Confessions Of A Club Soccer Player
When I first started cub soccer, I was on the fourth-string team. We lost every single game that year; I’m not even sure if we scored a goal. But it didn’t matter, I loved it. Going to practice was my favorite part of the day. I had absolutely no technique or tactical knowledge; it was all just for fun.
Years went by – I was finishing middle school and starting high school – and somewhere along the line I lost the sport that was my passion; to coaches, to parents yelling on the sideline, to teammates who put soccer before everything in their life, to my own need to please everyone around me, but mostly to the unrealistic and unattainable expectations I created for myself.
Soccer went from being my favorite part of the day to an obligation I felt tied to. It became a source of stress. Something where I was constantly feeling like I wasn’t good enough.
Every single coach I’ve had has told me that my biggest problem is not getting out of my head. It seems so easy, right? It’s all mental, an obstacle of my own making. It’s just my own head! I could flip the switch, be confident if I only told myself to be.
I tried and tried and tried, but for some reason, I could only seem to tear myself down; I couldn’t understand how to control my brain.
As a younger player, I could come off the field, thinking I had had a fairly good game, and my coach would say something as small as, “Work on getting your head up more,” and any shred of confidence I’d built up would come crumbling down. All it took was one critique or one bad play and I was the worst player in the game, or, at least, that’s what it felt like in my head. I’d come home from practice and replay every time I lost the ball over and over, doing nothing productive, learning nothing from my mistakes, just pounding them into my head until they were the only plays I remembered.
I ignored any of the positive things I did, discounted any praise I may have received. I thought that compared to all the things I needed to work on, the compliment was nothing. I gave so much power to the criticisms and none to the praise.
When you play any sport at a high level, you expect a lot from yourself. You want to be the best. I am uber-competitive, and while that does push me to work hard and be scrappy, it also drove me to constantly, almost obsessively, compare myself to other girls on my team. Every praise to one of them felt like a lack of praise for me. A teammate’s goal wasn’t a goal for the team, it was one more goal she had scored and I hadn’t. Every time I heard that whoever on my team made ODP or was being scouted by the national team, my confidence went down the drain. It just felt like, compared to all these other girls, I truly wasn’t good enough.
This intense competition I had created in my head, in a way, made me a selfish player. I was always trying to do something that would make me, not the team, look better, and most often, my futile attempt to dribble the entire field was not what was best for the team. Shocker.
And so soccer transformed from the sport I loved to something I almost dreaded because I knew that every time I went to practice or a game, I would leave feeling worse about myself. Every practice was two hours a day I spent repeating all the critiques my coach had for me and reminding myself of all the ways everyone else was better than I was.
Any confidence I had stood only on how others thought I played. I was at a point where I was unable to build up my confidence without the praise of others to justify it. But I didn’t need any help from others to help me tear my self-image down.
For years and years of my club soccer life, I couldn’t get out of my head. I was frustrated and angry that soccer had become something I no longer loved!
I was crying one night, after having played what I thought to have been a particularly bad game, beating myself up, and it was at this point that I realized there was almost no joy left in soccer for me. And it wasn’t because soccer itself wasn’t fun, or because of my team or coach. It sourced only from my self-deprecating mentality. I knew that there was no way I could continue to devote so much time to soccer if it continued to be such a negative thing for me: I had to either quit or completely change my mindset.
I’ll be honest: it was tempting to quit. It seemed so easy, and I would have more time to hang out with my friends, do homework, I could sleep in on a Saturday. But something in me couldn’t let go; I still had that little girl – who dribbled around the house, who played pick-up with the boys at recess – within me, begging me to just give it one more shot.
So it seemed that my decision had been made: I was playing soccer, and this time, I promised, it was going to be fun.
My new motto: screw it. I decided not to care. I wasn’t going to play for anyone’s opinions anymore, I was just going to have fun. I’ll mess up and fail hundreds of times but I don’t care anymore! Me beating myself up over every little thing wasn’t going to help or change anything, so why do it? I was going to go for it, have a little swagger with my play, work hard, be confident.
And I quickly realized that I wasn’t the only one who had struggled with the esteem issue. One night after practice, one of my teammates was lamenting about how she thought she had played badly and said, “I honestly feel like I’m the worst person on this team.” Another one of my friends shook her head and said, “Are you kidding, you’re so good. I’m the worst.” I was shocked. Both these girls were people who I looked up to as leaders on my team, those who I thought were so good they should never be insecure, but they were feeling the exact same way I was. Part of playing at a high level is expecting a lot from yourself, and it seemed that, to my surprise, most of my other teammates had had trouble balancing the voice in their heads too.
So sometimes you just have to let go. Take critiques and work on them, but don’t let them define your entire play. Improvement doesn’t need to come from a place of negativity. Bad games will happen, so there’s no point in dwelling on them. Focus your energy on what you can do the next play, the next half, the next practice; no thought should be spent worrying about something that’s over.
Confidence has made all the difference for me. I am on an Academy team and loving every minute. I feel like I’ve come back to that little girl who couldn’t wait every day for practice with her friends, and I’m playing the best I’ve ever played. It’s so much fun; I love it again.
There will always be people shouting their opinions at you, in soccer, in school, at work, at home. This idea of self-image is not just a sports thing, its life. In a world so full of noise, it is more important now than ever to be able to have one’s own internal voice be positive. It’s so easy to slip into I’m not good enough. So, in my mother’s slightly-altered-for-the-purpose-of-non-explicit words: screw it, you got this.