Soccer: Tower of mental strength

By Amy Lawrence

Experiences on the edge of disaster have taught Ryan Nelsen how to handle pressure

Ryan Nelsen has the type of positive personality qualities that managers and teams can rely on. Picture / Brett Phibbs
Ryan Nelsen has the type of positive personality qualities that managers and teams can rely on. Picture / Brett Phibbs

It has been a thought-provoking week for Ryan Nelsen. Apart from the obvious concerns that should be on the mind of every QPR player who dares to examine the Premier League table, the New Zealand captain's attention was drawn to the sight of superstorm Sandy bearing down on America's East Coast.

It is not just that Nelsen is worldly enough to take an interest in global affairs - though this former political science student certainly is. More poignantly he can reflect on the personal experience of twice being caught up in terrifying catastrophes.

Nelsen was in his first season with DC United, as a 22-year-old enjoying a promising overseas adventure, at the time of the September 11 attacks.

"I lived about a mile away from the Pentagon when it got hit," he recalls.

A decade later his football career had taken him to Blackburn Rovers and, as he went in for training one day, to prepare for a match against Aston Villa, news broke that a powerful earthquake had struck his home city of Christchurch.

His family were back home and his sister, who was expecting a baby, went into labour.

Nelsen was at a loss to try to cope from afar with something endangering those closest to him.

"It's horrible, a feeling of helplessness actually," he recalls.

"My sister went into childbirth when the earthquake happened. She got stuck in a part of Christchurch that got blocked off. Nobody could get to her, all the phones were cut off. My parents were calling me because they couldn't get to her. You just sit there helpless."

Nelsen recently returned to Christchurch on international duty and was touched by a sense that some of the trauma is slowly being replaced by optimism.

"Half the city is like a ghost town. It needs to be torn down," he said. "But it was the first time when the mood was more positive. The rebuild is starting."

It seems glib to suggest major tragedies bring perspective to problems of a sporting nature, but Nelsen goes along with it.

It is no coincidence that he betrays not the slightest evidence of anxiety or sensitivity about QPR's predicament. His ready supply of good sense, shines through. That characteristic can only be a positive influence on his team.

Last season, during Nelsen's short spell at Spurs, Harry Redknapp took a moment to extol his virtues. He spoke passionately about the man, rather than the footballer, and claimed he had seldom had the pleasure of such an inspiring person in his dressing room. "Every club needs a man like him; you can build a club around him," Redknapp said.

It is this special quality that ensured Mark Hughes included Nelsen on his summer shopping list. Now 35, he still has defensive assurance to offer but he also has the kind of personality a manager can rely on in times of trouble.

It was Hughes who had brought Nelsen to England, when the stocky and determined centre-half became a mainstay for Blackburn. It is not surprising to find Nelsen is a staunch defender of his under-fire manager, whose plight was hardly helped by yesterday's insipid 1-1 draw at home to winless Reading.

"Mark and all the staff here have a really good work ethic. He is always first in and last out. So that is the foundation," Nelsen says. "But there have been variables in these games that you can't predict. People sent off, injuries and silly individual mistakes. If it's frustrating for me, I can't imagine what it is like for the manager."

Nelsen is under no illusions about what is needed to pull QPR round.

"Mental strength more than anything," he says. "Players know they have talent, physical attributes, skills. But at times like this I just think talent is easy, it's always there.

"But mental strength when the pressure is on is key."

His own reserves come not only from his own personality but also from his years spent at college in America where a winning mentality is so vehemently fostered in sport.

Nelsen spent a spell at university at Stanford, California. It was there that he found himself playing golf in the shadow of Tiger Woods. "I was on the driving range once when he was there," Nelsen remembers. "The founder of Yahoo was also there. I was out of my depth in that conversation."

It is hard to believe much gets past him these days. QPR will be hoping to say the same about his team-mates in upcoming matches.

- Observer

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