“If you can dream — and not make dreams your master…” -- Rudyard Kipling
[THE PITCH: Blog 33] When I was 14 years old, I played this game with myself. On the spur of the moment, I would come up with a personal challenge -- if I can stop that ball before it crosses the line … if I can jump over three cracks in the street … if I can swim to the end of the pool in the next minute -- I’ll win the USYSA Golden Boot Award and a national championship with Slammers, my club team. None of these mini-trials helped build the skills I would need to achieve my goal. None of these small self-set dares even proved that I had what it takes to succeed. I knew this, but I played anyway, hoping that a greater force would send me a signal…
At 14, my soccer goals were my life; my life force. With each inhale I breathed in new hope, and with each exhale I let go of some of my insecurity as I got closer to achieving my goals. Winning meant I was a winner. Falling short meant I was a loser, as simple as that. I still have the slip of paper from a Panda Express fortune cookie I opened before that year’s Cal South State Cup finals. It reads, “A tropical destination is in your near future.” I remember, vividly, our team manager “crowning” us with beautiful orchid leis after the regional finals in Hawaii. We ran our winning streak all spring, traveling from State Cup in California to Nike Cup in Oregon, to Regionals on Oahu, with a stop in Gothenburg, Sweden, for The Gothia Cup World Championships, then directly to the National Championships in Maryland.
Having “all of my dreams come true” that summer was a magical and unparalleled experience in my life. We were winners! I expected the world to stop to give us time to celebrate our triumph, and for a moment, my little world did stop. My coach jumped up and down. My dad cried. My mom danced. And my team did all three while singing in a huddle, “We are the champions!” I also remember that on the flight home, I had the strangest feeling. Is that it? If all my dreams had come true, what do I do now? Back to school there was homework and exams. Winning was supposed to change everything. Monday came around, but it was just another Monday.
Over the years, I’ve won a lot … I’ve lost a lot. And my National Championship dream would take an even bigger stage at the NCAA National Championships. It seems that at 19, my goals in soccer were still my life. In my third year of college I threw up the night before the NCAA tournament started; I was so nervous. I remember crying, out of both frustration and relief, after almost every game we played that season. But cry does not begin to explain what I did after we lost both my junior and senior year in the finals … Oh Kipling … If only I knew then.
That final loss also marked the end of my career at Stanford -- no more chances to win with this group of teammates … of friends. Sorrow appears as a much more intense emotion than bliss. In my despair I felt that, surely, the world would pause now … not to celebrate but to mourn. But when Monday rolled around, it was just another Monday. With the passage of time, we get older … not necessarily wiser. Battle scars and trophies are proof that “we were there.” But they somehow fail to validate the experience in a way that is meaningful, let alone profound. So, how do we determine what really matters? I’m not positive, but I’m pretty sure the answer lies closer to that scar on my right shin than on the shelf next to my trophies (which, of course, my dad has collected, shined, and displayed in his bar in the living room.)
After 16 years of a rigorous formal education, you would think I would be able to understand these complex matters … ha! Maybe it’s true that all we need to know we learned in kindergarten. Hmmm … I recently read the children’s classic, Le Petit Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, which illuminates my point … simply but wonderfully. In the story, the little prince encounters a king, a drunkard, a vain man, and a businessman. Each one was busy trying to prove himself by doing his respective job of ruling, drinking, garnishing admiration, acquiring wealth … scoring goals, winning games. In their quest for success, they all seemed to have lost track of their purpose, the true meaning of their tasks. Their identity was so tied up in their work that they had forgotten how to live outside their work.
Ironically, in a moment of self-actualization the little prince discovers that dedication, even to a futile task, is what gives things their value. He states to a bed of identical roses, “You’re not at all like my rose … You’re lovely, but you’re empty. One couldn’t die for you. Of course, an ordinary passerby would think my rose looked just like you. But my rose, all on her own, is more important that all of you together, since she’s the one I’ve watered. Since she’s the one I sheltered behind a screen. Since she’s the one I listened to when she complained, or when she boasted, or even sometimes when she said nothing at all. Since she’s my rose.”
While scoring goals and winning games are lovely to look at, those “roses” are empty on their own. I’ve realized that the emotional aftermath of big wins is the same as the emotional fallout of big losses … temporary. What actually sustains and enriches is the effort put forth … the investment. After 14 years of youth soccer, four years of college, and (almost) two years as a professional, I still must try hard to not allow my football dream to be my master. After all, my career is not my identity; but my goals are important to me because I’ve watered them … I’ve tended them. That said, from winning I’ve learned to dream big and rejoice freely and from losing I’ve learned to how to get up, brush myself off, and forgive. Assimilating these lessons is how I can still play the game … the application of these lessons off the pitch … priceless.
The end is near! Last Sunday marked our final home Damallsvenskan match this season. The air at Valhalla has begun to feel the same way it did when I arrived in Sweden last February -- crisp, cold, chilling. The blow dryers have been brought into the locker room to warm-up our toes. And while the end seems to resemble the beginning in a lot of ways, the once unfamiliar turf now feels like the only truly comfortable stomping grounds for my worn-out cleats… and now I can actually pronounce Valhalla (sometimes.)
Our match versus Örebro might seem of little importance. We weren’t gunning for gold, and we had Champions league the following Wednesday to worry about. But its insignificance in league standings allowed me to concentrate on another aspect of my football experience. After nine months, I am now familiar with this field that has become my weekly battleground, at ease in the locker room that has become my home away from home, and comfortable with my teammates that have become my friends … my fotbollsfamilj.
I never thought I would say that 0 degrees Celsius, artificial turf, shorts hanging down to my knees, a hair-sprayed bun jutting out of my head, being the lone forward in a 4-5-1 formation, and pre-game talks in Swedish, would be normal to me, but on Sunday, they were. They are. And with that thought, I am committed to finishing the season with a smile on my face … no matter which way the cold wind blows.
Final score: Kopparberg Göteborg FC 2 – KIF Örebro DFF