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The importance of belonging

In order to experience the true elation of belonging, one must first experience the true isolation of feeling alone. And that I have done. For years. Throughout my collegiate years, and even prior to that, I struggled to feel like I belonged anywhere. In high school, I was what some might call a “floater” – I floated between friend groups; between the “nerds”, the “hip” kids, the “jocks”, and the ESL (English as a second language) students. I always felt different. Looking back I realise I was struggling internally with my sexuality and I had no one who could relate - I didn’t have a mentor; someone who could sense my struggle and offer solace, comfort, an escape. I had soccer though, and that acted as an escape for most of my life. I was surrounded around individuals who were also passionate about soccer and who were predominately oriented in a direction other than “straight”. But even then, I floated between groups at soccer. It was hard to find individuals who not only shared the same passion and drive for soccer, but also for academics. People who had a thirst for knowledge. Who would devote their recess and lunch times, their leisure times, to studying and homework so that they could succeed on the field without distraction. Individuals who had depth. Individuals who yearned to understand people, behaviour, life. Individuals who cared about the world and not who was sleeping with who. Yeah, I have struggled to find those kind of people.

College was worse. I was teamed with individuals who didn’t even share the same drive for soccer let alone academics. These individuals cared about nothing other than themselves. Many of them played collegiate soccer simply because it paid for their education. Meanwhile, I travelled halfway across the world to pursue this dream, this passion and I had no one to share that with. For four years, I was tortured with feelings of loneliness. Of frustration. Of disappointment. I had always been on a team that was actually a team. A family. A family in which each individual cared for their sister. A family in which socialising outside of organised practices was the norm. Sleepovers occurred on the regular. And no not that kind of lezbifriend sleepover. But my college team? The only time we ever hung out voluntarily was if there was food or alcohol involved. Otherwise, we were all just convenient acquaintances.

It’s impossible to excel in an environment like this. Why? For those of you familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, you might know why. Essentially Maslow’s hierarchy of needs suggests that in order to reach one’s self-actualisation, or excellence as I like to call it, a series of essentials need to be fulfilled and in a specific order too (please refer to the bottom of this paragraph for a diagram reference). So at the base of the pyramid is physiological needs. Individuals need food, water, sleep, and sex to function. Pretty straightforward right? Next is safety – in order to obtain any of the higher categories, an individual needs to feel safe and secure as it pertains to living situations or financial situations. Next is love and belongingness. Evidently an individual can’t really feel like they belong if they don’t initially feel safe. Makes sense right? An individual though, cannot function with confidence and thus is prevented from reaching their excellence if they do not fulfil this sense of belongingness. Belongingness pertains to connecting with others, fulfilling a purpose, and being seen. It’s essentially a feeling of being a part of something greater than oneself and for many, that is fulfilled by their belief in Christ.

For four years, I fought with my coach to alter our team’s culture to create one that fulfilled this requirement. I encouraged my teammates to spend time getting to know one another outside of the realms of practice and travel. To invest in one another like family. To check in with each other, emotionally, on the regular. And I actively implemented many of these suggestions. I would take teammates out for coffee. I would organise care packages for injured teammates. I would write anonymous notes to not just my teammates, but to my trainer too. I acknowledged each individual on the team, particularly the freshmen because I knew the importance of feeling like they belonged. And what did I receive from my teammates? I received nothing. When I was injured and unable to drive, which was quite often, I would frequently reach out to my teammates to ask for a ride. And they would never reply. I stood alone in meetings when I spoke openly about the problems on our team. The problems these individuals had formerly come to me to complain about, but then silenced themselves when I attempted to implement change. Fear. They were scared to lose playing time. This was a team that called themselves a family for four years. A team that thought the mere definition of family was just sharing the same space. A team that was never a family. A team that never reached their potential or excellence because they could never fulfil that essential requirement of making every individual feel like they were loved and belonged. A team that drove me to my darkest days. A team full of individuals. A team that was never really a team.

And from my coach, I was ignored when I shared bullying texts, tweets, and posts, with some even containing threats and an additional death threat, from one of my teammates. I was made to believe that this individual who was threatening me and bullying me was more important to the team than my life. I could never feel like I belonged when my safety wasn’t even guaranteed. So naturally, I don’t think I ever reached my excellence in college. At least not with soccer.

Academically I met some phenomenal people. And that saved me. I met like-minded individuals. Individuals who were as passionate about their education as I was and who empathised with my struggles. Individuals who invested in me. Who saw me. Who challenged me. Individuals who shared that same yearning for depth and understanding. I have been extremely fortunate with some of the beautiful individuals who have crossed my paths over the years, in high school and in college. Individuals who have contributed to a sense of belongingness, who have ultimately contributed to helping me reach my excellence as a student, a player, and as a person.

So why am I sharing this with you at this time? Because recently, I have been overwhelmed with these feelings of belongingness. About a month ago, I joined two indoor soccer teams and two tennis teams, essentially not knowing anyone on any of the teams. I was blindsided as to what to expect. As some of you know, I celebrated my birthday on Thursday. Thursday being lady’s tennis day and lady’s indoor soccer day. I was greeted with a stunningly beautiful birthday cake and a balloon and many happy birthdays. All from ladies I had only met twice before. I was overwhelmed by their generosity. Not only did they remember, but they each went out of their way to actively ensure it was indeed a special day for me. And they succeeded. These ladies have readily welcomed me to their team and are so sweet with their encouragement and support, even when I am hitting every ball into the net or over the fence. I’m sensitive to energies, and I really vibe the energy I receive from all of them. They are all seemingly kind-hearted and generous individuals who just want to have fun and enjoy themselves, drama free. My kind of people.

At night, I experienced similar generosity. When I first met these ladies, “The Lady Bugs”, I anticipated that I would need to “prove” myself to them to earn a spot on the field. After all, they had no idea who I was or how I played so that seemed reasonable to me. But that’s not what happened. When we played in our 11v11 tournament last weekend, I assumed that I would be starting on the bench, again, because I was new. But one of the girls said, “Nicole, what are you doing? You’re on the field let’s go.” Immediately after meeting these girls, I felt a part of their team. There is no cattiness on the team, nor is there any seniority. Just one big family. These individuals trusted me and had confidence in my ability to play without ever seeing me play before. And for my birthday, one of the girls ensured that I enjoyed myself and purchased my “weak” alcoholic beverages. It’s almost ironic because I hardly know these girls, yet I feel a part of a family. I feel like I belong. And that’s all because of the inclusive culture they have consciously created. We’re all united by the same thing – soccer. But more than that, we all share the same passion. Most, if not all, are former collegiate players who cannot ever get enough of this sport. Additionally, they all seemingly share the same love and light-heartedness for life. One individual in particular has such a contagiously positive energy in which she laughs and smiles at everything. Doc as they call her. And another who is an extremely straight-shooter, someone who I look up to despite not even knowing her, an engineer with an evidently high IQ. And the mother of the team – the one who generously purchased my drinks. She goes above and beyond to ensure everyone feels included and is looked after. A real caring, compassionate, considerate soul. A nurturer. And, the heart of the team.

So what is the point of all this ramble? The point is to emphasise the importance of feeling like you belong. If you ever want a teammate, a child, a parent, your players, your employees or even yourself to ever reach your excellence, you must first establish a culture in which the individual feels like they belong. That they are loved and cared for. That they are important merely because they are them which is entirely independent of their abilities. I have suffered significantly over the years because I have lacked this feeling of belongingness. I have felt misunderstood. Frustrated. Irritable. Angry. Alone. And no matter how at peace I was within myself, those feelings never subsided until I removed myself from the environment that evidently failed to serve me. I am now, however, overwhelmed with love and belongingness from a variety of different environments. I am continually having interactions with tables in which I felt seen and heard, I am playing for teams that are not just individuals occupying the same space, but families. I exert confidence in all that I do because my family is larger than my blood-relatives. And I am one step closer to self-actualisation because of it.

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