Around this time every year I find myself being nostalgic. From the age of 5 to the age of 22, I played soccer, mostly year-round. But in college, soccer was played in the fall.
That means for 17 years of my almost 25 years, I played “the beautiful game.” The majority of my life was spent playing a sport I love. Soccer is a part of me, and always will be. But imagine something this prominent in your life—then all of the sudden—it stops.
This is something competitive athletes deal with everywhere. You spend years of your life developing a skill, practicing for countless hours, spending weekends on the road to other states, in all kinds of weather, celebrating victories and trying to process tough losses, then it’s over.
At least, this is how it was for me. I played competitive soccer growing up—from age 8. I also played on my high school team—Verdigris High School—and then played at two colleges: The University of Tulsa (TU) and then finished at the University of Central Oklahoma (UCO). But what I didn’t learn in all of my years of training was how to stop playing soccer.
Once my senior year in college concluded in the Division II national tournament, in a game where it literally sleeted the whole first half, I didn’t know what to do with myself. For 17 years, I had spent all available Saturdays, most holidays, and most weeknights playing this game.
The most fun I had playing soccer was in my high school years, on my high school team and on my competitive team. Some of my most cherished moments in life come from travelling with my competitive team.
My parents, my sister and I drove or flew from coast to coast at one point. We drove along Route 66 for a Thanksgiving tournament in sunny San Diego, California, and another November we flew to North Carolina, where we played in below freezing temperatures.
Other memorable trips include spring break tournaments in Las Vegas, the summer we felt like we wouldn’t survived playing in the Baton Rouge heat, and more road trips to Texas than I could ever begin to count. These were my sweetest memories. The girls with whom I grew up playing competitive soccer quickly became family. Our parents all became nearly interchangeable. Together we won eight state championships and competed in regional and national tournaments.
On my high school team, my sister and I got to compete with girls whom we grew up going to school with. I am from a small town in Oklahoma, so again, all of the girls were like family. Our coaches invested into our lives both on the field and off the field. We traveled together, laughed together and won three state championships together, the first our school had ever won in soccer.
Then I entered into the collegiate world of soccer. Here, I had a completely different type of fun. However, the innocence and carefree days of soccer were well behind me. Soccer was now my job. I received scholarships that made it my job. Soccer ruled all. Don’t get me wrong, I still loved soccer all throughout college, but the business aspect of it did take some of the fun away.
In college soccer, I spent 90 percent of my time with my coach and teammates. I did make some of the best friends of my life in college soccer, and even got to play with some of my old competitive soccer teammates.
We won games and tournaments, we traveled together, studied together and picked each other up when the stress of maintaining a high grade point average, performing at our highest potential on the field, and becoming adults in the midst of all of that weighed too heavy on our shoulders. I learned so many valuable life lessons about time management, difficult decision making under pressure, and how to push myself beyond my known limits.
You can only imagine the identity crisis that was waiting for me at the end of my soccer career. Thankfully, however, I learned somewhere in the middle of college, that my identity didn’t lie in soccer. While soccer was so many things for me, it wasn’t the only thing about me. My identity is in Christ.
When I made the decision to transfer from TU to UCO, the Lord had laid this burden on my heart and worked on me for a couple of months. He convicted me on the way to a conference championship game in El Paso, Texas about where I had placed soccer for so long. I hadn’t ignored my walk with Christ. In fact, it was what gave me strength throughout my career when I thought I had nothing more to give. It was what made losing bearable, knowing that my identity was in Christ and not the outcome of a game. But it was time for me to make changes in my life.
The Lord began preparing me for the imminent end of my career as a soccer player. I’m sure it might seem weird that I left a D1 school and went to a D2 school. How I saw it was, sometimes when the Lord stretches us, it hurts. It’s uncomfortable. But it prepared me for the time in my life when I would hang up the cleats.
Once I grasped this concept, that soccer wouldn’t always be the #1 thing in my life, I grew exponentially in other areas. I was able to join the leadership team of the Baptist Collegiate Ministry (BCM) on my campus. This time was a beautiful time of spiritual growth with my Savior. I was able to cultivate relationships outside of my teammates. I was able to devote more time to my studies, which provided valuable opportunities in my desired career path. I took internships. I was able to do things FOR FUN on the weekends, what? All because I took time to prioritize my life for Christ.
I say of all this to offer advice to anyone in any similar situation to what I experienced. Take a look at the thing in your life that you spend the most time doing, the thing you lead with when you introduce yourself to someone, perhaps even the thing you’re most proud of. Do you identify as that, or do you find your identity in Christ? Now imagine that thing being taken from you, or you outgrow it. Will you be able to live with what’s left? If not, turn to Jesus. He is the ultimate sustainer, the ultimate prize in this life. No thing on this earth can offer the grace, peace, hope, satisfaction or joy that a relationship with Him promises.