I’ve been a professional soccer player for six years. This is what I’ve figured out.
For the last few months, I’ve been increasingly aware of the fragility of my career and have started working on graduate school applications. Most of them ask similar questions. They want you to probe a key value or life lesson. My immediate instinct is to write “chocolate ice cream” and call it a day, but I know selection committees want something a little deeper.
I’ve always been a soccer player, so most of my lessons have come from the field. This exercise got me contemplating what I’ve learned over six years as a professional. I have thought about myself, my friends, and even the teammates I didn’t like. After my fair share of false starts, I think I might now have figured it out.
I spent most of my career feeling broken. I have a picture of the player that I want to be — a sense of the way I want to conduct myself — and I never do it. Sometimes I go overboard and do too much, perhaps yell at a teammate or make a rash tackle. Every teammate I’ve ever had has seen me go into a Liam Neeson zone. Other times I don’t do enough, maybe I’m scared to get the ball or I don’t focus. It seems like it should be simple enough but I always walk off the field feeling silly. It would be easier if I was just always over the top or always a big wussy. Then it’d be clear how to fix it. Instead, I am hot and cold. I’ve spent my career feeling like a malfunctioning machine, never able to get the knob on properly.
I’ve constantly been running around trying to keep my head above water, flailing my arms wildly hoping they keep me afloat and quietly praying that nobody else notices.
There’s been a lot of conversation about mental health in sports lately. Players are finally taking off the cape and admitting to their difficulties and insecurities. I’ve never found those individuals to be unique. Rather, I’ve always wondered how anyone could be a professional athlete and not feel tortured. In a competitive world, you always need to be getting better. As soon as you get something down, you need to move on to something new. Consequently, you’re either failing or trying to find your next flaw to fix. If you care about what you do and you have the sense to reflect on it, I’ve never logically understood how this can’t drive you crazy.
I tried to tone down my emotions once. I was in Sweden. I didn’t have a friend within a thousand miles. I didn’t connect with anyone on the team. I felt helplessly lonely, so I tried to shut myself down to limit the pain. I’ve never played worse in my career. Instead of being myself on the field, I overthought every move.
What I’ve learned is that if you want to be good, you have to care. And if you’re going to care, then you’re going to mess up. Those mistakes are going to leave scars. You put on a mask to make sure you’re the only one to see the scars. You don’t want to feel like a monster.
Over time, I’ve realized that I’m not alone. My favorite feeling in life is when I share a vulnerability and the person across from me has experienced the same self-doubt. You each had this little seed planted in your brain that there was something wrong with you. You had to hide it or everyone would know how messed up you were. It’s such a relief to know someone else — anyone else — could have the same blemishes. You can breathe a little lighter and suck in the air a little deeper.
That’s all we all really want in life, right? To put our hearts out, to chase our dreams, and be happy.
We all want to be the best we can, and we’ve got to give it our all to do so. So we’re all trying and we’re all messing up and we’re wondering if everyone hates us and judges us for each mistake. We all just want a little notice that we’re not alone. The problem is that when we don’t get it, we close up. We feel like we’re doing something wrong. There’s a constant push back to the mean.
My closest friends over the last six years, the ones I feel most connected to and continue to stay in touch with, are all like me. We aren’t similar in political views or preference for brunettes, but we are similar in our scars. We all make the same mistakes and share the same vulnerabilities. We can be ourselves and give our everything and still feel accepted. We don’t need to be average or fit a mold.
I’ve learned over my six years in soccer that this is pretty much everything: to be yourself, to try to be the best version of yourself, and not feel like a damn freak. We all want a sign that we are okay, and none of us get or give enough of them.
When the sign doesn’t come, at least I always have my gallon of chocolate ice cream to make me feel better.