Rachel Dawson is ready for game day

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U.S. field hockey star Rachel Dawson says the thrill of game day is better even than Christmas morning.

Rachel Dawson will be blogging for espnW in the lead-up to this summer's London Olympics. This week, the U.S. national field hockey team starts the Four Nations Tournament against Spain, Belgium and Great Britain. Check back next week for more from Dawson on the tournament.

Game day, baby. There isn't anything like it. Not even Christmas. The intensity. The excitement. The electricity.

And yet, amid all the hoopla, only one thing matters on game day -- that you are ready to answer the call of duty.

Thankfully my ultra-competitive older brother taught me early in life the value of game day. Dave was the quarterback of his high school football team, which in my 8-year-old mind made him slightly cooler than the red Power Ranger. The great thing about Dave wasn't his athletic prowess, but his passion; he loved sharing game day with his annoying troop of little sisters.

The six of us girls stood in a row. Shoulders back, chins high, Dave glared at us with fiercely blazing eyes. He took a deep breath, tilted his head and lowered his voice into a deep house-quaking rumble:

"ARRRRRRREEEEEEEEE YOUUUU REEEAAADY???

"YES, SIR," we'd shout in unison.

"ARRRRRRREEEEEEEEE YOUUUU REEEAAADY???

"Yes, Sir!!!!"

"ARRRRRRREEEEEEEEE YOUUUU REEEAAADY???

Yes Sir!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

We ate it up.

Now, a bazillion games later, I still eat it up. I love game day. I live for it. Game day asks you a simple question -- are you ready? -- and gives you 70 minutes between whistles to deliver your answer.

Yes or no? The answer has very little to do with your opponent. It's about you and your team and how you compete. The game shows you what you are made of -- your true competitive colors. That's what makes it so exhilarating, scary even, because what you are made of matters. Sometimes, it matters more than mere outcomes.

I get nervous. But I don't mind the nerves. They are a challenge. They demand courage. That courage empowers. The more empowered I am, usually, the more fun I have. So I don't fight the nerves or the excitement or even, on rare occasions, the apathy. I go with the ebbs and flows of energy because I have learned, through trial and error, that I perform best when I let myself feel what's real.

I rely on my pregame routines to prepare me for competition. My routines are flexible; I adapt them to fit the tournament environment. If I had it my way, I'd always eat wheat toast topped with almond butter, honey and a banana for a pregame meal, but if that isn't available, the world doesn't stop spinning. Well, at least not for long. I try to stay away from deeply entrenched rituals. For me, being ready when that first whistle blows doesn't depend on which sock I pull up first, or whether I eat exactly two red, two yellow and two green gummy bears 20 minutes before the game.

My game-day routine is simple. I shower about an hour before we depart. I put on my uniform, pull my hair back in a pony, throw on a headband -- usually pink with our blue uniform and Carolina blue (I did go to UNC, after all) with red -- blob on a dash of waterproof mascara and brush my teeth. Then I pack my bag: sticks, shoes, shinnies, mouth guard, glove, notebook and pen.

On the way to the field I look over my game notes. I choose three individual points of focus. Simple anchor points like ball speed, defensive footwork, early positioning on outlet, patience in tackling, communication, head up pre-scanning, strong left hand, strength on ball, etc. I write each point and close my eyes to envision each task. What it looks like, what it feels like. I figure I'll focus on those three keys and let the rest of the game fall into its place. When I am confident in my anchors, I close my notebook, tuck it back in my bag, turn on the tunes and turn off the mind.

Tiesto, Regina Spektor, the "Across the Universe" soundtrack, Florence, Billy Joel, Coldplay, Adele, Rihanna, Enrique. I'll listen to anything as long as it makes me feel alive. Thankful. Excited. Nervous. Whatever. I just feel it.

As we wait for warm-ups, a group of girls play Hacky Sack; the rest of us mill around the locker room -- some dance, some chitchat, some, like me, sit pretty quietly semi-creeping in the corner, laughing at other people's jokes, soaking up the experience -- the rowdy grins, the courageous eyes, the excited yet poised voices.

And on the odd occasion, there is rave-like dancing. Then there are warm-ups. The huddle. The walk-out. And the anthems.

I love our national anthem. Have you ever listened to it? I mean really listened. Like listening so deep you don't just hear Francis Scott Key's words, but you see his image of America.

The bombs bursting in air. The uncertainty of our nation's survival. The red-smoke-streaked night. The yearning for hope. The resilient American flag waving steadily. The promise of a nation.

That's the image I see in my mind right before I play. And then I ask myself the question: Are you ready?

Yes, America, I am.

Read Dawson's previous post, The truth about the Olympic year.

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