If you haven’t heard of John Smits, you might want to check out YouTube and the performance he had against York in the final of the OUA championship final. Smits helped lead the Blues to victory against the York Lions in a penalty shootout and helped the Blues earn a top seed in the CIS National tournament which took place this past weekend. The Blues had an extremely strong showing in the tournament, eventually losing to the UBC Thunderbirds in the semi-final. They battled for the bronze yesterday at the Varsity Centre.
After the OUA final, I was able to catch up with John before the start of the most hyped-up tournament
U of T has been a part of in a long time.
The Medium: How nerve-racking was that shootout against York? What goes through a keeper’s mind in that situation, knowing it’s all on the line?
John Smits: Believe it or not, that is when I was most calm during the game. As a goalkeeper, the training you get is mostly shot-stopping, so standing 12 yards in front of the ball seemed routine to me. I have also played high-level and have experienced countless shootouts (more than I can remember). My experience with those shootouts and my surprisingly high success rate has told me to never change a damn thing, and just go out there and enjoy myself, which is exactly what I did. I was also fortunate enough to begin the shootout with a mental edge over the competition. The penalty save in the 37th minute not only boosted my confidence, but also disorganized the other team. Their mental battle was already lost.
TM: In the 37th minute York received a penalty shot; what do you think or say to the defender who committed the foul? Do you feel like you get any extra “swagger” after bailing out a teammate? And don’t lie!..
JS: With the U of T men’s soccer team, we all play as a family. When I need to be bailed out, my team in front of me steps up. When my teammates need some assistance, I’ll step up so they can catch a breather. When the game is moving at a fast pace, and the other team is in a position to hurt us, we all mutually agree that we must do what is necessary to impede them from scoring. It was unfortunate that our defender cleaned out the ball as well as the opposing striker, but nothing could be said because every one of us on that field would have committed the same foul. The only thing I was thinking after that foul was, “I’m still not going to let you guys burn us.” After bailing out my teammate, I don’t expect anything but a handshake. Any swag I get afterwards is given to me rather than me just appearing from nowhere. [Laughing], does that make sense?
TM: Nationals is kind of like March
Madness, it’s win or go home… Does that pressure keep you more focussed or tense? Maybe both?
JS: It definitely makes the matches more intense, and reminds us never to lose focus. The pressure gauge is obviously extremely high, so the team that can manage the best composure will be successful in this tournament. It will be a tougher battle for our boys, though, because in front of the home fans there is a lot more on the line and a lot more factors that can distract you from our team goals.
TM: The success that teams and individuals get, such as yourself and the Blues have been receiving, can sometimes take away concentration from the bigger goal. It must be hard when everyone wants an interview or a photo shoot… How do you guys stay focussed? What are your coaches saying to you in times like this?
JS: Every team experiences mental adversity at one time or another. We all agreed that how we handle this adversity and overcome it will lead to success on the pitch. All our teammates don’t think about the photo shoot or the next interview or the media that will come when we win. It will all come naturally as we keep on being successful on the pitch—and being successful and enjoying our football is the only goal our team is focussed on. Our
U of T men’s soccer team knows the media can always be overwhelming, so we have an extra mental training coach as part of our staff, who takes care of “mental training packages” for our teammates. It’s not a pseudoscience, but it mostly deals with staying focussed on areas and assignments on the pitch, and the key being visualization during our free time on technical areas of the field that we need improvement on. In the end, it all comes down to staying focussed and confident.
TM: That YouTube video from the shootout was pretty phenomenal—but seriously, was that toe save lucky, maybe a reflex? How do you explain something like that?
JS: The toe save was not lucky. I’ll admit, the penalty shot could have been taken better, but I managed to cover the right areas of the net and the York striker happened to hit it in those areas. My philosophy when dealing with penalty shots has been covering as much space as I can in the areas I know they’re shooting [at], and make the save every time the ball enters that area. I don’t think it matters if it was a reflex or not, but the point is I got my body behind the ball and managed to keep it out of the net.
I would like to personally thank Smits and the rest of our men’s soccer team for taking the time out of their schedules to let us interview them for The Medium.