San Diego State women’s soccer head coach Mike Friesen put together a talented group of players in his first five years at the helm of the Aztecs’ program, but he knew there was still a piece of the puzzle missing that he needed to push his team to elite status – an understanding of the mental aspect of the game.
When Friesen connected with Juan Pablo Favero last spring, he knew he found the person who could lead the Aztecs in that direction. A friend who is a chaplain at South Florida contacted Friesen about Favero, who served as an assistant coach for the Bulls last fall.
“He was calling me to see if I knew of any quality coaches on the East Coast that might be looking for someone like Favero,” Friesen said. “That week, I lost my assistant coach.”
The fates had lined up in Friesen’s favor. In addition to more than a decade of experience as a head coach at the Division II level, Favero had a background in sports psychology.
“The first time I talked to Juan-Pa I realized he would be awesome for our team,” Friesen said. “The things he brings as an assistant coach, not just in coaching perspective, but he also has a background in sports psychology. I felt that would really benefit my team and that was the next step for us. His philosophy in coaching really lined up with everything I wanted for my program.”
“Mike told me he was looking for someone to help in that area – he felt that was the missing piece,” Favero said. “It is a very talented group of young ladies and they are excellent soccer players, but I think the sports psych aspect has served as a catalyst perhaps. They were ready for that element of team and personal development. Technically and physically and tactically, Mike had been doing a great job with them.”
SDSU had posted a 10-7-3 record last season, and shared the Mountain West Conference regular season title, but the Aztecs were bounced from the league tournament in the semifinals and failed to make the NCAA tournament. The Aztecs returned 10 starters from last year’s squad, who were willing to do the work to get to the next level.
The coaching staff’s first order of business in the preseason was having the team draft their own mission statement.
“In our very first meeting, we had them rewrite the team mission statement,” Friesen said. “The only way the mission statement means anything is if you know it and live it out. Within the day, they rewrote it and memorized it.”
They then focused on goal-setting, and the process of carrying out those goals. In addition, Favero has done several sports psychology exercises to build communication, trust, confidence in one another and mental toughness throughout the season.
The results have been incredible. SDSU has compiled a 17-1-1 record – seven wins better than last year’s final mark, and boasts a No. 6 ranking in the NSCAA Division I Top 25. SDSU’s only loss of the season was to defending NCAA champion Stanford, which is presently ranked No. 1 in the nation. The Aztecs are riding an 11-game unbeaten streak into the MW Championship semifinals against UNLV on Friday.
“This team has just exploded because they were primed to receive this kind of information,” Favero said. “To their credit, it has resonated inside of them as individuals and as a group. They are much more confident and mentally tough. They have run with it and not only listened to the information, but applied it.”
“The great part with Juan-Pa is that he has been able to push us into that mindset we have now,” Friese said. “I think this team was really ready for that, but it has been phenomenal to see that happen.”
While the team as a whole has flourished in the mental toughness area, Friesen has also seen individuals markedly improve since last season.
Senior forward Megan Jurado scored just three goals in her first three seasons at SDSU, but this year, she has turned into one of the nation’s leading scorers. She enters the weekend with 13 goals and eight assists for 34 points, and ranks third in the nation with seven game-winning goals and recently garnered MW Player of the Year.
“[Jurado] has always been very dangerous, was always around the goal and had some assists, but never really had the reward of goals going in like they are this year,” Friesen said. “She’s gained confidence in herself as a person and a soccer player. From a mental standpoint, I think she has really benefitted from the sports psych stuff and from things that went her way early. In our first game [against SMU], she scored the winning goal in overtime. That set the stage for her to grow in that role.”
“[The sports psychology exercises] have really helped our communication and how we work together,” Jurado said. “I think it has brought us together as a team and really helped us. Having confidence in my teammates gives me confidence in taking those risks [taking shots].”
In goal, Friesen has also seen a difference in redshirt sophomore Rachel Boaz’ concentration level, which has translated into fewer opponent goals.
“This year, I think she’s done a great job of being engaged the whole time,” Friesen said. “From a mental standpoint, she’s just added another piece to the puzzle, gaining more maturity and better focus for longer stretches of time.”
Even the weekend SDSU lost to Stanford (1-0) and tied Santa Clara (1-1 2OT) at the Santa Clara Tournament, Friesen noticed that his team was not satisfied at the result against two solid opponents.
“They were mad,” Friesen said. “They walked out upset.”
Since that weekend, the Aztecs have won 10 consecutive contests.
“Their belief in themselves has really grown during that time,” Friesen said. “We’re ready to make a run in the NCAA tournament.”
SDSU hosts the Mountain West Conference Championship on Nov. 2 and 4 at the SDSU Sports Deck. The Aztecs are 10-0-0 on their home field, and have posted eight shutouts in those 10 contests, while allowing just three goals. SDSU ranks 11th in the nation with a .567 goals against average. Of the 11 goals the Aztecs have allowed this season, just one has been in the second half or in overtime.