I’ve struggled with a high degree of anxiety before I play, for a really long time. It’s like a negative voice gets in my head and just starts spinning thoughts of messing up, of not being good enough–a lot of things I can’t even put into words. It just feels like a ball of negative thoughts spinning that makes me feel sick to my stomach and want to curl into a ball and sleep until it goes away.
I’ve gotten it under control over the years, more as I see all the hard work that I’ve put into reaching my goal of being a great soccer player start to come to fruition. In the madness of that negativity, there is a quiet voice of sanity that can fight back and remind myself of the teams I have played against, the level I’ve played at, and that I’ve managed to play well.
The first time I remember this anxiety getting out of control was in college at Yale. By my sophomore year, I remember I would have to lie down the few hours before a game, because I would just feel sick to my stomach and just want to cut my head off to stop the thoughts that were swirling so fast in my head, making me feel ill.
At one point my sophomore year roommates staged an intervention. All non-athletes, they were becoming increasingly concerned about watching their normally happy, energetic roommate, morph into a ball of nerves, and subsequently confined to her bed, hours before doing the activity that she supposedly loved to do. It didn’t make sense to them, and it sure made even less sense to me. One day before we were to play Boston University, they came into my room and pulled me out and sat me down in the living room.
The conversation went something like “Ciara, we are worried about you, and feel like you need to just relax and loosen up before your games.” At this point, they produced a paper bag, handed it over in total seriousness, and said “We think you should try this, we think it would help.”
I curiously peered into the brown paper bag, and found not only a bottle of blueberry schnapps liquor, but also a matching bottle of blueberry Gatorade (they told me they thought it was a natural combo). I looked at their completely straight faces, and although I was incredibly touched at the obvious effort, I only could laugh, as I realized that they were being totally serious.
“You want me to drink before the game?,” I asked.
“Well we think it would help, even just a little bit” they replied in the same practical way you’d expect a doctor to say as he handed over a prescription.
Just in case you were wondering, the next part of this story doesn’t talk about me stumbling onto the field, and preaching a cure for nerves (I turned them down, just in case that needed to be said) but it did make me realize just how absurd my situation was getting.
It’s something that has ebbed and flowed over the years, mostly on a steady decline, with the occasional flare up. It’s something that I try and analyze and find where the source of it is. I remind myself that no game no matter how hyped it is, is a big game, it’s a round ball and the fun is in how well we can play, not in any mistake we could make on the field, because they are inevitable. I used to spend the day trying to visualize the game. Now I realize that I’m a lot better off just not thinking about the game right until I go out to warm up. Usually once the sweat breaks, it washes away those feelings of anxiety as the more time I give myself to think, the more of an opportunity those negative thoughts have the chance of getting a hold of me.
I mention this only because out of nowhere, I found myself on the ferry to Victoria for our first game fighting those feelings. One thing I’ve learned is to not fight the feelings or get panicked about them, in the same way that if someone gets lost, they say crucial to survival is the ability to stay calm. I reminded myself, I’ve played centre mid in front of 10,000 people in a 1-0 game to the US with Ireland and in the back line against some of the top strikers in Europe, I’ve played in the Toppserien for the last 3 years and in practice daily against some of Norway’s best, why was I getting worked up about a regular season W League game? I was trying to get a hold of the voice, but it was just dancing around laughing, as I tried to throw my accomplishments at it like swinging punches. Like a ghost I thought I buried, I was panicked at how suddenly and unexpectedly it had resurfaced.
In the midst of this whirlwind in my mind, as I looked out to the water on the ferry ride over, I received an email from a player who was a peer on the Whitecaps with me a few years ago, and who went on to represent Canada. She’s a former teammate, and one who I admire and respect probably more than anyone I’ve ever played with. She wrote me unexpectedly, wishing me luck in the game, and telling me how proud of me she was for still being out there. And how much she wished that her body would allow her to be out there instead of studying for her upcoming exams. It was the knockout blow to those negative voices in my head that I needed, a lifeline tossed out right when I worried I was going to sink.
Although I do admit the butterflies were back once we got to Victoria and I put on that Whitecaps jersey, because it always has meant something to me, the panic melted almost to nothing by the time the game started. We got our first win and a shut out in the back. Always things of course you want to improve on and do better with, but that’s the fun of the season ahead. And we’ve got a great group of people and players and a fantastic coaching staff.
I’m thankful for the opportunity at another journey on the field. I’ll be reminding myself when those panic demons start to invade my mind that I’m just lucky enough to still be out there, demons or no demons.
Life is full of overcoming fear of failure as we try and put the best that we have out a plate for the world to see. Stepping on the field is a victory in itself and it is the first step to making whatever we dream we have happen.