Across all the different sports I’ve played, all the different teams I’ve played for, I’ve gathered quite the collection of clothes and equipment. Shirts from spring hockey tournaments, jackets from all-star teams, skis that don’t fit anymore, and four years’ worth of college shirts, shorts, sweatpants, hats etc. My jerseys are tucked away in another box for safe keeping, my hockey gear is still packed in its bag, and my old soccer cleats hang from a hook on the basement wall. They are tokens of memories I am not ready to let go of, despite the space they take up in the drawers of my childhood bedroom.
Most of it I haven’t worn or looked through for years, but every so often I take my cleats down off the wall. Sometimes on sunny days when I’m sure nothing could bring me more joy than being outside with a ball at my feet, sometimes in lost moments when I feel that pull to reconnect with the little girl in me who played the game with such passion. My feet slide into their worn shape and fit together like the perfect handshake – hello again… been a while. I walk out to a patch of grass and begin to juggle.
The game of soccer instilled in me a confidence I have yet to replicate anywhere in my life. The Brazilians I idolized as a child call it Joga Bonita – the beautiful game. And they play with ginga – a smooth confidence that shines in everything they do. Ginga is daring to pull that cheeky move on a defender, trying a nutmeg or bicycle kick, and playing with unabashed creativity. Seeing them play so free-spirited you can’t help but be filled with a sense of awe.
My feet never danced like theirs do, but when I stepped on a field I felt that spark of confidence rush through me. With a ball at my feet, I was invincible. Being marked man-on-man or double teamed was just a fun challenge to me – a puzzle to solve on how to use my skills, my space, and my teammates. My voice conducted the movement of the team, speaking loudly, clearly, and self-assured. I fought for every possession, never losing a battle, never backing down from the chance to take my shot.
Sometimes I wonder where she went – that bold little girl.
The one who thought she’d be the next Mia Hamm, or better yet, the next Abby Wambach. The one who cut her hair short to look like her idols and didn’t care what her classmates said the next day. The one who only judged her legs by how much power they could put into a kick or how fast they could run. The one who wasn’t afraid to speak up because she knew her perspective on the field had value.
When I was just learning to play, I’d practice juggling. I’d count each touch – one, two, three – trying to beat my record every time. Eight touches without a bounce was an accomplishment, then it was twelve, twenty, fifty. Now I juggle not with a goal in mind, but just to escape. It’s how I keep soccer in my life. A life that as I’ve grown older has evolved to be fast paced, pressure driven, stress filled, and anxiety prone. Juggling is how I reconnect with the carefree girl I used to be, before the world told me who I should be. The rhythm and familiarity of the movements bring my busy mind to a single focus: keep the ball in the air.
Forget the doubts – keep the ball in the air.
Forget the fears – keep the ball in the air.
Forget the expectations, the guilt, the judgements – keep the ball in the air.
Across all the different sports I’ve played soccer will always hold my heart, my innocence, and my optimism. And somewhere behind the athlete I’ve become, the hours of practice, and the coaches who’ve pushed me, really is a little girl who fell in love with the game. I play for her.