Three-plus years removed from my sports career, it's worth reflecting on trials and lessons from some of my favorite times
I'm not quite the man I was seven years ago. I get sore easy now, weigh twenty-five more pounds, and lack the cardio necessary to sprint up and down the field. I doubt I have the first touch necessary to make a play in the attacking third or beat someone off the dribble, although there is debate whether I ever possessed the latter. I'm rusty on my tactical knowledge and would have to take some time to understand the flow of how the game will go. While I miss being in soccer-shape (I'm sure the notches in my belt miss it more) the fitness and physicality isn't what I miss the most.
If you ask any washed-up athlete, they will probably have the same answer. They miss the locker room and the camaraderie exponentially more than anything else.
When I arrived at school, I was a surefire superstar on the field, at least in my head. Life had a few other plans for me. After being a bigger fish in a smaller pond in West Virginia soccer, I had some misconceptions about the level of competition featured in other places. I perhaps wasn't as talented or as fast as I had seen myself coming out of school. And even though I worked hard, Freshman and Sophomore year featured moments of doubt and frustration. I struggled to see time on the field and dealt with injury. By the end of the Sophomore year and dealing with a broken joint in my foot, I had an idea I would transfer back home. That this wasn't for me.
Who was I supposed to be? Was I someone that had to see the field and be the focus no matter what? How could I contribute to a team that I, at the time, saw no visible impact on? Was it worth having my parents come to games when there was a 50/50 chance I would see the field?
With the help of family and friends, I learned to see another perspective.
Was it worth leaving my friends I had made? Over two years I had made friends on the team that continue to be my brothers to this day, and I hope they remain so for life. Was it worth leaving after I had already sunk hours into my major, and test fate with whether my credits would transfer? I was half way through an engineering program, and even though the market for it was in a tough spot, there is still a chance I could land on my feet.
More importantly, could I deal with being a quitter? Was this too much for me? Was there nothing I could contribute to make this team and myself better at the same time?
I had to figure something out.
A team is never just made of the starters. I thought back to my years with Nate Smith at basketball lessons. A former pro (and a Rhodes Scholar), he told a story that helped me figure it out. While at prep school, he had a teammate that didn't start but every practice pushed him to be better. He gave Nate his best efforts every practice to make him better, and Nate attributed some of his success to how hard that teammate had worked.
Growing up, you always see yourself as the star. You don't realize until its happened to you that you might not be the star of the story, that life might have other plans for the trajectory you will take. You might be the guy making others better.
So, it was up to me, either head home or find a way to improve the team.
I always enjoyed leadership, whether I knew to identify it as actual leadership or not. I was captain in high school for three years, and always as a prominent player on the team. I had to challenge whether it was possible to be a leader and not have great statistical success on the field. Only eleven guys see the field at one time. Who is leading and speaking for the other 13 guys on the roster? They have the same ambitions coming in, and it isn't panning out the way those guys pictured it either. They are essential to have a good practice, a winning attitude, and a huge part of the culture of the program. Many of the guys on the squad won't be stars.
Did this happen easily? No. It took a while.
I am an only child after all, and I had to learn this might not be just about me.
Riding the bus home from a road trip without a dirty uniform isn't easy. It takes work to maintain perspective that it's about the team's success, not just yours. Especially true if you always keep the desire to improve and play. I can think of more than one time I had it out with a friend my age that was a captain, particularly when he told me it wasn't about me. It was tough medicine but I extremely grateful to him for telling me so. Real leadership is telling someone the truth even when they don't want to hear it. Both coach and I had an attitude (not sure if he will admit to that), and we had more than one argument, but we were always closer afterwards. We grew together to build something larger than ourselves. And over my upperclassman years we started to see the vision of what we could be. That made it easier to come to grips with not reaching your initial ambitions playing. It makes it worth it.
With a greater program comes greater recruits. As I improved every year, so did the talent entering into the program. My time on the field stayed the same even though I improved, but the team was better. We had dynamite freshman and younger guys that could really play every year. And other teammates that were my age that also improved made an impact. Egos could collide, but the strong culture we built could stand it. In four years my classmates had helped contribute and build a culture we couldn't have pictured in the beginning. We were seeing results on the field.
Culture doesn't happen in a day. That's why it's so hard and rare to build a winning one. An honest, working culture was also difficult to maintain. It required honesty to ourselves and our teammates, hard work to keep the standard high, and a genuine love for the game and seeing the team succeed.
Riding the pine taught me a lasting lesson for my life. I knew the importance of contributions from the entire team, and how to adjust your own goals and contributions of what you can do best. Of course, some of my favorite memories include the game winners and playoff wins. But what I really reminisce about is the days spent on the practice field BS-ing and kicking the ball around and laughing at our in-team jokes. Those are the days that culture is built, one day at a time.
Anytime I'm asked, I make a joke about my prestigious D-III stats and career. But I follow up that, no question, my time on the team contributed heavily to the person I am today. It led me to an important self-evaluation and built my confidence that I can make an impact, no matter the scenario.
With their season coming around, I'm thinking of Marietta College Soccer and the boys on the team. I hope that whether they're scoring the goals or pushing their teammates in practice, they can find the same joy, camaraderie, and inspiration on the field that I did. I had the time of my life. Those four years go by fast.
Jake Smith is an engineer, son, athlete, scholar, corn chip connoisseur, lover, and "a stand up cat". You can reach him email@example.com