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Why D.C. United players swear by the former swimmer who runs their ‘mental gym’

Agustina de Giovanni, D.C. United's director of mental performance and culture, poses at United Performance Center in Leesburg. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)

Down the hallway from D.C. United’s weight room, a white door opens to a small office occupied by a two-time Olympic swimmer from Argentina who gained career inspiration from a college football coaching legend.

Inside, visitors are welcomed by a poster declaring the unofficial title of this space: “MENTAL GYM.” It features a drawing of a pink brain hovering over a gray barbell.

Alongside are three placards listing the principles of what Agustina de Giovanni aims to instill as United’s director of mental performance and culture.

While interim coach Chad Ashton and his staff oversee physical conditioning at United Performance Center in Leesburg, de Giovanni works with the players on mental aspects of soccer and daily life.

“We don’t make miracles,” she explained. “If you come here and you haven’t trained properly on the field, I can’t make you fly. We assume you are here because you are trying to find the edge.”

Many teams employ sports psychologists, but mental performance coaches aren’t as common. There are similarities; both help athletes cope with difficult situations and aim to raise achievement levels. Sports psychologists, though, are licensed mental health professionals. De Giovanni, 36, works with players on issues such as focus, discipline, visualization, time management and contributions to the team culture.

Before hiring her last year, United used a mental performance consultant on a part-time basis. In bringing her on, the club not only appointed a full-time figure but someone who related to players through her own athletic experience.

She was a star swimmer at the University of Alabama and a former Argentine and South American record holder in the breaststroke who competed at the 2004 Olympics in Athens and the 2008 Games in Beijing.

De Giovanni is listed not on United’s medical staff but the technical staff, along with coaches, scouts and athletic trainers. She wears black team training gear and, at practice, observes body language and interaction. She travels with the team and, during all matches, watches from behind the bench.

Players swear by her.

“She was probably one of the biggest additions we could make,” defender Tony Alfaro said. “She has helped me develop another mental aspect I didn’t think I could achieve myself. She has helped me break a lot of mental barriers I’ve struggled with. She knows exactly how and when to push my limits.”

De Giovanni works regularly with about a dozen United players. Most schedule weekly sessions for at least 30 minutes. Others stop by periodically. There are conversations during downtime on road trips, before games and via video or phone calls at off hours.

Some players wear wristbands labeled “MIT,” which stands for Most Important Task. They add their own messages to them with markers.

“The mind is so busy. The mind forgets things,” de Giovanni said. “I am tired. I am hungry. I have to listen to five coaches. It’s cold. It’s hot. My leg hurts. If you’re not training with purpose, then you are not training 100 percent. We try to train them that the goal not only comes from outside, but it comes from inside, from yourself.”

Griffin Yow, a 19-year-old reserve attacker in his fourth pro season, is among those turning to her regularly.

“Becoming a pro has had a lot of challenges, especially mentally, because you go from being the top guy, the king, to being like everyone else,” he said. “It takes a mental toll.”

Said Alfaro, who speaks with de Giovanni almost every day and has engaged in formal sessions since last year: “I know a lot more about the mind and how important it is. If you can control your mind, you’re in a better place.”

De Giovanni’s office also has become a sanctuary to discuss emotions and family matters. Stressful times, such as the firing of coach Hernán Losada last month, brought a stream of visitors.

“That day, it was also emotional for me, but they were all here — players, coaches, everybody,” de Giovanni said of the sudden dismissal early in Losada’s second season. “It was a space they could come in, or they could call me. It wasn’t just that day — it was the whole week. In those moments, they know where to go to.”

De Giovanni joined United shortly after Losada did, thanks to a connection with Losada’s top assistant, Nicolás Frutos, who remains with the team. She and Frutos share an Argentine hometown and, though their families know each other, they didn’t remember crossing paths. She does recall watching him star for the local soccer club, though.

Last year, she reached out to Frutos and pitched her ideas. Losada and the front office were sold.

“It’s a fresh set of eyes — not necessarily a soccer set of eyes, even though she has a grasp of the game,” said Ashton, who has worked in the organization since 2007. “She understands not just how to approach athletics but life — how to be successful in life and how much that carries over onto the field.”

For confidentiality reasons, de Giovanni could not discuss issues between Losada and the players. But her bond with them, Ashton said, has helped him better understand the team vibe.

“It’s not intrusive in the sense that she is telling me something specifically about an individual,” Ashton said, “but maybe a dynamic that’s going on.”

De Giovanni earned a degree in international relations at Alabama. She got an MBA from Austral University in Buenos Aires and accreditation from the International Coaching Federation, a Kentucky-based nonprofit that has trained thousands of coaches in many fields.

Her interest in mental performance and sports culture began to take root as an undergraduate. Sharing athletic facilities with the football team, De Giovanni observed the methods Coach Nick Saban used with the Crimson Tide.

“My first year, I didn’t like American football because I thought, ‘This is not real football,’ ” she said, laughing. “Now, I love it. Roll Tide.”

It was more than admiring a winning program; it was watching Saban build a successful culture.

“I saw how a leader like him can impact so many people — the culture, how he believes in the process, how he can so easily explain something so complicated,” she said. “What got me was the culture, process and values. He helped the whole Alabama athletic culture.”

After graduating in 2010, her competitive swimming career began to wind down — a direction that, with retirement at 26, “was hard,” de Giovanni said. “You feel you lose your identity.” It was that feeling, she added, that pushed her toward learning more about the athletic mind-set.

She worked in other sectors, including a one-year stint in Washington with a communications agency, but sports drew her back. Since 2016, she has done Olympic work for ESPN Argentina.

Since specializing in mental performance, de Giovanni said she has collaborated with world-class soccer players in Europe, national field hockey teams and the All Blacks, New Zealand’s famed rugby squad.

When her workday with United ends, she is on international video calls with long-standing clients. She speaks Spanish, English, Italian and Portuguese.

While mental performance coaches are common in Olympic sports, de Giovanni said, “There is a stigma in soccer.”

“Soccer is behind,” she said. “We’re trying to break the stigma.”

She added: “Coming to the mental gym doesn’t mean you are weak. It doesn’t mean you have an issue. You have to recognize you’re not as perfect as you thought.”

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