Canadian goalkeeper Erin McLeod is no stranger to beating herself up over mistakes made on the field.
But over the years, the 36-year-old soccer star from St. Albert, Alta., has learned to better handle setbacks. She has drawn from coaches, sports psychologists, her own experiences and more than a few self-help books.
The result is the Mindful Project, a mindfulness program developed in tandem with Bethel University professor Rachel Lindvall. The goal is to help focus more on positive thoughts while moving past negative ones.
“I’ve been playing soccer forever, literally,” McLeod said with a laugh. “And it’s just tools that I’ve learned along the way.
“I look back at my own career and I’ve been so hard on myself for so long. And I thought, ‘Well what if I never had to like, unlearn?’ Because I’m finally enjoying the game a little bit more. I’m still hard on myself but I’m laughing and enjoying it more and embracing mistakes and seeing them as growing opportunities.
“And I thought, ‘What if I never had to reverse that process. What if I could just learn about myself, learn how my mind works?’ Mindfulness is essentially not judging the thoughts that come in and out of our minds, just accepting them.”
They started it with an eye to children aged 6 to 12, “so that they can get the most out of their mind and not have to move backward once they reach adulthood,” McLeod explained.
It has since expanded to programs for sports clubs and adults, with the course having undergone refinements from test runs.
McLeod calls it a program “we hope will empower young people but also to give them the tools to deal with anxiety and depression and outside pressures … [and] help them find who they are and have the strength to follow that.”
The Mindful Project is designed for group use with a mixture of different techniques, including guided meditation, breathing exercises, journalling, and art- and music-based exercises designed specifically for students and athletes.
McLeod has teamed up with Lindvall, an assistant women’s soccer coach and assistant professor of kinesiology at Bethel University in Mishawaka, Ind., who is nearing the end of her doctorate in mindfulness.
Lindvall and husband Jamie, who is head coach of the Bethel women’s team, often make soccer trips to Europe. One such journey to Germany led to dinner with McLeod and the issue of mindfulness came up.
“So we kind of just started brainstorming,” McLeod said. “And we started talking about when do we actually start catastrophizing mistakes and when do we start learning to be hard on ourselves and when do we basically become – not to be dramatic – like prisoners of our own mind in certain things in life?”
It’s an area of particular interest for McLeod, and not only for herself.
She is an ambassador for Canada Scores, a B.C. charity that provides vulnerable children with free after-school programming combining soccer, poetry and community projects.
“I think, as young people, we focus so much on external things that it takes us a lot longer to focus on what’s happening on the inside,” McLeod said. “And the anxiety and depression rates for young people is just skyrocketing.
“This program really is just about finding who you are and the beauty and uniqueness that we all have and to embrace it.”
McLeod is a renaissance woman – an artist, musician and entrepreneur away from the soccer field as well as an LGBT representative on the Canadian Olympic Committee’s Athletes’ Commission. She has won 118 caps for Canada, with 45 clean sheets, and played professionally in North America, Germany and Sweden.
She has also joined Manchester United’s Juan Mata, U.S. international Alex Morgan and other soccer stars in digging into their pockets to help others. They have signed on with Common Goal, pledging 1 per cent of their salary to a central fund that is distributed to soccer-based charities around the world.
Mindfulness is part of the Canadian national team setup. McLeod has also drawn from a slew of mentors including Canadian men’s coach John Herdman and Ceri Evans, a sports psychologist who has worked with the New Zealand All Blacks as well as the Canadian women’s soccer team.
In recent months, McLeod has been dogged by a foot injury that kept her out of this summer’s World Cup. The injury was initially thought to be plantar fasciitis but a specialist diagnosed tarsal tunnel syndrome – a painful condition that sees swelling in the foot put pressure on the nerve.
McLeod, who played for Vaxjo DFF in Sweden most recently, is currently rehabbing her injury.
“I’m going to give it everything I have for the next year and a half and see where it takes me,” she said of soccer.
The Mindful Project is keeping her busy away from the gym.
“It’s just really cool to see a five- or six-year-old [talk] about the joy in their life or what’s hard for them or that they’re learning to focus on their breathing when they start thinking negative thoughts,” she said. “What we’ve learned already is kids are a lot smarter than we give them credit for.”