April 12, 2018: Fear is a really interesting concept, isn’t it? Fear is sometimes what drives us, and other times, simply, what holds us back.
My biggest regrets in life stem from fear. When I was a senior at Penn State, I was playing on a fractured talus (foot/ankle bone) for 6 months. I wasn’t practicing really, per my doctor’s orders, but I was playing in games. I lost a lot of fitness that year, in what should have been my best year yet. But still, I played, broken foot and all.
After the season, I decided to postpone my surgery to tryout with the Washington Freedom (now the Washington Spirit). I was invited into preseason with the team, and was actually feeling pretty confident after the open tryout. There were some pretty big names on the roster at that point: Abby Wambach, Becky Sauerbrunn, Cat Whitehill, Brianna Scurry. And then there were girls I’d been playing with for years. I went through the first day, feeling a bit overwhelmed, but excited. It was two sessions, each two hours. My foot was bothering me, but it wasn’t anything I hadn’t felt before. I kept on. I got through the second day as well, but I remember on the way there I was starting to feel really intimidated by the players around me, which was new for me. I had played with and against the best players in the world in college, so why was this any different? I was holding my own, but not standing out, and somehow I convinced myself that I was out of my league. I remember feeling that I didn’t want to be embarrassed. And so, the day before the beep test, I walked in, talked to head coach Jim Gabarra, told him I wanted to graduate, get surgery, and try again in a year. No problem he said, get healthy and come back. And I walked away from my first shot at playing professionally.
I got surgery almost immediately at Penn State, and it was pretty invasive. I’d had surgeries before, but they were all pretty minor meniscectomies. This one was more intense.The rehab was painful and took months and months of daily work only to see quick glances of progress. I missed out on a lot, namely, I wasn’t able to go on our team trip to Brazil because our doctor was afraid of blood clotting on the flight. Graduation was coming up and I had no plan for what to do. My coach suggested playing abroad, but I was young, in love (oh, college!) and not really sure moving across the world was the right choice for me.
So there I was, without a plan, and no surprise, without a goal, after months of rehab, I was over it. I didn’t feel motivated to keep working, and of course the soccer world went on without me. It was easier to just give it up, and that was that.
Shortly after my surgery, I got a phone call from a former coach of mine who had just become the Manager at the Philadelphia Independence. He asked if I’d be interested in playing with them. I explained I had just undergone surgery, and I was pretty sure I was done with soccer… at the ripe age of 21. “Call me if you change your mind,” he said. I knew I wouldn’t.
This photo was taken around then. Current starting USWNT keeper and Penn State teammate Alyssa Naeher and me both nursing some injuries and Hollister tees. Gotta love 2009.
Anyway, time passed, and I didn’t touch a ball (literally) for a year. Because I didn’t know what to do, I decided to get my Master’s in Exercise Science, and move on with my life. Planning my degree was a nice little distraction, but in fact, when friends of mine were signing contracts to play domestically and abroad, I was so envious that I couldn’t be happy for them. It was pretty ugly of me, and looking back, I can see how ashamed I felt.
That whole summer, I couldn’t watch Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS, which is what the NWSL was at the time), because it made me sick to my stomach that I wasn’t playing anymore. On the inside, I was dying, but on the outside, I was “happy to be finished,” and knew “I made the right decision.” Ugh. The lies we tell to fool the world.
A year after my surgery, almost to the date, I knew preseason was starting for the women's league again. Completely unprovoked, I picked up the phone, called that coach from the Philadelphia Independence, and said I wanted a go at it. During my spring break for grad school, I traveled to Philly and stayed with my then-boyfriend’s family for the week. I met with the coaches and they were really great. Understanding I had barely run, let alone play soccer in a year, they were comfortable with me taking my time getting back into training. They were even flexible around my grad school. I could load classes up Monday-Wednesday, and then head up to Philly Thursday to Friday. It was a perfect setup. I got my practice kit, laced up for the first time in a long time, and set out on the dream again.
Once again, as if it was déjà vu, we had two sessions, each a couple hours long. The other girls had been training for a few weeks, and I was not in my best shape, nowhere near it. I remember working with the defenders and feeling a step or two or three off. One of my closest friends was on the roster as well, and while having her there was helpful, I felt completely intimidated and utterly alone. Professional soccer in the US isn't the same as club or college. Everyone is out for a job, and at the end of the day, everyone is looking out for numero uno. My ankle, after not having been used much in a year, was sore and overworked. After going home for the evening, I sat on the bed and I started sobbing. I called the coach and told him I was no longer interested, and while I blamed it on my foot being swollen, the truth was that I was terrified. That right there. That moment. It is the biggest regret of my entire life. Sitting on that bed and making that phone call. He didn't understand, and really neither did I. I returned the gear. I hung up my cleats (and my dreams) for what I thought was forever. And it was all because of fear. Fear of failing. Fear of being the worst player on the team. Fear of being at the bottom. Fear of the unknown.
Fear kills far more dreams than failure ever will.
It has been eight years since those couple of days with the Independence, and just writing about it makes me sad, because I think about what could have been. A lot has changed since then. My ego has been bruised, and my pride has been chipped away more than once. I have tried out for two other professional teams (the Breakers 2016, and the Brisbane Roar 2017in Australia) and didn’t make either. Both times I still feel like I could have, but that’s another story 😜 But ultimately, that road led me to IK Uppsala, and I am so happy that it did.
The truth is, fear is unavoidiable, so as often as I can, I say…. “F” FEAR. (Let’s keep it PG here, but you all know what I am thinking). It’s true that the longer you avoid your fear, the stronger it becomes, and instead of putting it off, you should look fear straight in the eye and run toward it.
I think a lot of athletes fear failing, so many of us stay in our comfort zones. I’ve mentioned before (and be sure I will mention again) that I am not the most technical player on the field, in fact, I am far from it. My style of play is pretty different than most of my Swedish teammates. I am a soldier and not an artist (shout out Ann & Erica!) if you catch my drift? I had a meeting with my coach on Tuesday, and he agreed. I am a damn good defender. I know that. And I know I will kill myself trying to win. And when teammates may feel like they can’t keep fighting, I will be there. And I am really proud of this, but sometimes, yes sometimes, it can be really difficult for me when 17 of our players can easily execute a pass or have a perfect first touch or something that may be more challenging for me to do. I am at the point where it’s really easy for me to joke “oh, yeah, I can’t make that pass,” or “believe me, you don’t want me dribbling up the field.” But WHY? Why am I so comfortable putting myself down like that? I’ll tell you. It’s a defense mechanism. It's better to call yourself out than to have someone else do it. It’s much easier to just admit I’m not good at something, and act like I am okay with it. This way, I am not vulnerable if someone notices my inadequacies, and I can avoid the discomfort altogether. Make sense?
But I can’t really do that anymore, because I want to play at a higher level. And playing at a higher level means that enough bad decisions will lose your starting position, and I’ll be damned if I spend my time in Sweden on the bench. So now, I am doing things differently. I still make it perfectly clear to teammates that technique is my weakness, because I want to be honest, but instead of just accepting that, I am working on it. I show up for extra training, and I embarrass myself in front of my coach time and time again. I shake my head in disappointment, audibly sigh, kick at the ground, and try again. It’s humbling. It’s frustrating. But… it’s getting better.
I was voicing the test in confidences to my friend and former teammate Sarah, who has been playing professionally now for like 10 years… so she is basically a guru. She said to me this little phrase which I will keep with me for the rest of my playing career: “I may not be the best player, but I am the right player.” Profound, right? I have a purpose on this team, and maybe sometimes I will lose a ball or make a bad pass, but when you’re in the trenches and you need someone to rise up and do the thankless work (slide tackling, a full field sprint chasing down a breakaway, taking a ball to the face to block a shot, or winning a header to clear a defensive corner with an elbow to the face, etc.), I am your girl! And I can be that player and STILL work on my technique. I don’t have to choose one and not the other.
One other quick sports-related fear I have is box jumps. In 2016, two weeks before trying out for the Boston Breakers, I lost focus and stumbled the box I was working on. My shin jammed into the metal and I remember looking down and seeing a lot of blood. It’s OK, I thought to myself, just a small cut. But when the trainer ran over and said “Umm, Jessie, we can see your bone,” I was rushed to urgent care and got 14 stiches on the spot. This is two years later, and I haven't done a box jump since. I refused. When starting conditioning at a new gym this winter, I went so far as to tell my trainer that I would do anything but box jumps, so don’t even try it. Comfort zone remains intact!! Alas, I arrived to Sweden, and what awaited me at our conditioning session? A damn box. I can’t do it, I thought to myself. I won’t. And if I had to do it, I would not pick a height that I could fail at. And I didn’t. I avoided the tall box for weeks before finally someone suggested I just try it.
“No no no, you don’t know my history with box jumps… it is really bad!!” I lobbied. But just try it, they urged. We will hold the box for you so you feel comfortable. Nothing like some good old peer pressure to get you going, am I right? And so, two years of avoiding my fear, I jumped. And I didn’t fall. And I didn’t bust my leg back open. It wasn’t perfect, and I did stumble a few times. It defeninitely didn’t make me feel super athletic, but I found that the only times I did mess up was when my mind started tricking me into being scared again. It was then that my teammate Lana said that the last thing you think before your action is what happens, so if mine is “I’m not going to make this jump,” guess what? I ain’t making it. Instead, she said, think “I am giong to land on the box.” And wouldn’t you know it? That worked. Change your brain, change your outcome.
I guess what I am saying is that fear is only as strong as you make it. Your mind is a powerful thing, and you have the ability to outsmart yourself. As Baz Luhrmann said in ‘Everybody’s Free to Wear Sunscreen,’ circa 1999, quoting Eleanor Roosevelt, “do one thing every day that scares you.”
And I challenge you to that. Because hiding in fear will never move you forward, not as a person, nor as a player, and I can say with full confidence, most importantly, that on the other side of fear is freedom.
Peace, love and football.