A couple of days ago, while I was getting my nails done (even the tomboys of the world like their nails looking pretty), I was scrolling through twitter and saw an article written by Cat Fitzsimmons, a goalkeeper in the French Div 1 (top) league, after her team got annihilated by Lyon, a team of full professionals, that regularly places in the top 4 of Champions League.

She gave her perception of the match and a sociological perspective of the values (or lack thereof) that she felt it exuded.

To summarize this great article, which is definitely worth the read (click here to read it) here’s a few points to describe what happened in the game itself:

1) Albi, Fitzsimmons team, had an awful time getting to the game. Their bus got broken into, all their uniforms, equipment and some personal items were stolen, so the team was in the worst possible headspace heading to play the top team in the league.

2) “How does it feel to get scored on by an opposing goalkeeper who decided to saunter down the field to take a penalty kick when the game was severely lopsided in her team’s favor? (Hint: about the same way it feels to be playing against a team, losing badly, and listening the opposing players complain about calls, whine about challenges, intentionally dive for penalty kicks, and essentially exude an air of entitlement for 90 minutes)” 

That probably gives the game report better than any description I could attempt.

Fitzsimmons essentially goes on to describe what she felt was a classless win by Lyon and how it elucidates some bigger problems about how sports reflects society:

These problems come from a lack of the principles that football, and in fact all sports, stand on. These principles are the reason we start playing sports, the reason why sports play such an important role in culture and society. In the United States, parents start their children in sports at a young age to introduce these important values that are vital in every facet of life. Teamwork. Accountability. Discipline. How to win with grace. How to lose with composure. Compassion. Respect. These ideals make up the spirit of sport, and yet, what has happened to the spirit of sport in the French Division 1? 

Ok, I’ll just continue to quote Fitzsimmons, because I really love her writing and the points that she was making in the article:

“We are all aware of les grosses equipes and their prowess on the pitch. Just because they are capable of blowing up teams and running up the scores, does that mean they should? What would happen to the league and its standard of play if teams spent more time incorporating these principles back into their club’s football? Maybe if OL would refocus their strategies and put more of an emphasis on these principles, they would spend less time blowing out teams in their own league and more time advancing into the deepest stages of Champions League. Consider the possible long-term effects: domestic games would be more competitive, and the league would become more globally respected. More foreign players would aspire to play in the French league; more French players would want to continue to develop their skills. The standard of the women’s game would grow.”

But this gem was definitely my favourite line in the piece:

Alone, we go faster, but together, we go further.

————

What struck me as I read Fitzsimmons’ blog and what I identified with, is that through my time as an elite athlete and I think it applies to anyone pursuing something to the highest level, I believe that there are four phases to our experience.

Phase 1: The Propaganda/Idealism Phase

I don’t think there was a better example of someone that lived and breathed the propaganda/idealism phase better than me as a kid. I was obsessed, and I mean, obsessed with the Olympics.

I have kept a journal since I was 10, and from when I was about 10-14 years old, a good part of my journal was spent debating which sport I was going to go to the Olympics in, a tough choice since I was playing about ten different ones at the time.

When the Olympics were on TV, my life literally shut down for 2 weeks.

In fact I think I still have the entire 1988 Olympic gymnastics competition recorded on VHS, and know way too many gymnasts from Russia, Romania and the US by name from the late 80’s and early 90’s era (Svetlana Boginskaya, Kim Zmeskal and Tatiana Gutsu anyone?)

My favourite movie (TV or theatre style) in my childhood, was a TV movie about Nadia Comaneci, a Romanian gymnast that won the 1976 Olympics and got the first perfect 10 ever in gymnastics. I literally to this day, although hopeless in quoting movie lines, still have about 10 lines from that TV movie perfectly ingrained in my memory from wearing the tape out (which I literally did) watching it so many times.

Ok, you get it. I was obsessed. The Olympics propaganda told me that all the best human values were represented in getting there, and I lapped it all up like an overheating dog getting presented with a bowl of water on a scorching hot day.

Elite level sport was all I ever wanted to be a part of for that reason.

Once you are fully immersed in the propaganda/idealism phase, next comes the cold-water-thrown-in-your-face of phase 2

Phase 2: The Confusion Phase

After you toil away for years, climbing the ranks and the place you always thought you wanted to be coming closer, you start to see that things aren’t as they have been presented.

Elite sports and good values really aren’t connected like the bill of goods you have been sold, and you realize that in fact elite sports are in fact one of the more narcissistic endeavors that are available for us to spend our time doing and moulds many people accordingly.

While there are definitely amazing stories within the realm of sports, of beautiful, inspiring people overcoming obstacles and inspiring those around them, you realize that you don’t have to walk onto a sports field to see the majority of them that happen every day in our society. On the other hand, you start to see far more people that stand up for the right thing and live integrity and all the good values that elite sport is supposed to represent, get pushed into oblivion, sometimes walking away entirely, juxtaposed with others who will do anything to get to the top, and stomp on anyone or anything to get to where they want to go, who line the front pages of newspapers.

Relating to the confusion phase, I read a great book called the Coke Machine.

It juxtaposes the amazing job that Coke does with propagating itself as a global product to promote humanity, when in reality Coke is destroying the health and fabric of modern society through its production methods, targeted marketing and consumption.

I thought of the parallels with elite sport as I read it.

The idea of inspiration and good values being connected with accomplishment continues to be perpetuated by those that have the most to gain from it; media that wants to get hits on its websites, sporting good companies that want a bigger bottom line and people like Sepp Blatter and the IOC who want to continue reaping the benefits that money and power allow.

My good friend Chantelle, one of the top steeplechasers in Canada, wrote an incredibly honest blog about her journey once she hit the Olympic B Standard for Steeplechase that paints a strong picture of the darker side of how the propaganda/idealism phase and confusion phase interact: Click Here

Phase 3: The Clarity Phase

The clarity phase is an interesting one, namely because now you know the reality of what the inside truly is; you’ve overcome the propaganda phase, lived through the confusion stage and if you are still standing, you enter the clarity phase.

Enter my Ukranian bestie, from my time in Norway, Yulya, stage left.

Sidenote, jogging and dancing to techno is about as deep into the sporting world as she goes.

Her blunt honesty is one of my favourite things about her, despite her holding the distinction of the only friend that ever answered the stupid question of “does this outfit make me look fat?”, with “yes, Ciarka, I think we need to go back and change you”. (Obvi, I changed while simultaneously marveling with unfeigned admiration that someone would answer that question honestly.)

But one time, when I was struggling with my preconceived notions of the values that elite sports stood for with the reality of a situation, Yulya said to me:

Ciarka (my Russian name), I don’t know why these people’s actions surprise you. To get to the level that you people (aka elite athletes) get to, you have to only think about yourself. Of course they are acting this way in the situation and being selfish, it is the only way that they know.

Yes it was on a cold winter’s night in Oslo, Norway in 2010 that a Ukranian non-athlete summed up perfectly the reality of what I had struggled with for a long time, that slowly sucked the enjoyment of the sport that held my heart.

Phase 4: The Decision Phase

The beauty of tough life experiences, is that they give us clarity that unfortunately only experience can teach us.

Losing 14-0 sucks.

Having your childhood perceptions smashed to pieces, sucks.

Living in a world where many people have had it easy and therefore don’t have the depth of experience to understand compassion and empathy and a bigger picture, sucks.

But what I have learned, and in the decision phase, we always have the choice whether we want to stop, or whether we want to keep going and if we keep going, how we choose to perceive the journey. Often times, to keep going, we need to reframe why it is that we are continuing with the process and changing what is the outcome that we are actually shooting for.

It’s a tough lesson to learn but one that truly empowers us once we grasp it, as we are never going to have control over the world that we are living in, nor the Lyon’s that choose to use situations to put people down instead of raising them up, nor the people that make decisions every day that affect us in a negative way, but we will always control the lens in which we choose to look at things and can make the world better around us through the integrity in which we choose to live every day of our lives.

For me, although my motivation to participate in the game and environment of elite soccer was killed for a very long time, I have slowly found my way back, and made the decision to stick around in the game that I have loved and that has given me so much.

Giving back, helped me move forward and find my love again, when I decided to start an environment that truly taught those things through what I am doing with GCF, a club that is founded on the principles that made me fall in love with the idea of elite sport: accountability, responsibility, conquering adversity in a positive manner, respect, teamwork, leadership, perseverance, giving back, that I hope is impacting the hundreds of kids that have gone through our programs.

I no longer see elite sport as a way to gets my validity through participation, by fame, or winning championships, but instead appreciate for allowing me to see other cultures and have conversations with people who share the same passion that I do, and break down barriers that might otherwise exist (cue my experience in 2010 hanging out in Nigeria with my teammate Maureen Mmadu in the Nigerian countryside, one of my more random experiences of life).

Today, through my journey, I view elite sport for the lens of what it is in its purest form; an opportunity as an individual to challenge oneself in the process of learning and seeing every day as an opportunity to get better to affect the world around me in a positive way.

And while I still get so much joy in putting on my music and kicking a ball around, I have put aside my expectations and dreams of stardom, and instead appreciate that warm feeling of happiness and contentment, that comes as I marvel at how much I have learned, and how far I still have to go, every time I do something with the ball.

Nothing or no one can ever take that joy away from me and I know now that it gives me more satisfaction than any external accomplishment ever could.

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