Training With the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team
By Erin Bried
What if the secret to getting in amazing shape were making exercise a team effort? Imagine: Taking a break from logging miles solo on the treadmill. Playing games would become your workouts, the fun your motivation, your teammates the most inspiring personal-cheering squad you could hope for.
For proof that it works, you just need to watch the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team compete for the World Cup this June — and then ask yourself how many times you've felt so elated after a workout that you've wanted to give everyone in arm's reach a full-body hug. “It’s those relationships that make the victories more meaningful,” says forward Sydney Leroux, a four-year veteran of the national team. "There's nothing better than walking off the field knowing that you gave it everything you had, not only for yourself but also for your teammates."
Even if your prize is more likely to be a round of drinks than the World Cup trophy, being part of a team makes workouts easier to stick with and more enjoyable. "We tend to view sport as play and exercise as work, which is why we call one a game and the other a workout," says Marcus Kilpatrick, PhD, associate professor of exercise science at the University of South Florida. While the difference may seem purely semantic, the implications are profound. According to Kilpatrick's study in the Journal of American College Health, we are more intrinsically motivated to play sports than to exercise. In other words, even if you took away all the many physical benefits of chasing a ball down a field—the flatter abs, the tighter butt, the leaner legs — we'd still want to do it. "Team sports satisfy two innate needs: to feel connected to others and to feel masterful," he says.
Playing with a team that makes you feel great is what turns sports into more than a workout — and that satisfaction is everything. "Of course, other areas of my life make me very happy, but soccer is just different," Leroux says. "Scoring makes me feel pretty badass. I get so excited, it’s almost like every goal I've ever scored is my first. And you can't ever be too cool to celebrate with your teammates."
Tearing it up together on the field doesn’t mean workouts are pain-free, but being in it together helps get everyone through the struggles. "My teammates push me every day," says Crystal Dunn (who joined the team as a defender but won’t be playing in this year’s World Cup). "When I don’t think I can make another run, they somehow get me to do it. Hearing someone cheer for you goes a long way."
And though Leroux is known as a fierce attacker on the field, she has, Dunn says, skills even more powerful than her uncanny ability to find the back of the net. "When I've been in a lull, Syd's reached out to me and told me to keep working at it. I admire her tenacity, and I’m so happy she's on my side."
Leroux also receives the same lift from the team: "When you feel like you're dying, and you see your teammate next to you also feeling like she’s dying, it just makes you want to push even harder."
That connection fuels the desire to be stronger, faster and tougher. It also makes a huge difference in performance. In fact, a study in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine found that, when paired with a more capable partner, female exercisers not only put in more effort than those working out alone, but also pushed themselves a staggering 208 percent longer. Another study in Biology Letters found that, since social bonding triggers a greater release of endorphins, the feel-good chemicals in the brain, athletes (in this case, rowers) who worked out together actually withstood twice as much pain as those who worked out solo.
Of course, there's one more major perk to team training that you can’t get anywhere else. Sweating together forms friendships for life. (Just check out Dunn’s and Leroux’s Instagrams, where they document their lip-synch contests, dance-offs and goofy pranks.) "My teammates are like family," says Leroux, who counts five of them as bridesmaids in her upcoming wedding celebration. (She quietly married pro soccer player Dom Dwyer in January.) "They're my people, my girls, my ride-or-dies, and I would do anything for them." How many of your treadmill neighbors can you say that about?
More from SELF:
• 7 Twitter Accounts to Follow for Amazing World Cup Coverage
• Strong, Powerful and Inspiring: Girls Owning Their Game Face
• What It's Like to Be Me: I Was Crushed By an 80-Foot Wave
• How Skateboards Are Creating Opportunities for Afghan Girls