Since the 1970s, millions of girls have grown up playing soccer, and I was one of them. I’ve been a fan of, or been a player for almost my entire life — and the life lessons I’ve learned from soccer are ones that I’ll never forget. And despite all the recent scandal surrounding FIFA, I hope you’re as pumped as I am for the 2015 Women’s World Cup.
Soccer is the most popular sport in the world, with millions of players and billions of fans. Some of my earliest memories involve watching my dad run up and down the pitch and kicking around a mini soccer ball on the sidelines. And when it was my time to play, my dad was my coach and biggest supporter. Even though it’s been years since I’ve kicked the ball around, I’ll never stop loving the "beautiful game," both as a player and as a fan. I learned so much about myself during my playing years, and I’m not sure what kind of person I’d be today without all those practices, all-star tournaments, and half-time snacks.
So in the spirit of supporting the U.S. Women's National Team during the World Cup, here are the most important things playing soccer taught me.
1. It’s OK to stand up for yourself
Soccer is not generally thought of as a “contact sport,” but things can get physical from time to time. There’s a lot of elbowing and shouldering when you’re going for the ball, you can get side tackled, and even full-on slammed into during a game. Usually, the referee will catch anything too rough and issue warnings or cards — but if they don’t, you have to stand up for yourself.
I’m not talking about tattling to the ref about a hard elbow, I’m talking about turning to the other player face-to-face and telling them to knock it off. For a shy teenager like me, these were scary, but necessary, moments. One game, a girl on the opposite team kept pulling the hair, elbowing, and pushing one of our players. After the ref didn’t do anything to stop her, our player turned around and shoved the girl to the ground. She got a red card, but she made her point — my dad high fived her secretly later for standing up to the unsportsmanlike conduct.
2. Ponytails are the best
Hey, this is an important life lesson too, guys. The majority of my soccer days were spent sweaty and dirty and tired, so ponytails were my best friends. I’ve worn my hair in ponytails so much, that it’s kind of my go-to style. Maybe I just have a good head for ponytail rocking, or I’m just so used to seeing myself with one, but wearing my hair like that always makes me feel sporty and chill.
3. Soccer really is about teamwork and the team
I’ve had the pleasure of playing alongside a lot of super talented players during my soccer days. It’s always inspiring to play with people who have such a natural talent for the game that they could score a dozen goals by themselves, save every shot fired at them, or dribble the length of the field without stopping. But even the most talented players need teammates.
I played AYSO soccer for years, so every team had a mix of talented players, mid-range players, and players who were less than stellar. But everyone had to play, so we all had to learn to play together. It was always nice when our talented players scored, but there are few things more rewarding than tackling a teammate who’d never even touched a soccer ball before the season started after they’d scored.
4. It really doesn’t matter who wins as long as you tried your best
I know this seems like something your parents told you after you lost a game, but it’s true. I mean, I think we all would prefer to win, but sometimes it’s just not in the cards. I had to learn that sometimes, a lot of the times, I’d be playing against girls and teams who were just better than I was. Maybe they were bigger, faster, had been playing longer, whatever — as long as I tried my very best, I had nothing to be ashamed of.
One year, my team made it all the way to the regional tournament as a wild card. We ended up making it all the way to the championship — and got beat 12-2. But I know that every person on our team gave everything she had, and we celebrated our second place victory as if we had won the whole darn thing. Losing sucks, but losing because you gave up or didn’t try your hardest is even worse.
5. You'll never forget your “soccer friends”
Anyone who’s played soccer knows what I mean. I played soccer with some girls for years and some for just one season, but we’d always be soccer friends. We were friends on the field and during the season, but it wasn’t like we hung out at school or had sleepovers or went to the movies on weekends.
This is especially true if you played all-star or club soccer, because you were spending every weekend for months with these people — it was hard not to feel bonded to them. Your soccer friends stayed with you through losing, through injuries, through tough games, and we definitely got into a bunch of shenanigans together. To this day, there are still a few people I’m friends with on Facebook or Instagram simply because we played soccer together 10 years ago.
6. Practice doesn’t make you perfect, but it does make you better
My dad is probably one of the most naturally talented soccer players I’ve ever seen. Me? Not so much. I had to work really hard to master ball control, to shoot accurately, to instinctually put myself in between an opposing player and the goal. Academics had always come easy for me, and when soccer didn’t, it was a hard lesson about the value of practice. I was never the best player on my teams, but I always tried hard and practiced a lot — and eventually I got better.
7. Every second counts, so never give up
As I mentioned, soccer taught me to always try my best. Soccer also taught me that a game could change in a second, so never, ever give up. You could play all 90 minutes in a scoreless game, and all it takes is one perfect pass or one dumb mistake to turn a whole game around. That’s why we’re taught to always follow up on a blocked goal, to chase down an opponent even after they’ve dribbled around you, and to always keep your head up, even if you’ve never scored a goal before. Every second might not matter in a job interview or when taking a test, but never giving up on something you’re passionate about is always good advice.
8. You will make mistakes, and you will get rejected
The first time I ever scored an own goal during a game, I cried. We were already losing the game and I felt so bad that I had added to it, but I still had another quarter to play. I remember my dad and my teammates giving me hugs and telling me it was OK, and I tried my best to finish the game with my head held high. When I made the B Team instead of A Team in All-Star soccer, I felt like a failure. But that’s life. As humans, we’re gonna make mistakes and we’re gonna get rejected every once in a while. It’s always sucky at the time, but you come out strong for it — on and off the field.
9. Positive encouragement is a better motivator than negative
My dad was my coach for many years, and I always appreciated that he never yelled at us. Sure, he yelled during the game, but it was always positive things like, “That’s great, keep running!” or “Pass to Maura!” The only people he ever yelled at were the refs if they made a bad call or didn’t notice when one of us was hurt. I admit that I pushed myself because I wanted to impress my dad (though he was proud of me regardless), but the other girls wanted to be better players because they liked my dad as a coach. We had girls every year specifically ask to be put on our team because my dad inspired them with his positive approach to coaching. I had a coach one year for All-Stars who was, well, less than positive — and I didn’t work as hard. Telling people what they do right — even if it’s just one thing — is generally a better motivator than telling them all the things they did wrong.
10. Orange slices are the worst
I haven’t touched an orange in years thanks to season after season of orange slices at half time. Some people really enjoy sucking on a stringy, pulpy, wad of fruit — but I sure as heck don’t. Give me a granola bar any day.
Images: Giphy (10)