Ok maybe not everything. But it’s taught me a lot.
It is college season again, that time of the year where for approximately 2.5 months, all the work that players have put in all year will be on display, for better or for worse. I have a lot of friends and a lot of friends who are parents, whose daughters have gotten in touch over the last few weeks with frustrations of the college season.
I’m now on the inside, helping out at a school myself, and so I too, have had a chance to see the inner workings on how coaches think and how starting line-ups are determined. It’s bringing me back to my college career, and everything I learned. And I learned a lot.
I started one game in my college career.
I remember it clearly. It was against Colgate on a Sunday in October my sophomore year, in upstate New York with the kind of autumn scenery that has made the fall in New England famous.
We had played Columbia on the Friday and I had subbed in and played well. After the game I had been invited to the Deke fraternity formal by one of my friends on the football team. To this point in my college career, despite never starting, I had been religious about preparing for practices as well as games. While the campus would be buzzing, I would be heading to bed every night in season before 11pm, guzzling water, probably the most hydrated, well-prepared benchwarmer in the country.
I had spent my freshman year working and saving every penny that I made to be able to pay the $2700 to go to the Tahuichi Academy in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, the summer before my sophomore year. One of my fellow die-hard teammates had attended it the year before and recommended it to me, her little die-hard soccer protégé teammate. It was probably the favorite month of my life, where I ate, slept and breathed soccer for the month of July, coming back into pre-season my sophomore year, in the shape of my life.
Juxtaposed with some of my teammates that did start, who announced proudly that they hadn’t touched a ball in months, I thought that I would finally get a chance to break into the lineup.
But it didn’t matter.
I hadn’t had the greatest season my freshman year, and that seemed to be an impression I couldn’t shake no matter how much I had improved since the year before. If anything, my playing time went down from what it had been the year before, as sometimes I wasn’t even getting any minutes in games, despite feeling like I had improved immensely.
So here I was at the Deke formal, in October my sophomore year, thinking “no matter what I do I’m not going to get a chance”, clear in my mind.
So, I made the decision to knock back beers and mixed drinks with abandon that night, breaking the 48 hour rule for the only time in my career rendering myself hungover and tired for the long 8 hour bus ride to Colgate the next day. Although I was wracked with guilt, I told myself I probably would only get my usual sparse minutes on Sunday, and to hell with it, I had had a fun night.
Which of course, by virtue of the karmatic soccer gods, led to my coach calling me over while we were in warm up for the Colgate to give me some version of this inspiring pep talk, “Dani is sick, and basically I have no choice but to start you. This is a huge game, don’t screw this up for us.” My first thought was a) thanks for the faith in me (sarcasm dripping heavily) and b) oh my god, of course of all the times that I get a chance to start, this happens the one time that I break the 48 hour rule.
I wish I could say that I went out there, and scored two goals while motioning some sort of “in your face” gesture to my coach, but I didn’t. I played scared of screwing up, and I played badly. And that was the first and last time I started in my Yale career.
So I know what you are thinking.
The moral of the story is that I should have just broken the rules more often and let the karmatic soccer gods continue to punish me/give me opportunities.
Not quite, but I did learn some very valuable lessons that I want to share with all those players out there that aren’t starting or that are not getting the playing time they feel like they want or deserve. Because I can truly say that despite my frustration in not getting extrinsically rewarded in something I cared so much about, and put so much of myself and my heart into, by choosing a positive attitude, I learned some incredible life lessons that I will always carry with me. These lessons made me a better player, and more importantly made me a better person.
1. Accept that life is not fair:
I feel the starting point for most frustrated players is that they believe that they are getting screwed by their coach or getting a raw deal in some way. To this I say, maybe you are, but this is life. And life is not fair.
As human beings, we seem to have an impression that we will get what we deserve. Perhaps in this realm, I was lucky that my Mom, the most wonderful person this planet has seen, has unfairly had a crappy disease (MS) since I was 6 years old, and has had pieces of her health and her independence taken slowly since that time.
This is not fair or just, but allowed me to realize early in my life that people don’t always get the hand of cards they deserve. Through her actions, my Mom has taught me that the best and most enjoyable way to deal with it, is to play whatever hand of cards you are given with a positive attitude and the best effort that you’ve got.
So I say if you can start from the point of accepting that life is not fair, it allows you to focus on the next lesson a little easier, which is:
2. Control What You Can Control:
The more you are focusing on what you do have control over, which is your effort, your attitude, the way you choose to look at the situation, the more you will enjoy your situation and put yourself in a situation that if you do get an opportunity you will be ready.
And chances are that if someone has been busting their ass with a great attitude that if an inevitable injury occurs or things need changing up, a coach will look towards someone that has put in a hard effort day in and day out, as opposed to someone that has been sulking on the bench (And if they don’t, revert back to lesson 1).
Once I figured out that the only thing the coach had control over was if I stepped on the field or not, and realized I had big dreams to chase, I controlled everything that I could. I ran, I got extra touches on the ball, I read books about the mental side of the game, I watched a lot of soccer on TV. I wanted to be a top player, and I didn’t let not stepping on the field affect my motivation in terms of giving everything I had to be the player that I wanted to be.
Which leads me to my next point:
3. A Coach is Just One Person’s Opinion:
This was another huge lesson for me to realize. Even more so now, as one person on a coaching staff, I can see that we all watch the same game, yet at times can have completely different opinions on players.
Soccer is a subjective game. It’s not a running race where times are clear. Different coaches appreciate different qualities in players, and ultimately what one coach may see as a rock with nothing on the inside, another may see a diamond underneath an object that needs some polishing.
This again relates to controlling what you can control and not letting one person affect your motivation to reach your potential.
In my case, after not starting for 3 years on an average team at Yale, and getting injured and not playing my senior year, I received a full ride scholarship to go to grad school after getting my degree from Yale to play my fifth year at UConn, a school ranked top ten at the time (the coach had seen me play a game the summer after my junior year on a team with some of his players and thought I stood out- that team won the US U20 National Championship).
After I finished my NCAA career at UConn (I tore my MCL at practice, the night before we left for our first game, we’ll save that blog for another day), the following summer I signed my first pro contract in Europe (for Fortuna Hjorring of Denmark) and was often starting on a team that made it to the final of the Champions League that year (2003) filled with World Cup and Olympic veterans from multiple countries. I wasn’t a different player, but just had coaches that appreciated qualities in my play that one coach hadn’t.
But had I believed that first coach to be right, and let it affect my motivation or my goals, I never would have been in a position to be ready for the opportunities that I had later on. Which leads me to my next lesson:
4. Be Clearly Better:
My friend Aimee-Noel was always someone that I would go to when I was struggling with something soccer related. While we were in college she won the NCAA title for downhill skiing twice at the University of Colorado, and came from a family that her father and sister were Olympians and her two brothers were top college football players. Aimee understood sports, and understood attitude, and was a wonderful person to have on speed dial to give me advice to the numerous struggles I have had through my career.
After one particularly frustrating game my junior year at Yale, I called Aimee, bitching about how unfair it all was, how I was getting screwed, and really all I wanted was her to concur and pat me, the victim, on my back, and join the pity party that I was in the middle of.
Yet she did what the best of friends do, and gave me not an inch of sympathy and turned it back on me.
She told me, “Ciara, a couple of years ago there was a National Team ski event that the top 6 were getting picked for, and I was clearly in the top six, probably fifth. And I didn’t get picked. I called my Mom, like you are calling me now, looking for sympathy and she told me that it was my own fault for not getting picked. She said to me ‘Aimee, if you were the first, second or third best skier, clearly above the rest, you would not be in this position.’ So instead of saying how unfair it is, I think you’d be better off making sure you put your energy into becoming clearly one of the best, so you are not in a position where politics, or taste or anything else can leave you out of getting what you want.”
This leads me to my final point. If you’ve given everything you’ve got and still find yourself in a position that you’re not getting exactly what you want:
5. Take Pride in Being the Best at Whatever Role You Are Put In
This goes back to doing things for instrinsic not extrinsic motivation. Do everything to the best of your ability because that’s the kind of person you want to be, not because you are eagerly looking for a reward for doing it.
I hated not playing in games, but I was a part of a lot of teams that won big championships. Some I was an important 90-minute player in, but many others I was a bench player that played sparse minutes. But I was re-signed or asked back every year, because I had value as someone that would add depth, a positive influence and an awesome work ethic despite where I stood in the line-up. I took pride in embodying that effort and attitude despite anything that was going on that I had no control over.
I remember clearly in Boston in 2001, I played on a very good team. I was frustrated not getting to play much, but that summer I decided that I would make myself be a player that worked so hard in practice and made it so difficult for the starters every day in practice that they would have to work harder against me than they would against any opponent.
I took pride in the effort I put in, feeling like I was preparing the starters to be successful in games. Because of that thought process, I felt just as much a part of winning the W League in 2001 had I been on the field for 90 minutes, and felt like I had played an important role in our win.
Furthermore, a friend of mine who was a national team legend and a World Cup coach cemented that idea, in saying that in order to win championships you need to have everyone be top at their role, from the star player, to the coach, to the video person, to the equipment manager. To win, and to be the best, is truly is a team effort.
As I’ve gotten older, I have learned that the joy of anything comes from giving 100% to the process and 100% to doing whatever it takes to help your team be successful. Joy comes from taking pride in doing everything to the best of your ability, whatever role it is that is asked of you.
Everyone can have a good attitude when things are going their way. Ultimately how you act and react when things aren’t going your way is what truly defines you and will determine how far you will go.
And by choosing a good attitude and investing in the process of continuing to do your best when things aren’t going your way, life is far more enjoyable and most importantly, anything truly is possible.