As he enters his fifth year of conference play with the Goshen College women’s soccer team, head coach Justin Crew is adding a new component to the team’s training regimen.

“I love fighting for them because they’re worth fighting for."

— Justin Crew

“We’ve taken a more intentional approach to the mental side of the game,” Crew said. “We’re actually working with a well-known sports psychologist, Dan Abrahams.”

The Dan Abrahams Soccer Academy is an online program meant to improve players’ mental skills and morale. At the start of the year, the team watched Abrahams’ videos and then discussed them together, and goalkeeper Vicky Naylor says that Crew continues to draw on the program for the betterment of the team.

“It has helped change my perspective and my mindset,” Naylor said. “One of the things we learnt about was this thing called ‘Squash ANTs,’ which stands for ‘automatic negative thoughts.’” Naylor said this mindset helps her “to be positive when I start thinking negatively in games.”

Along with the online academy, Crew meets with each new player in a one-on-one setting weekly, as well as periodically meeting with the returning players. He describes it as a way to “stay with things and hear their feedback as the season goes on,” and constantly takes the feedback into account during their training.

Naylor said she felt like the new approach has made the team stronger, adding that Crew has done very well for the team — “especially when it comes to mental health.” 

A cohesive and prepared team will be key for the Maple Leafs as they dive into the hear of conference play. Crew referred to the Crossroads League as “the best conference in the country.”

That’s not an exaggeration. Four out of the 10 teams in the league are nationally ranked, including No. 2 Spring Arbor University and No. 3 Marian University. A fifth, Taylor University, received votes in the national coaches’ poll.

In such a challenging league, mental preparation for defeat is key — and the Leafs’ first test of that began on Saturday night, when Goshen fell 4-0 to No. 10 Indiana Wesleyan University in their first conference matchup.

The Wildcats dominated the game from the start, scoring their first goal within ten minutes and never relenting. Goshen doesn’t track time of possession, but it was likely 80 to 85% in favor of IWU — who had 26 shots in the game.

Goshen had two. Only one of them was on goal, and it was from a free kick.

“From one perspective, it is a tough way to start the conference schedule,” Crew said. “But it also is great preparation and great learning experiences.” The team had bright spots as well — when starting goalkeeper Naylor injured her arm in warmups, first-year Gracie Garcia stepped up and played the full game. 

Garcia made nine saves, including an all-out dive to knock away a close-range deflection that would have made it 5-0 late in the second half. 

Aside from Garcia’s stops, the real excitement in the second half came on a questionable free kick when Anita Tavares was pushed from behind on a breakaway — directly outside the goalie box. As there was nobody between Tavares and the goalkeeper, the Goshen bench erupted when the referee left the card in his pocket. 

After a few more hotly debated calls directly in front of the Goshen bench, the referee had enough and issued Crew a yellow card in the dying minutes of the game.

“Obviously we don’t want that to happen…[the referee is] not why we lost the game,” Crew said. “I just want to stick up for the players and let them know that I got their back.” 

Naylor agreed, calling Crew’s dissent “valid” after the referee’s decisions.

“I definitely think he was sticking up for us. He’s very good at…defending us and we all appreciate that about him. He’s good at that on and off the field.”

After another loss last night in Ohio against Mount Vernon Nazarene University, this time 3-0, the Leafs look ahead to Saturday, when they play at University of St. Francis. Crew is optimistic about the team’s ability to rebound from the IWU and Mount Vernon matches.

“We learned a lot, and I’m proud of our player’s efforts. They fought for 90 hard minutes. We got better, and we’re ready for some great games.”

After describing the team as “the best it’s been since I’ve been here,” Crew froze momentarily when asked what made him the proudest of the team.

“I can’t narrow it down to one thing. I’m just really proud of this whole team. I love this team. I’m proud of how they carry themselves in the classroom, how they carry themselves in the community, and of course on the field,” Crew said.

“I love fighting for them because they’re worth fighting for, and it’s just a great group of young women that I’m so, so proud of.”