*Warning, this article contains discussions around mental health.The author of this article is not a medical professional and would therefore encourage any readers who have been affected by this content to get in touch with the mental health and suicide prevention charity CALM. Their contact details are at the bottom of the article*
Being a student-athlete comes with the excitement and added responsibility of performing your best on the field and in the classroom. If you’re lucky you’ll step foot on the field in your freshman year doing your best to make a good first impression on your coaches, teammates, and the occasional critic.
This article is part 3 of a 3 part series. Part 1 available here (https://www.fcnotalone.com/an-american-student-athlete-retrospective) and part 2 available here (https://www.fcnotalone.com/an-american-student-athlete-retrospective-2) is an introduction to my experience as an American Student-Athlete trying to find a path to professional soccer (sorry, football)!
Year 4: Bittersweet
I entered my senior year with an added sense of motivation. At a personal level, I wanted to end my college career on a high note, and at the team level, we had set the goal of making it back to the CAA championship and hopefully earning a spot in the NCAA tournament. Having been named one of the two team captains, I felt this year, more so than others, the commitment and the mental toughness to deal with anything that came my way. Another year older and another year wiser, we hit the ground running and found another level of focus and determination with our core group of guys. We made national headlines after knocking off #1 UNC, #23 Elon, and #1 Creighton in the span of 10 days, earning a spot in the RPI top 25 – the real litmus test when looking to get an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. We hit our groove as we readied up for the CAA championship as the number 2 seed in the conference.
Around the same time I was dealing with a toxic relationship that consumed most of my thoughts off the field. I turned to soccer to deal with the turmoil going on in my day-to-day, and while it didn’t solve any of the problems, it served as a safe place to express myself and take out my frustration and confusion. I blame myself for the weeks, months, and years that would ensue, but I wish I had somewhere, or someone, to turn to to help me figure out how to better deal with a very normal occurrence in college – relationships. I thank my friends and family for helping me through those tough times, but I was stubborn back then and often took the easy way out instead of the path that would ultimately lead to better long term mental health. If I had more of this self awareness back then, to think critically about my actions and the consequences that would follow, I would have been able to better deal with the heartache and the headaches that would extend well beyond my senior year of college.
A week before the conference tournament I suffered from a high ankle sprain that put my availability in question for the last two games of the season; the conference semi-final and final. I was gutted that I couldn’t be out there with my teammates, depressed because I had just broken up with my girlfriend, and scared that I had played my last competitive game ever. Fortunately, we were confident our record against ranked teams would get us an at-large bid, but nothing was guaranteed, especially when the decision was in the hands of the NCAA. I opted to rest those last two games to recover from the high ankle sprain and a hamstring injury and while we lost the conference final, we ended up hosting George Mason University in the first round of the NCAA tournament. What began as one of the most electric atmospheres in my collegiate career, ended in tears. That game would be our last as the class of 2014 and just like that, after 15 years of sacrifice, commitment, and hard work, my soccer career was over.
I didn’t touch a soccer ball for 8 months following that game and while I was burnt out from doing what I loved, I had to quickly shift into interview mode to find a job in finance. After a few months of working the front desk at an architecture firm near campus, job hunting and questioning my own worth and ability, I got a job at a well respected investment consultancy in the DC metro area. From there, I thought closing one chapter of my life and starting another would be exciting, but once reality set in, that next chapter was the hardest of my life.
If you ask any of my closest friends, they’ll tell you this is a pretty realistic timeline of events that made up some of the best 4 years of my life. And while I look back on that time and appreciate all the little moments, the people I met, and the memories we made, I wish I had developed the skills to better deal with the “real life” challenges of earning a paycheck, working a mundane 9-5, and figuring out life without soccer. These are the things college doesn’t teach you and even if I had learned just 10% of what I know now, I would have been able to better deal with the high and lows of life as they came and not after the fact.
The best life lesson I learned in college wasn’t from a professor, or a textbook. It was from Coach Norris. “Guys, this season is all about keeping an even keel. Not getting too high. Not getting too low. We need to find that middle path of energy and determination because the only way we’ll accomplish our goals are if we’re consistent.” I think it’s easy to be happy when things are going well, but a true test of character is how you deal with adversity and bring yourself back to that middle ground. As the great Kobe Bryant once said, “There’s no greater metaphor for life than sports itself. The fact that we can have a collection of athletes that come from different backgrounds, with different beliefs, different political views, but yet can figure out a way to understand each other, how to work well with each other towards a common goal … there’s no better metaphor for life than that”.
I believe we need more of this in the world. And if we can get our youth to understand themselves, their emotions, and how to better manage those emotions, we’ll leave the world better off than we found it.