The World Cup might just be a distant memory now, but the Minnesota United FC soccer team is still going strong.
Helping lead them on the field is Aaron Pitchkolan, who signed with Minnesota in January 2013, giving the team options in both central midfield and central defense and years of experience across the American professional soccer landscape.
In our interview, Aaron talks about his career, about how to come back after a loss (and a win), and why he’s not into taking supplements, deer antler spray and all that other nonsense.
MMG: Let’s start at the beginning, were you always athletic as a kid and really into sports?
PITCHKOLAN: I wouldn’t say I was athletic. When I was younger, I played a bunch of different sports. I played basketball, soccer, baseball, and football in school. Anything to get outside, anything with the ball I was all about.
I didn’t start growing until high school. I was never an athletic specimen at all – far from it. Really skinny, not that athletic; so for me I really had to work hard to become athletic and continue my soccer stuff. But yeah, I was definitely not a natural athlete.
MMG: When did soccer come into the picture?
PITCHKOLAN:I played all those other sports but probably when I was ten or eleven I really started focusing on soccer and the others one just kind of fell to the wayside.
My whole life was about soccer and I wanted to watch it all the time on TV and play it all the time.
MMG: Did you have any professional soccer players or athletes that you looked up to as a kid?
PITCHKOLAN: I had a ton. I grew up in Denver and so I watched a lot of the Rapids games and followed as much soccer as I could.
So this is going back, I’m getting pretty old now, Roberto Baggio and a lot of other soccer players from that era – the mid-90s – were the ones I followed.
MMG: How about now as an adult?
PITCHKOLAN: Yeah, I just have more of a respect for what they’ve done and how well they’ve carried themselves in their careers.
I think all soccer players are fans of the game, probably true of any other sport and you see guys and you admire what they do and you respect how difficult it is to do.
With the World Cup, I’ve been following Michael Bradley. I think it’s a great story. He grew up in the U.S. system, had a great career in Europe, and now he’s back playing in the MLS (Major League Soccer).
So I think he’s a cool story and he’s definitely someone that I think is an amazing player.
MMG: You played soccer at the Division I level for West Virginia University. What led you after graduating to pursue a career playing at the professional level?
PITCHKOLAN: When I was a freshman in school that was my dream. I knew I had four years to put yourself on a path to be in a position to play professionally.
Luckily I was able to manage all those steps pretty well and when I was a senior I got invited to the MLS combine. And one thing lead to another but it kind of went according to plan.
MMG: Tell me about your time playing in the MLS with FC Dallas and how did that compare to playing at the college level.
PITCHKOLAN: It’s totally different. Just the professionalism, the way guys take care of themselves, the way they prepare.
It’s your job. It’s your life. I really learned a lot during my first year in Dallas coming from the U.S. college system where it’s intense but it’s nothing near a professional soccer league.
You’re playing a lot more games. You’re playing a lot more frequently. And you’ve got to be performing all the time or you’re not going to be seeing the field.
So that first year in Dallas I really learned a lot about how to prepare and how to become a professional.
MMG: Is there a particular highlight from your time with FC Dallas that sticks out?
PITCHKOLAN: Playing against David Beckham was a highlight because he was one of those players I watched growing up. It was a really cool moment for me.
MMG: And what about more recent highlights? You’ve been playing professionally now for the past ten years.
PITCHKOLAN: Yeah, there’s always different points in the season. You score a good goal or your team goes on a nice run. There’s a lot of little things that keep you going.
It’s hard to pick out just one but I think the run we’ve had here recently has been pretty good. It’s nice to see us at the top of the standings.
MMG: Absolutely. So you’ve been recognized as a “versatile player”, often playing either as a midfielder or a center back. How do you describe your current role on the team?
PITCHKOLAN: That’s a funny question because last game I started playing midfield and got an injury so I ended up playing center back as well.
And this game it looks like I’ll be playing midfield again. It’s back and forth. I’ve been given the majority of the minutes in midfield and it’s a different mindset.
You’re on the ball a lot more. You have to be a lot more aware. And obviously a lot more running.
MMG: Having played soccer competitively since high school, why do you like to compete?
PITCHKOLAN: I think it’s measuring yourself up against other people. Whether it’s a little possession game we’ll play at practice, once it’s competitive and the guys are into it, there’s kind of a zone you get into.
All the guys that’s what they play for, that’s what they enjoy doing and that’s why the games are so great.
There’s a lot at stake and everyone wants to do well. So measuring yourself up individually and as a team is what’s its about.
MMG: You mentioned this idea of getting into the zone. Is there some type of mental preparation you do to get ready each game to go head to head with the other team?
PITCHKOLAN: There’s not a switch you can turn on. Playing for so long, you know there’s certain things once the game starts you have to be on it.
There’s some games where you not feeling that great or you are a little sluggish and you know it right away.
Once that happens, you’ve got to do your best to find that determination and that fight again that makes you successful.
MMG: Do you have a pregame routine?
PITCHKOLAN: I’m not superstitious and I don’t really have anything special. It’s just warming up properly and just the more physical side.
Once the whistle blows then the mental side clicks in. Once I feel good physically then I’m much more mentally spot on.
MMG: As a more seasoned player whose seen your shares of wins and losses on the field, what’s your advice to athletes in regards to coming back after that loss?
PITCHKOLAN: Losing is such a terrible feeling and when you are this involved in it kind of ruins other stuff outside of soccer. So once you lose, you are that much more determined to not let it happen again.
You don’t want that snowball effect. You know how miserable it is to lose so you do everything preparing for the next week, the next game, whatever it is to make sure you don’t feel that feeling again.
MMG: I am also interested to hear your take on the opposite scenario. How do you treat the next match after a win?
PITCHKOLAN: You don’t want to get too high, you don’t want to get too low. I’m sure that’s the old sports cliche.
You’ve got to take that good feeling and know you want to feel that way again and you’ve also got to take a look at the mistakes you made and improvements to be made for the next game.
And work on those little mistakes. But obivously if you are winning, you’ve got to take the positive and a little bit of the negative and work on those but know that what you did was right and that you are onto something.
MMG: What does your off-season training currently entail? How much of it is skill work and how much of it is just staying in shape?
PITCHKOLAN: It’s kind of a tough dynamic because we’ve got a little bit of a longer off-season. Our season is long and pretty taxing so you want to make sure you get enough rest to recover from the season before, but you don’t want to take too much as you’ve got to prepare for the next season.
There’s a good amount of running, fitness, lifting. I’m kind of a gym rat so I enjoy that stuff. As far as the soccer stuff, you always want to be touching the ball and keeping all that stuff sharp. There’s a fine line between doing too much and not doing enough.
You’ve got to find that right area.
MMG: How do you split your time between the actual playing, with your teammate in practice having games and scrimmages, compared to just drilling some particular skill?
PITCHKOLAN: I think that’s looking back and knowing what your strength and weaknesses are. It’s knowing your strengths and trying to play to those is great in the games.
And obviously when you are not playing, you’re training and you’ve got to know what your weaknesses are and those things you want to improve.
It’s being pretty self aware. Knowing what you do well and continuing to do that. And knowing what you don’t do well and being honest with yourself and knowing that, “Hey, I’ve got to work on my left foot or something else.”
MMG: What role does diet and nutrition play for you in regards to your training? Do you follow a particular program or is it eat whatever you want because you are running around so much?
PITCHKOLAN: I wish. Diet and nutrition are huge. That’s one of the things I learned in that transition from college to the professional game.
When you are a college student, you don’t have a lot of time and you’re not willing to go to the grocery store and make the best meal you’ve got. But when I went to Dallas, I worked with a nutritionist.
Even here this year we’ve worked with Fit Studios and they’ve put us on a good weightlifting program and they really nailed home our nutrition.
They’ve given us a list of what we should be eating.
And I think the preparation, the meal before the game, and especially the recovery after and what we should be eating in-between is hugely important. I can’t stress that enough.
MMG: Any specifics that you can share? Any do’s or dont’s? Any supplements or vitamins that they have you take?
PITCHKOLAN: Yeah, not big on supplements. I take a daily vitamin and that’s about it. I’m not into all the weird stuff or deer antler spray or all that nonsense.
It’s just basic nutrition knowledge – eating the right amount of carbs and protein. It’s making sure you get enough whole foods and not a lot of processed junk; and that’s hard to find sometimes, especially nowadays.
We had that issue in our traveling in the airports. It’s tough to find stuff, days before games and days after games.
So it’s being smart and trying to find maybe not the best thing for you but not going through the airport and finding the worst thing.
MMG: Lastly, in the world of CrossFit, a “goat” is something you suck at, like an exercise, movement or lift. It’s the inspiration for the name of my site. With that said, what’s your goat and how are you trying to fix it – or “kill it” as I like to say?
PITCHKOLAN: I don’t know. There’s probably a lot. I think a lot of guys who play professionally are perfectionists so I don’t think they’d say, “I have this mastered.
This is what I know I’m good at. I’m 100% all the time.” I would just my quickness. This goes back to me not being a natural athlete.
I know it’s a weak part of my game so I’m always trying to work the speed ladders or doing something a little extra to, maybe not improve, but maybe stay where I am and stay sharp.
But, yeah, I think there’s probably more than one goat.