Every few weeks, D.C. United’s Charlie Davies would bump into sports psychologist Tom Perrin in the locker room at RFK Stadium. Having known each other from the U.S. national team, they would engage in casual conversation.
It didn’t go beyond small talk. Although Davies endured unimaginable physical and emotional challenges recovering from a 2009 auto accident, the 25-year-old forward never felt the need to share his thoughts.
Doctors had repaired his broken body; Davies would manage the cerebral trials.
But as his triumphant return to pro soccer began to fade from memory — after scoring five goals in his first four MLS games with D.C. United, he had only three in his next 15 — Davies sought out Perrin’s guidance.
“A lot of people say, ‘After the accident, you had to speak to somebody,’ ” Davies said this week. “I’ve always been a guy that figures it out on his own, and I felt like I didn’t need to talk to anyone.”
During United’s recent 20-day gap between MLS matches, Davies and Perrin met in person. They spoke for more than an hour on the phone. And when United faced Chivas USA last weekend, Davies performed with carefree renewal, ending a 21 / 2-month goal drought with his first hat trick since the final match of his 2007 season with Swedish club Hammarby.
“I was in a rut, in this hole I couldn’t get out of,” Davies said. “It was wearing on me and felt like a mental block.”
So Davies turned to Perrin, a former University of Virginia assistant basketball coach who has worked in sports psychology for more than 20 years and counseled national team players in the past three World Cup cycles.
United Coach Ben Olsen has known Perrin since Olsen’s playing days at Virginia in the mid-1990s. And when Olsen was named United’s head coach late last year, he arranged for Perrin to visit periodically this season. Players weren’t required to meet with him; he was there to offer help to anyone who wanted it.
Davies politely, perhaps justifiably, declined. He had resurrected his career with United after arriving on loan from French club Sochaux, scoring twice in his MLS debut, forging a starting job and leading the team in goals much of the season.
But after scoring against Houston on June 25, his production sank. He seemed disconnected from the game. His touch on the ball betrayed him. His off-the-ball runs were out of sync with teammates.
While knee and muscle ailments compounded his struggles, “it was mostly mental,” he said. “That was something I lost in the year and a half” while he rehabbed his injuries suffered in the crash in Arlington.
“He tried to fight through it,” Olsen said. “He told me, ‘I knew this wasn’t going to be easy, but I didn’t think it would be this tough.’ ”
Davies broke his reluctance to confide in Perrin about two weeks ago.
“A lot of times it’s a function of when people are ready,” said Perrin, who is based in Charlottesville and, aside from sports psychology, is a management consultant. “I would see Charlie when I came up, but there was nothing focused or purposeful until recently. He felt like he needed some help.”
Davies was frustrated by his inability to become engaged in the match, which led to out-of-rhythm performances and self-doubt. Such reactions are common for forwards, who often rely on others to create opportunity. The tendency, Perrin explained, is to start wondering whether anything will work on that day.
“Tom made me realize to stop being reactive and start being proactive and make things happen,” he said. “The next training session was my best of the year. I had to build on it.”
Said Perrin: “He would wait for the game to come to him. Sometimes it will come, sometimes it won’t. Or sometimes it takes so long, you change your way of thinking. They get distracted by themselves.”
Davies also cleared his mind during a four-day break over Labor Day weekend. His fiancee, Nina, arranged a trip to Palm Beach, Fla. “We just stayed in the sand and got away from everything, ran on the beach,” he said.
When practice resumed, Davies was in sharp form and, consequently, earned a starting assignment against Chivas USA. In the previous match, Aug. 20 at Kansas City, he had been left off the 18-man game-day roster.
His hat trick last weekend came on fundamental finishes, in the 11th, 14th and 66th minutes, assisted by Chris Pontius. After the final goal, he tipped an imaginary cap to the collection of United supporters gathered in a lower section at Home Depot Center. His father, Charles, and brother Justin, a senior defender at San Diego State, also attended.
Perrin watched it unfold on television, and when the match ended, left a message on Davies’s cellphone. “In light of where he’s been,” Perrin said, “this was a big game for him.”
Aside from the goals, Olsen was pleased with Davies’s work rate and engagement. “He has rededicated himself to the group,” Olsen said. “He looked like he went after the game rather than waiting.”
The timing of Davies’s resurgence is crucial for both the club and the player. With five weeks left in the regular season, United (8-7-10) is in a heated race for a playoff berth and, with Pontius (seven goals, five assists) sidelined with a broken leg, the onus is on the other attackers to influence the match.
United officials will soon have to decide whether Davies is worth purchasing outright from Sochaux for an undisclosed transfer fee that had been agreed upon last winter. They could also try to renegotiate a new price or allow him to return to France. General Manager Dave Kasper said such discussions won’t commence until after the season.
As for Davies’s work with Perrin, they had planned to speak again in the days leading to the match against the Sounders (13-6-9).
“He can help me achieve everything and make me stronger,” Davies said. “Speaking to Tom got me to think clear and free again.”