“I returned and saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all”

Ecclesiastes 9:11

 I just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book “David and Goliath” and this was one of the quotes that opened one of the chapters. The timing of the quote and what it implies was quite coincidental in falling in line with conversations that I’ve been having with friends the last few days.

So I’m in Australia. I’ll get to more about that in a future blog, but I am crashing at the house of a friend who was another foreign player on another team from my time playing in Norway. Soccer world, you are a special thing.

With that, we’ve been hanging out with a few more people on a regular basis who have all played women’s soccer internationally at one point or another, and have been having some really interesting chats about the whole soccer world; everything from things we are told from when we are young, to the reality of what pursuing the sport to the elite level entails, to throwing your heart and soul into something and still being in love with it in the end.

With the sound of waves crashing from her waterfront balcony (my friend has stepped away from the game for a bit to have a “real job” and life is looking pretty damn good as I look at the ocean in front of me), it’s been a week filled with delicious conversation from someone like myself who loves to ponder things like passion and meaning at a deeper level, bouncing ideas off of friends from around the world who pursued their passion of soccer to the elite level like me. One thing that is striking is that despite all of our different backgrounds and paths, many truths are the same.

The following is some conclusions that we have come to in our discussions that may be helpful to the youngsters that are currently pursuing the game with a similar zest, or anyone that is chasing any kind of a dream.

1.    Hard Work Doesn’t Guarantee Getting What You Deserve

Sounds pretty depressing, right? It’s not meant to be at all, and in fact if this fact is turned around correctly, it can be a motivation to work even harder and become even better.

We are sold a bill of goods as kids that if you work the hardest, have the best set of values, are a model of integrity and determination that you will be rewarded and get to the top. One only needs to look at what Nike shoved in our face for over a decade in the form of Lance Armstrong and his athletic accomplishments equaling having the best of human qualities to have this myth exposed. Often times people who “make it” are the ones who take care of themselves first, are ruthless in their climb to the top, and who will shut their mouths and allow those who are in positions of power that open the door to opportunity, to have their way.

On the other hand, the reality of women’s soccer, starting when we are kids having money, and having savvy or pushy parents who do everything to get their kids in front of the right people, often plays as large a role as the talent that players possess.  Sometimes it boils down to luck and having the right person cross paths at the right time. It goes back to the message in the opening quote about who wins the race.

We all talked about how demoralizing it was once we were in a few situations, that that reality was exposed, which goes against every message we get about how to reach the top of elite sport.

That being said, the lesson that we spoke about taking away was that work hard, not because you want to get somewhere, or that you are waiting to be rewarded, but because you want to invest truly in the process of becoming better and the intrinsic joy that comes with an honest pursuit of excellence. Sure, with luck and opportunity you may be rewarded, but you’ll never be disappointed if you don’t look for external rewards for the work that you put in and find joy simply in the pursuit of excellence, something that is always in your hands.

2.    Balance is Key

The idea of “sacrifice” came up when we were talking about pursuing women’s soccer to the highest level. That being said, it’s no mystery that women’s soccer is not a profession to get into unless for the most part, you are a fan of an unpredictable life and a lack of financial security and stability.

I talked about my own story. I’ve had a lot of ups and downs with soccer, many more downs that I had to battle through, and a little while ago, I marveled at how I was able to continue going.

I then remembered a story about my college roommate that made my durability in the face of adversity quite clear. My roommate one day made the comment about how miserable she was being away from home, and she couldn’t wait for college to be done so she could move back to her hometown. As obsessed with soccer as I was at the time I was incredulous. I thought to myself, I couldn’t imagine doing soccer to the extent that we were doing it if I didn’t feel that I was getting something else out of it. For me at the time, it was the opportunity to move away from home and experience life in the US (otherwise, I wouldn’t have had the money to leave, and would have lived at home attending university). When things were tough on the soccer field, I still felt that I was advancing in some other capacity, and that was part of the gift that soccer gave me.

When I went to Denmark and Norway, I was able to attend school and learn another language and travel and see countries close by; again it made it easier to cope with anything negative or frustrating that was happening on the field because I felt myself growing as a person in other regards.

Once we started talking about sacrifice, and I thought about when I started to not enjoy playing, it was when I felt that I was sacrificing something for soccer; this magnified anything negative that was happening, because all my eggs were in that hypothetical basket. My friends concurred that being totally immersed in soccer without anything else to fall back on or focus on was something that was de-motivating when the inevitable bouts of adversity overcame us.

As I told my friends during this conversation, my friend’s sister, a three time Olympian said it best: “At the end of the day, the Olympics is just a really hyped up two week tournament. It’s not worth being miserable through the process in order to get to it.” Leading a life that you enjoy should be first and foremost of importance as we get one shot on this wonderful planet. The second you start feeling that you are “sacrificing” to be doing what you are doing, is a red flag to start evaluating if it is truly worth spending your time on.

3.    Appreciate The Journey

Sometimes as athletes we are trained to focus so intently on the outcome that we miss where the true joy is found, in the process. The best personal example that I have for this, was when I was in high school, in grade 11, and a decent but not standout player, that I believed if I would get a Provincial All-Star award for soccer that my life would be complete and I would find true sporting fulfillment and happiness. In grade 12, I was so focused on that goal, that by the time I reached it, I held the gold statue in my hand, and had the worst feeling in the world, it meant little to me, this thing that I had been chasing so intently and I remember thinking that I didn’t want to accomplish anything if the ending point was an empty feeling.

I realized that I had been so focused on accomplishing the goal that I hadn’t really appreciated the little things each day that made up that journey; the time I spent with my best guy friend at the park who tried to use what he was learning playing defense in football practice to help me on 1 on 1’s, having the most amazing team and spirit that motivated me to find a way to lead our group to success, the fun that we had going to practices, pushing each other during training and then laughing the whole way home; I realized the joy wasn’t found in the trophy, but instead it was all those little moments as I tried to become the best player that I could.

In one of the most fitting metaphors, I tossed the trophy in my bag, and by the time I reached my house and opened the bag, the shiny gold trophy had broken apart and headless. Accomplishments fade away but the appreciation and memories that the journey gives us are indelible. I vowed that I would never let the joy of the journey escape me again.

At the end of the day, with so little that we do control, and “winning” the race sometimes coming down to fate or opportunity, appreciating the journey, soaking in everything that it brings us, and not defining its success or failure by external things that we have little control over, is the key to walking away from elite sports, or pursuing anything to the highest level feeling fulfilled and grateful, and using our time on this earth wisely.

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