One of the joys of my high school experience was the camaraderie and sense of belonging I experienced playing on the school soccer team. I was delighted recently to reconnect with a woman who was a couple of years behind me on the team, and even more thrilled to learn that she is now a high school girls’ soccer coach herself. In that role, she has been reaching out to former teammates to speak to her players about what they learned from their own experiences playing soccer. Her question started the wheels turning about what were the three most valuable lessons I learned from playing soccer. Spoiler alert: none of those lessons relate much to soccer at all, they are more about life.
Lesson One: Always run through the line
One of the most terrifying aspects of our soccer training was the conditioning work we did during pre-season and throughout the fall. The most dreaded words when we arrived at practice were: today we are running. However, the single greatest lesson I took from my high school soccer experience was what I learned from running sprints. Never having run sprints before freshman year, it was not only a physical shock, but also a mental shock to encounter conditioning. I can vividly remember the varsity soccer field, one sideline in sun and the far side in shade as we lined up to run our wind sprints the width of the pitch. Those who were naturally fast burned past the rest of us as we made our way across the field – the slower of us jogging the last few feet of the field as we knew we were never going to be first. And then one of our coaches uttered those magical words: “I don’t care how fast you are, sprinting is not about winning. It is about pushing yourself to do your absolute best. You ALWAYS run through the line. I don’t want to see anyone finishing her sprint with a jog.” We did the sprint again and this time, each one of us ran as fast as we could through the sideline, and deep into the shade under the trees, eventually slowing when we felt pine needles underfoot.
You cannot believe how many girls I have uttered those same words to. I have told 4 year olds and I have told 10 year olds to “run through the line.” I have encouraged them to “finish strong.” Each time I say those words, I am reminded of the feeling on that Fall day of finishing my sprint strong, instead of with a jog. Sprinting became about discovering my personal best – not whether I was faster than others, but whether I was running my fastest.
Lesson Two: Let girls play in the rain
The summer before soccer season my senior year of high school, the entire team went to a soccer camp at Dartmouth College. The team roomed together, ate together, played together and formed a bond forged in the fire of intense physicality. We worked hard that week – harder probably than any of us had ever worked our bodies before. Evenings were spent lying on our beds in the dorm with our legs up the wall, draining the newly discovered reality of lactic acid. Our coaches that week were either college coaches or elite college athletes, but other than them, I have little memory of any adults impeding on the sense of collective our team developed. The camp was brutally exhausting and was blissfully freeing. One afternoon that week, rain drenched Hanover, NH in an August rainstorm. We walked back from our afternoon workout soaking wet, from our hair scrunchies down to our Copa Adidas cleats, mud splattered on the backs of our legs and our Umbro soccer socks. I don’t remember who started it, but someone decided to start jumping in the deep puddles in front of our dorm, splattering water and mud on the rest of the team. And then we all joined in – our tired legs finding new life as we smacked the water over and over again, laughing and screaming loudly. As the laughter died down and we dragged our bodies inside the dorm, I remember thinking how unique and joyous that moment had been. No one told us to go inside, to dry off, to stay clean, to behave. We were free to find the wonder in playing in the rain.
Lesson Three: Sometimes sheer determination can be enough
Each soccer season, our respectable prep school soccer team would play an outstanding boarding school team in a “friendly” match. It was typically a humiliating experience in which we were physically outclassed, tactically outmatched and utterly outplayed. Also, for girls who were used to being good at everything and meeting the expectations of our parents, coaches and teachers, we were in an untenable position — there was no way we were going to succeed against this team. One season, the game started with the usual shock and awe, leaving our team flatfooted and intimidated by the girls we faced. And yet, there was one person who was not cowed. My friend Sophie flew through the air, arms and legs flying, going for headers, fighting for 50/50 balls, sliding in for tackles. With sheer determination she kept our team in the game and bit by bit, it caught on. We started fighting harder, winning balls we never thought we would get, picking our heads up. Lest you have any “League of their Own” notions of a Hollywood ending, we still lost that game. But since that day, when I have moments of doubt whether I can push through something, I picture Sophie, a one-woman wrecking machine, and I pick myself up to follow her lead.