Live Through This

Not Just a Game

My relationship with soccer is complicated.

Illustration by Camille.

Illustration by Camille.

My first soccer team was called the Senators. The name sounds capable enough, but we were the puniest, least-skilled bunch of eight-year-olds in the league. As the season wore on, and my mom started forcing me to wear turtlenecks under my jersey, we hadn’t won a game. We hadn’t even scored a goal, but I wasn’t particularly upset about our losing streak. Soccer was the first sport I’d ever played, and those fall days were pure fun.

During our last game, something miraculous happened: I managed to pull the ball away from the swarm of tiny limbs pushing it down the field. My heart leapt, but I told myself to focus: Don’t mess this up. I could hear the parents in the stands on both sides of me roaring as I reached the goal. NOW! I yelled inside my head, and then I let it rip. I stood in shock as my teammates cheered. It was our first goal—ever! Later in the game, I found myself alone with the ball again and kicked it through the other team’s net for another point. The referee blew the whistle, my teammates cheered, and it hit me: We won.

For the first time, I experienced the tired, satisfied feeling that came with giving my all to a sport and having it pay off. I also got the tiniest taste of what it could be like to be really good at one. Soccer demands a lot from its players—you’re running sprints and long distances with a ball between your feet for as long as 90 minutes. You’re also one of eleven people on the pitch, which means you have to battle for each play. It clicked with my determined streak—I knew I could work harder than almost anyone else, so I did.

As a high school freshman, I made my school’s varsity soccer team. That season, I was the only ninth grader to get serious playing time, and like that day in the peewee league, I couldn’t have been happier. I’m not a natural athlete, but I ran through drill after drill at home with my dad to work my way up from my middle school’s B team (like grades, our skills were considered to be a level below the A team’s) to a coveted place as a freshman among juniors and seniors who were bigger, faster, and more experienced players.

But as soon as I finally felt like I was really crushing it, the game got difficult in ways I couldn’t practice my way out of. On the varsity team, I wasn’t playing with my friends anymore, and as a lower classman, I was low on the social scale. I constantly felt like I had to prove myself worthy of the older girls’ time and acknowledgment. Freshmen were delegated the worst tasks—carrying the ten-gallon water jug and picking up equipment—and other than that, pretty much ignored. And our coach was an ex-pro player who cursed out the referees—and us. When we lost a game, he made us run miles of punishment laps around the practice field.

These changes cracked my confidence, and I went from being a reliably good player to…kind of a mess. I was so nervous that every time the coach gave me a few minutes on the field, I screwed up a pass or missed the ball completely. I wanted so badly to be good that it was making me awful.

My teammates, who were fighting to stay on the varsity squad, noticed I wasn’t performing well and stopped giving me chances. They didn’t pass me the ball anymore, and because we weren’t pals to begin with, they didn’t offer me any encouragement, either. My coach, fed up with my poor performance, was giving me fewer and fewer minutes on the field. I felt like everyone had given up on me. So I gave up on myself, and played half-heartedly, my mind somewhere far from the game. The sport I loved to play and worked so hard to master was now something that gave me anxiety on and off the field. More often than not, I burst into frustrated tears when I got home from practice or a match.

By my senior year, I felt like I’d dug myself into a hole, and the grit that had helped me practice harder than anyone else wasn’t pulling me out of it. I still ran drills with my dad, who noticed that it wasn’t helping—it was only stressing me out more. I was stunned when he told me he thought I should quit: “It’s better than making yourself this miserable over a sport.” Hearing that was devastating. But instead of realizing that I maybe needed a break, I dug my heels in.

I thought of all those years when I was playing really solidly, and through entire games. I had something to prove—that I wasn’t a disappointment to myself or anyone else. So instead of throwing in the towel, I decided to try for a spot on the soccer team at a Division III college I was attending that fall. In a different place, with a new set of teammates and coaches, I could leave my anxieties behind—right?

I made the team, but the summer before practice started, I didn’t do any training. I was afraid to face how “good” or “bad” I was would be that fall, and dealt with it by ignoring the fact that August, and pre-season practice, was approaching. I spent the weeks leading up to it on the beach, or hanging out with my friends.

I remember going into that first practice thinking I would just wing it. But it started with a timed two-mile run, and I came in dead last. I didn’t come close to beating the minimum time the coach had set for us, either, which meant I’d have to do it again. All the puppy-dog levels of joy I felt when I first started playing soccer had transformed into a weight that I just couldn’t carry anymore.

The next day, I knocked on the door of my coach’s office, sat down in the seat facing him, and told him I quit.

After I told my teammates I wasn’t going to play that fall, I walked home feeling intense embarrassment and regret. The sport I loved and had once excelled in eventually had a way of making me feel vulnerable, and sometimes worthless. I’d cared SO MUCH about what my coach and teammates thought of me, and whether I was performing well, that I ended up psyching myself out. The second I realized I could leave ALL of that behind, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief.

For a while I didn’t touch a ball. Even watching a game on TV with my dad made me feel sad about what I’d given up and the reasons why. About a year later, some of my friends who’d been playing pickup soccer together finally talked me into joining them. I told myself not to dwell on what anyone thought of my passing or footwork—though I admit it felt good when a couple people noticed I had skills and stopped to tell me so. I thanked them, ran the ball down the field, and remembered what it was like to play just for fun. ♦

7 Comments

  • Claire Jennings June 27th, 2014 7:44 PM

    I love this article. I went through a similar thing with swimming, where after seven years of competing I psyched myself out and realized that the sport hadn’t been fun a long time. That feeling of sadness and nostalgia and relief is something I totally relate to.

  • Kourtney June 27th, 2014 8:57 PM

    I resonate with this so much omg.

    I started playing volleyball when I was in seventh grade and I really liked it. I wasn’t on the starting line-up but I knew I had some skill. However it went downhill when my teammates kept telling me to do better. They gave tips for bettering my technique, yes, but they were condescending, and then my coach followed suit with these “tips” and I eventually turned into the girl that everybody picked at on the team for laughs and whatnot. I continued to play into high school, where coach (who was a lot more compassionate). She made me play on the senior team which is flattering when I think of it now, but was incredibly nerve wracking at time, mostly because all the seniors played in leagues and were incredible. I aspired to be like all of them and now my coach was making me PLAY WITH THEM. I was so nervous every game I played and often messed up and they hated me for it.

    Then I went to a new school last september and the girls on my new team said I was good, but my anxiety took over again and my performance was influenced by whether or not I thought I was holding my teammates back by not doing well in games or practices. Every morning before practice my heart would pound out of fear and anxiety. I ended up quitting because I realized that volleyball only stressed me the hell out and didn’t need that.

    BUT NICE ARTICLE :)

  • Berries June 28th, 2014 9:55 AM

    I can relate to this although to a lesser extent and maybe for different reasons.

    I have played handball, done streetdance and done kickboxing (staring this schoolyear, probably will continue with it in September because it feels very good). Every time I do a sport for a longer time I have to remember to myself that it is for fun. I often feel like I’m really bad at it. For example, handball, while looking back I probably wasn’t that bad at all, but I thought I was bad and that made me lose fun in the game. Looking back I did really like the game – not my teammates, they were really nasty actually – and when I play soccer/handball/basketball once in a while for fun I love it and I still got some skillz, ha.
    But – when I’m good at it, that can make it worse. I know I am a talented dancer. I was excellent when I was really young (11/12), only quickly I was surrounded by better dancers than me. Even now, when I take dancing classes every now and then, when I see other people outperform me it is so hard for me because it makes me feel like a failure.

    I think we should all consider that there will always be people who are more talented than we are but that doesn’t mean you are rubbish. You can still be talented and good at it. Even if you are rubbish – I am okay in kickboxing, but my fellow mates are like REALLY fit so I can do less push-ups then them etc – IF YOU LIKE IT, JUST KEEP DOING IT. I really have to tell myself – the teacher is probably just proud of you because you keep coming back, and it’s great for your body and mind, so just keep coming you know?

  • dragonfly July 1st, 2014 9:15 AM

    Great article :) I can relate so much to this at the moment (although not about soccer): “I wanted so badly to be good that it was making me awful.” Perfectionism is just self-defeating.

  • Areeba July 1st, 2014 9:07 PM

    I LOVE THIS! I’m currently having a battle with my basketball skills and I think they’ll ruin me. The trouble with me is that I want to be a perfectionist in the basketball but I’m a newbie at this game and my aunt is teaching me how to play. She’s the basketball master and I still don’t know how to shoot the ball or take an aim. This makes me mad. I keep shouting at my mum and family. I feel like a loser! I read your article and now I’m getting something to think about. It’s just a game, right? I just need to focus on some good points in my game. I need to play and enjoy. Thanks a lot for writing and inspiring :’)

    http://www.ihaveamessybun.com/

  • tortu12 July 16th, 2014 3:14 AM

    This is pretty much my soccer story, in reverse. But I am glad that both of us have been able to enjoy soccer again in the end. <3

  • nnora August 5th, 2014 5:57 PM

    I did a Rookie search for stories pertaining to my current issues. That always works. This piece made me feel unbelievably better today. I’m a high school soccer reject — recently cut after tryouts. My former team was not the kind of place where fun and soccer coexisted, so I didn’t really fit. You’ve showed me that that’s okay.