many of the things that have happened – this move included. We’d had a tough time with Orlando Pride, with needing to withdraw from the Challenge Cup, and I’d been injured on and off for about a year beforehand, so I felt I really needed to play. I had a few conversations with the club, and with my national team coaches, and Iceland came into the picture mainly because my partner (the Utah Royals’ Iceland international Gunny Jonsdottir) is Icelandic.

We’d visited Iceland together last December – incidentally, I strongly recommend anyone coming here does so in the summer [laughs] – and during that time we met up with people from Stjarnan, which is the club my partner grew up playing for. So when it came to looking at options, with the opportunity to come here in the summer, the fact there are very few Covid cases in Iceland, and the chance to get to know my partner’s family, it was just a no-brainer. And it’s been wonderful.

You moved to Iceland in the summer but, of course, winter is coming! How have you been finding the challenge of playing in the cold and wind? It tests you, that’s for sure! In one game, I kicked a goal kick as hard as I could and it just hung there in the air – I think it ended up 20 yards from goal! [laughs] That’s the kind of thing you need to get used to.

Iceland figured highly in the ITMS list of international transfers, with another 27 players besides yourself moving to the league from abroad in 2020. Is there anything specific about the country and culture that supports a thriving women’s football scene, given its small population? Seeing the quality of football here, knowing it’s a country of just 300,000 people, just blows my mind. In so many ways, Iceland is just phenomenal. I have so much admiration for the way this country not only looks upon women’s sport, but gender issues in general. Years ago they made it mandatory for men to take paternity leave, and because of that, the gender pay gap is one of the smallest in the world. It’s the same with the bonus structure – the women receive what the men do – and I see a lot here for other countries, Canada included, to learn from.

I think it’s the whole picture that attracts players to come here from abroad. Everyone speaks phenomenal English – a lot of them are correcting my grammar [laughs] – and you feel so at home. You also know that you can finish training or playing and drive 30 or 40 minutes and get to rock structures or waterfalls that are just incredible. And I’ve definitely found that the more emphasis I put on finding the right work-life balance, the better I play and the happier I am.

You’re launching your new high performance mindfulness programme today. Can you please tell us a little bit about that? It’s been a real passion project for me. I’m partnering with Dr Rachel Lindvall, who has her doctorate in mindfulness research, and together we’ve picked each other’s brains, bringing together her research with my experiences of having played at the top level for Canada since 2001. The programme has come from that. There are a lot of things I’ve learned from the national team, like brain training, focus training, and we have a lot of different types of mindfulness and guided relaxation in the programme, which can be used before, during or after a match. Personally, it always took me about eight hours to wind down from a game!

I’ve been a nerd as long as I can remember when it comes to reading self-help or self-development books, and knowing how your mind works and how you deal with setbacks and mistakes is something that, if I’d known when I was younger, would have completely changed my career. I’m very proud of what I’ve achieved, but football is a game and it’s meant to be enjoyed. Sometimes as players we put the pressure of the world on our shoulders, and there should be more enjoyment taken from what we do. Mindfulness is so ingenious in that respect because it’s all about being in the present moment, and as athletes that’s invaluable.

When did you start using mindfulness, and what impact did it have on you, both on and off the field? I really got into it after the 2011 World Cup, leading into the 2012 Olympics, and I felt my performance drastically changed – and became a lot more consistent – as a result. I had always been a very nervous goalkeeper and for me it was so important to be in the present moment just to avoid those nerves becoming too much of a negative factor. One of the things I’ve learned is that our brains are really incredibly powerful and if you’re nervous before a game and think it’s because you’re not ready or not good enough, you will believe that. But if you can convince yourself that it’s just your body getting you ready to be at your best in the game, that’s a switch you can make – and I made it. It has made a massive difference to me in so many ways.

Focusing on the moment, not dwelling on mistakes and so on, seems to make mindfulness particularly well suited to keepers. Would that be fair to say? Being in the present moment will help all athletes, I think, but I definitely believe that keepers will benefit so much from this. The average human being spends 30 per cent of their time thinking about something they just did and 60 per cent of the time thinking, or worrying, about the future, and if that’s dwelling on a mistake – or stressing about making the same mistake – that has such a negative impact. It’s also been shown that stress and anxiety levels are higher than ever in this generation coming through, and so much of that comes from living outside the present moment, with social media just one of the distracting factors. There is also more money and more pressure than ever before in football, and having the tools to deal with those expectations and that pressure is vitally important.

You mention wishing that you had this knowledge when you were younger. What difference would that have made to your career – if not in achievements, in enjoyment? I think it would have been huge. I was playing basketball with my nephew recently and he missed a shot. Now he’s just four years old, and tiny, but immediately his head went down and you could see how ashamed he was. And I know I was the worst for that. I was so hard on myself. Also, as high-performers, we have this concept of perfection, which is crazy when you think about it because perfection is impossible. I always remember Rachel sharing a piece of research with me years ago which proved that being harsh on yourself or others serves zero purpose – it doesn’t make you learn any faster. So, looking back, I think I could have progressed a little quicker as a young player if I had been less self-critical and known how to react to disappointments. And what I know for sure is that I would have enjoyed my football a lot more.

Penn State goalie Erin McLeod (30) is comforted by teammate Carmelina Moscato (4) after losing the 2005 NCAA Women's College Cup semifinal game between the Penn State Nittany Lions and the Portland Pilots, December 2, 2005, at Aggie Soccer Stadium, College Station, Texas.

With that in mind, and with mindfulness now such a big part of your life, are you now enjoying your football more than ever? Oh, absolutely. And the most exciting part for me is that I’m trying more things. I’m 37 and a lot braver in that respect, and better at laughing off mistakes – the little mistakes at least – than I ever have been. I was trying a few different distribution things the other day and I was able to laugh when they didn’t come off, whereas ten years ago I would have been an emotional monster. I feel I’m evolving and learning all the time, and that really makes me happy. I think it shows in my performances too. You change as you get older, and I probably can’t jump as high as I used to, but I deal with pressure a lot better and see the game better than I ever have. I feel in a really good place.

You are also fit again and back in contention for a place in the Canada squad for next year’s Olympics. Is that a target for you? In the past I would have obsessed over it but now I’m taking things as they come. I’m always going to be a competitor and I would love to go to the Olympics because, with the exception of the World Cup, it’s the greatest honour in sport. I also have some great memories and experience from the 2012 Olympics that I’m really proud of. But we have three other goalkeepers in Canada who are just phenomenal, and I’m really proud of them.

There is so much competition for those goalkeeping spots and I’m in a place where I’m very proud of what I’ve achieved, and have come to terms with the fact that I might have played my last game for Canada. I hope I haven’t. But I remember Caroline Jonsson (a former Sweden international) making a big impression on me when I was younger in how kind she was to the competition; just being a good person before being a good goalkeeper. I thought at the time, ‘I want to be like her and be remembered like her’. And I’m definitely in that place right now.

Erin McLeod in action at the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup.