A DIVING SAVE in soccer is a picture-perfect moment: a gymnastic display of quick reflexes, a gutsy leap with outstretched arms and unfurled fingers. For U.S. women's national team goalkeeper Hope Solo, preparing for that instant begins not on a grassy surface but on a reflective one.
"I put tape on a mirror, and I look and make sure that my head and chest are always still when I'm moving," says the 34-year-old Solo. "You don't want to be going up and down, because either you can't see the ball or you'll be too late. It's about being steady and balanced."
Since 2013, Solo has worked with Ben Dragavon, who doubles as the goalkeeper coach and the head strength-and-conditioning coach for Solo's Seattle Reign FC of the National Women's Soccer League. He's also a certified specialist in Muscle Activation Technique (MAT), which seeks to optimize muscle contraction to provide stability and increase range of motion. Solo says the technique has helped her better control her center of gravity.
"You're trying to learn your body from the inside out," she says. "In the gym I work on movement that gets me to the ball faster."
Workouts vary based on Dragavon's daily evaluations of Solo's range of motion in her feet, hips, lower back, shoulders and spine. If he detects the slightest inefficiency in movement, he'll change a drill or an exercise.
"She was having issues loading one leg more than another," says Dragavon. "When she was shuffling across the goal, her center of mass would shift over to one leg a little more than the other, and it affected her balance slightly. As a goalkeeper she needs to be able to change direction on the fly. So it's not good if her balance is all on one leg."
Though the national team coaches don't incorporate MAT into Solo's workouts, she says she'll keep using it as she prepares for the Olympics in Rio this August.
"You have to find new ways to train and new ways to look at your game," Solo says. "That's what keeps me wanting to continue to grow."
HIP WORKOUT: USE MAT TO YOUR ADVANTAGE
Because Hope Solo is so highly skilled and her muscles so well trained, Ben Dragavon has to watch slow motion film of her to find the slightest hitch in her movements. But even if you're not an elite athlete like Solo, you can still use MAT exercises to activate minor muscle groups and increase range of motion during a workout.
To help improve hip flexion, start with your feet shoulder-width apart. Lift your left leg by squeezing your stomach muscles and contracting the right gluteus muscle. This creates a strong anchor for the hip flexors, Dragavon says. Maintain alignment in the hips and hold for 30 seconds to one minute. Repeat with the opposite leg.
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MADDIE MEYER/FIFA/GETTY IMAGES (SOLO)
ILLUSTRATION BY MARTIN LAKSMAN