It all started when I was five and my parents signed me up for a local town team. We played the highly sophisticated swarming style; wherever the ball went, a swarm of ponytails followed. Except for me. I remember thinking I was particularly clever, standing a few steps away from the pestilent cluster, waiting for the ball to squirt out — as it inevitably would, to the group’s complete surprise — so I could quickly collect it and head to the goal.
From then on, my world revolved around a soccer ball – as if it actually had some sort of gravitational pull on my life.
In fifth grade, we were given the exciting privilege of decorating our wooden cubbies with a personalized index card that represented who we were. For most, that meant song lyrics, Pogs (yes, you remember them), deep philosophical quotes (in balloon lettering with hearts), random algebra equations, Boston sports teams or a favorite Magic: The Gathering character (yes, you remember them too).
For me, that meant soccer. Circling a checkered ball (oh how I struggled with those pentagons) I drew a few stick figures holding hands. Across the top, written in bold letters: “The world is our soccer ball.” (For the the fact-checkers in the group, I actually wrote “are” instead of “our.” Grammar skillz wld com l8er…)
Town teams turned into club, semi-pro and Olympic Development teams. Road trips turned into international flights. Plastic trophies turned into glass plaques. “Congrats, you survived the season!” medals turned into hard-fought national championships. High school tournament brackets in the local paper turned into D1 NCAA bracket assignments on ESPN.
Instead of internships, my summers were spent at a rotation of training facilities and camps (not of the YMCA variety). But the highlight was always “Graham Camp.” For the few final weeks before preseason, I would join other elite players, seven days a week, in grueling double-sessions filled with fitness tests, competitive drills, pick-up games and technical training – led by my British soccer father, Graham.
The field was my office. The coach was my boss. My teammates were my colleagues.
But it never felt like work.
When the final whistle blew on my college career, I wasn’t quite done. So I finagled my way onto a professional team in Germany and competed against the world’s best for a season. We traveled the country, trained daily, got paid (barely).
The season ended and I flew home.
The pro-league in the US was still in flux, so I rejoined the semi-pro league. We traveled the country, trained daily, got paid (not at all). But something odd started to happen.
It felt like work.
Don’t get me wrong. Soccer had always been hard work. It wasn’t all rainbows and butterflies. There were certainly times when I would have loved to throw the alarm clock across the room instead of stumbling out into the cold at 5 am. But it always felt worth it. And I always felt the joy in the process.
Growing up, one of the many quotes on my wall was from Mia Hamm: “It’s not sacrifice if you love what you’re doing.” And I think that summed up my life pretty nicely.
Except now I very much felt the sacrifice. I was relieved when practice ended. I was annoyed when we had to drive 3 hours in stop-and-go traffic to play a game in the 95-degree humidity of New England in August. I pulled myself out of drills – something I never did. I was barely 24 years old. And I was tired.
It happened just as I started to come to terms with the fact that this might be the end of the soccer road for me. I was at the gym, running on the same treadmill that I’d used for sprint workouts in high school. In the row of machines in front of me, I saw the girl I used to be, running her ass off between weight-lifting circuits. My usual competitive urge kicked in and I upped my pace a few notches. I’m not done yet! I thought. I can still do this – this is what I want!
My adrenaline was pumping from sprinting and my eyes were bat-shit-crazy wide. My childhood dream of playing professionally and joining the national team flickered in front of me.
And then it disappeared.
I stepped off the treadmill and cried.
I haven’t really played since. Not seriously. It’s hard to downshift from playing so competitively to playing “just for fun.” It’s hard to be content with playing “okay.” Hard to just play, and not train to play. Hard to know you used to be so much better than this. Hard to know that it used to mean so much more than this.
Soccer and I had broken up. And reconciliation would take time.
After a few years in the working world, I’m still searching for that next thing to so completely absorb my love and attention (other than my husband – high five!).
I used to think that soccer ruined any chance I ever had to find a job that could make me fully happy. Once you’ve tasted something so sweet, it’s hard to be satisfied with anything else. But as the years pass, I have trouble being anything but grateful. Some people go their whole lives without having that feeling. I know what can be. I know what “work” should feel like. I have something to strive for, a standard to reach. And it’s made me much less willing to settle for a working experience that doesn’t deeply inspire me and get my blood pumping.
The only thing that has come close is writing.
Occasionally, if I can find just the right sentence to tie up a piece, my heart pounds. It’s pretty funny actually. It’s the same feeling I used to get after sending a perfect leading pass through a crowd, stopping a breakaway with a clean tackle or solidly burying a ball in the back of the net. A deep, primal feeling of satisfaction. For a brief moment – everything is right in the world.
But I know I need to be patient on this quest for my next gravitational pull. I have to remind myself that when I was five and oh-so-cleverly standing outside the swarm, I didn’t have any of these deep emotions when the ball finally popped out of the melee. I was just glad my master plan paid off.
It takes time to love something – time to learn it, get good at it, build a sense of ownership of it, and master it. Time for it to become an essential part of who you are.
It takes time to fall in love again.
You are so young, so much before all beginning, and I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet