Like most people that have done something their entire lives with their whole hearts and souls entwined, the idea of change is a little bit daunting. Namely for me, I’ve been toying with the idea of completely moving on from having playing being a main focus in my life.
For the most part I have done this, basically being forced to through a serious foot injury this summer to start trying my hand at other things. And I realize that (gasp) there are a lot of great things going on outside of the soccer world (who’d have thought?) But truly letting go of it is something different.
It’s funny as athletes as no one really talks about the ending. Like the ‘how do you know when you are done’? I used to joke that someone would have to pull me off the field in a wheelchair, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized also that there is a life after soccer, and I’d rather not leave the field only able to crawl on my hands and knees.
To this end, I talked to three of my closest friends from soccer over the last few weeks that have retired in the last few years to just get their perspective. All three had played for their national teams, and while one played her career out to her late 30’s, the other two players stopped before their prime. I wanted to get an idea of how they knew it was the right thing to do and what their perspective is now that they have had some time to reflect on their careers.
And as the gift that good friends give, they gave me a perspective on things that provided a lens in which to see my own experiences through and get some answers to the nary talked about concept of athletic retirement.
One of them, who quit a few years after her heart told her to stop, but still at the peak of her career, likened leaving soccer as experiencing a death. She said she strongly felt the loss and grief in the 5 stages that they talk about when someone dies.
These five stages are
- Denial and Isolation
She said that after 5 years, she just felt that she was starting to feel “normal” again and had felt all of the stages keenly.
In using the death metaphor, I also realized that retiring from sport comes in different forms. For some it is a car accident. There are no goodbyes, one day it is there and the next it is gone. Perhaps it is a injury, or another opportunity, or a coach’s decision.
For others, and in my case, the path towards retirement is like a long illness. We know its coming, we have our chances to say our goodbyes, we have moments of mourning while the person is still there, and it makes moving forward a little easier, although painful in a different way.
One of my friends I talked to, the player who was the oldest when she was done told me that she just knew it was time to stop. She knew she had squeezed every last drop out of her body and just knew it was time for it to end despite there being a major event on the horizon. She took a full year off after she was done and tried other things, and never questioned her decision; she felt satisfied with what she accomplished in her career and felt that she listened and stopped when she had given everything she had to give.
Another got into med school, and knew that it was ultimately what she wanted to do in the big picture of her life. While getting into med school she said was something that most people would celebrate with, as it is no easy feat, she said she cried for a week straight as she knew that ultimately it meant that she would have to give up soccer, as she wouldn’t be able to defer getting in.
She walked away from a spot on the national team, and ended her career right as the trajectory was just starting to rise.
But she said something interesting to me that I want to address more in another blog, but I will touch on it here. She was talking about why she was ready to leave soccer and head towards a career in medicine and what realization made it easier for her.
She said that she was at a major event, an event that most soccer players are aiming to be at, and she realized that she wasn’t really pumped to be there. As we all have different motivations for putting so much time and energy into something, and our fire is all fueled as athletes by different things, she realized that her passion for soccer came from the sense of community that it brought.
She was a high achiever by nature, and it was this that drove her to the highest levels of the game, but she realized that her joy from soccer came from the sense of community that it provided. She realized that the cut-throat nature of the highest level of elite sport, eliminated some components of that community and the primary place that she found her joy in participating, which she felt made her transition easier.
The third friend, the friend who gave me the death metaphor, had an experience as a very early stage of her international career, that she described as that peak experience as athletes we all strive for, when our body and our minds meet and take our game to another level. She said that once it was over she felt that she had reached the place where her heart as an athlete strove for and she knew it was time to move on despite being very young in her career and being at the top of her game.
But she said that despite knowing this, that the societal ideas wore her down and had her soldier on for all the wrong reasons. The fact that she was a part of the “it” crowd in playing the international game, that all her friends were “cool, recognized soccer players”, that financially, re-numeration came from playing, as well as having her university paid for and also the fact that she hadn’t played in the Olympics, which every athlete was supposed to dream of. Feeling like she would be giving up an opportunity that she felt that most athletes would give anything for, she struggled with the fact that her heart was telling her to stop.
She was at her peak and although she knew in her heart of hearts her motivation was gone, that she’d reached her own dream, she felt listening to what society told her she should be doing and her own fear in moving on, kept her around for 4 years longer than the answer that her heart had given her. She said that because of that, she lost her love of the game and struggled for motivation before finally walking away.
With all this wonderfully honest insight from three incredible people, I started to reflect on my own reasons for playing, and the values that are important to me as a human being and how soccer relates to that.
As I talked to the third friend, I remembered a story that brought me back to the core of why I play, which I had honestly kind of forgotten in the hum drum of climbing higher and higher in the game over the last bunch of years.
When I was in college, one of my roommates said to me how much she was looking forward to college being done so she could go back to her hometown. It was as though soccer was being a barrier to what she really wanted to be doing with her life back home. I was surprised with her honest admission, but her words made me realize that for me, soccer was a part of my life, but the part that brought me growth. And growth as a human being was one of the most important values in my life.
I thought at the time, how on the field I worked so hard and gave every ounce of what I had to becoming the best player I could be, off the field, and just as importantly, I used soccer as a vehicle for growth. Soccer allowed me to leave home and to be able to afford to go somewhere else for university, it was a tool to challenge myself to be uncomfortable in social situations, to learn how to work hard to go from mediocre to one of the best, and overcome adversity along the way. Furthermore it allowed me to travel overseas and learn how to adapt to another society and culture, learn another language and exposed my mind to other types of ideas and people.
As my ability as a soccer player grew, so too did Ciara the person and that growth was what fueled my desire to play and challenge myself to reach the highest level.
Talking to my friend at the time, in university, almost 12 years ago, I realized that if I didn’t feel like Ciara the person was getting something else out of soccer, besides just the soccer that it wasn’t somewhere that I wanted to be.
For me the last few weeks has made me realize how as humans our intentions and our self-awareness can be diminished as we listen to the messages of society all around us and get absorbed in them as the definition of our own truth and sense of worth.
Talking to my friend, I realized a lot of my fears in letting go of being identified as an elite-level soccer player had to do with silly fears, but normal, when its something you’ve become comfortable in. As I reflected some more, I realized that what I was scared of walking away from were things that really had little to do with the game itself. Because at the end of the day, there are always fields to play on, people to play with, and a ball to be kicked around.
As much as I am embarrassed to admit it, some of my reasons for being afraid to walk away from playing include/d
- The status of being able to say I’m a pro player
- How I’ve had a great/easy social life; any place I go, I have 18 new good friends
- I’ve had a health and fitness routine with little effort; a training regimen handed to me every day during season or a workout regimen in the off-season
- It’s been my ticket to travel and see new places, and feel a sense of community wherever I go
- It keeps me young, in the sense that most of my teammates are under 25, and it’s allowed me to not really feel out of place as my friends from home and college have gotten married and are on to their second and third children.
But in talking to my friend and reflecting myself, I realized that I am not someone that likes living in a comfort zone, and that a lot of what soccer gives me, it also takes away, in terms of a crutch and excuse to not grow in other areas of my life that make me uncomfortable to face. In not wanting to leave the comfort zone of being an elite player, soccer is starting to hinder my growth as a person. I know on and off the field, I have maxed out my growth, which gives me the gift of peace moving forward, knowing that I stayed true to my heart the whole way and followed my dream despite all kinds of adversity.
So this is where I am at with it, slowly letting it go, and trusting that on the other side of it, I can find the same kind of passion and purpose that has driven my life to this point. I have learned the answers to so many things we search for in life, are found in doing the opposite of what our instinct tells us. I am fearing the idea I won’t find purpose and passion if I let go, but deep down I know the act of letting go is what is going to bring me a bigger sense of purpose and passion than I could find in hanging on. But the heart knowing is one thing; convincing the head is another job entirely.
At the very least, these weeks of introspection has led me back to what I knew in college about the kind of person that I want to be, and the kind of values that I want guiding my life. It has also given me a chance to listen to my heart, where all the answers of what we truly want in life, lie.