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The ugly side of sports

Our society operates on the premise that if you work hard enough, you can achieve anything you want. But there’s a fundamental flaw in this belief: not everything is within your control. And choosing to believe the former can royally fuck you up. Because when you don’t achieve whatever it is you’ve invested your whole life into achieving, you’re likely to internalise and conclude that maybe you’re just not good enough. But that might not necessarily be reality. Because there’s a reality that exists beyond your control, beyond your work ethic, and beyond your attitude. And it’s called timing. And it’s called opportunity. And it operates on the fact that life just fucking sucks sometimes.

I moved back to Australia a year ago to pursue my dream of playing soccer at a professional level. For the past ten years, I’ve been trying to break into the Adelaide United W-league squad, but timing has never been on my side. When I was 16, I missed out on playing for Australia in the World Cup Qualifiers for the Young Matildas because I got glandular fever (mono) a month before we travelled. I wasn’t too disappointed though, because I thought, “Well, at least this happened in Year 11 and not in my final year of school.” I was young. I had plenty of years of playing ahead of me. So I took this obstacle in stride, saw the silver lining, and kept moving. I then wasn’t chosen for Adelaide United because I didn’t play for Australia, yet the two teammates who were my age and went away, did. No big deal though, there’s always next year.

Next year came around and the same coach overlooked me because he wanted six feet tall, quick defenders. I was neither. What he didn’t realise though was what I lacked in speed, I made up for in anticipation. But that was irrelevant – he wanted specific central defenders and I didn’t fit that mould. Fuck this, I thought, I’ll move to America. And so I did. And the year I moved, the coach promoted all of these younger players, many of whom I had previously played with. No worries, I thought, I’m on my own path and wasn’t going to wait around for something that could have been; I’m going to make something happen for myself.

I get to America and I’m a starting freshman. I’m playing well and playing every minute of every game. I receive an award for “defensive player of the week”, score my first goal, and then I tear my acl less than a week later. I was pretty devastated, but I was optimistic. This is good, I thought, this will make me appreciate running, playing, and working hard even more than I did. My sophomore year, I worked my fucking ass off to make up for what I lost in the ten and a half months I was out, only to sit on the bench for half the season because my coach didn’t like the fact I told him I wasn’t ready to play when he wanted me to. My assistant coach and volunteer coach, who I both worked with for individual sessions each week, were in his office after every game advocating for me to be played. But the head coach wouldn’t play me. And then I got a stress fracture in my foot from overtraining, which was misdiagnosed and ended up completely separating causing me to be out for another five months. There would be no United when I went home that Christmas, either.

My junior year comes and goes and I have a really good season individually, despite the year being an absolute shit show of drama (teammates almost dying in a drunken car accident, other teammates getting arrested, our coach getting suspended, my coach trying to get rid of me, the athletic department forbidding me from communicating and working with my mentor etc). Everything was shaping up for a really solid senior year – I have my first girlfriend in three years, my coach finally offers me a captaincy role, and I get selected in a few all-conference pre-season teams. And then I tear my second acl. I was shattered. Livid. Heartbroken. I’ll never play soccer again, I believed. How could I? Clearly this, playing soccer, isn’t meant for me, so maybe I’ll get into coaching. And so I did. But coaching didn’t fulfil me. How could I invest everything into coaching when I wasn’t done playing myself? I was 21 when I decided to never play soccer again; I had so many more playing years ahead of me. So at 23 I made the decision that I would try again. I was driven by my fear of regret; of regretting giving up the sport too early and never having really “made it”. And I was driven by my desire to motivate. How could I ever tell a kid that I coached to come back from two acls if I never did so myself? And so I moved everything back to Australia to try and play for Adelaide United.

Trials began and there were about 30 of us competing for what we thought were 18 contracts. Until we realised there wasn’t. After reading about players being signed in the paper, I learnt that before trials began, 15 out of the 18 contracted positions had been given before trials even started. Yet here we were, 30 of us, competing for three positons. And the positions were for wide players and forwards. Not defenders. So for two months, we all went through physical fucking hell with fitness tests, conditioning, and training, and for what? To be cut the week before the season started. To be used for numbers until the contracted, paid players came in.

But I checked myself. As I alluded in one of my posts last year, “Using a smile to see,” I changed my perspective and saw this as an opportunity to continue training in a professional environment that was going to get me better. Next year, I thought, would be my year. I’d have a year of playing under my belt, I’ll be fit, conditioned, and performing and the coach will have no other decision but to sign me because I’ll be that good.

So everything this year – from the club I chose to play for, to not taking holidays, to working out on average 8-9 times a week was to prepare myself mentally, physically, and emotionally for this one goal of playing for United. I would do my own running after running sessions to train under fatigue to improve my fitness levels, I would stay after weights to do my own prehab exercises to ensure my knees were as strong as they could be, and I would do my own ballwork to make sure I was getting extra touches on the ball. And I did all of this to give me the best chance I could of playing at the level I wanted to play at.

But I didn’t have the season I wanted. I went to a club that was already stacked and that essentially didn’t have a position for me. So I was forced to play a position I knew wasn’t mine, but I was still happy. Because at least I was playing. Until I wasn’t. But I understood when I wasn’t playing – it wasn’t personal. My coach wanted to put the best eleven on the field and I just didn’t fit into that. That’s fine. As long as I make it with United, it’ll all be okay. It will all be worth it. Until it wasn’t.

I’ve always struggled with my confidence with regards to soccer – I’ve never thought I was an exceptional player. And maybe that’s partly because I’ve been overlooked for so many years. But this year, these trials, I know I played fucking well. And others knew it too. I had players frequently asking me if the coach had spoken to me because I was standing out in games and trainings, to which I said, nope, haven’t heard anything. And I didn’t hear anything. Until I was cut.

And so here I am, being faced with some harsh, but necessary lessons. And what I’m learning is that hard work doesn’t mean what we think it means in this world. Neither does having a good attitude. Because you can work your ass off, you can have a really positive, non-reactive, open, and growth-minded mentality, but at the end of the day, none of that means anything. Because if a coach or a boss doesn’t like you, there’s absolutely nothing, nothing, you can do to change that. And that, my friends, is life.

Sure, you can tell me that struggle makes you stronger, or what we go through, we grow through. But at the end of the day, what does that even matter? The reality is, I didn’t get what I wanted. And there’s absolutely nothing I could have done differently to have changed the outcome. Because at the end of the day, the coach has his idea of what he wants, and I never fit into that. I look back at the year and realise I could have learnt that it was never going to be so much sooner than I did – his lack of communication with me throughout the year and throughout trials was a clear indication of his lack of interest in me as a player. And you know what? That fucking hurts. It fucking hurts knowing that no matter what I did, how hard I worked, how much I invested into making this dream a reality, it was just never going to be.

So here I am, dealing with feelings of heartbreak, again. Of disappointment. Of frustration. Of bitterness. And of jealousy. I hear about players getting signed and I want to be happy for them because they’re incredible people, but I can’t. All I feel is this heaviness in my heart; this longingness and wish that that was me. This desire just to be given a fucking opportunity. To have a coach see value in me, as a player and person. But I’ve never had that. And maybe I never will. Is there something wrong with me? Do I have an energy about me that repulses coaches? What more can I do as a player or person to be someone a coach can’t overlook?

I know jealousy is toxic. And I know it’s not healthy. But I genuinely can’t help what I feel. I’m hurt. I’m upset. And all of that pain is seeping into my conversations and tainting my perception. I know that when we’re in pain, it’s because of how we’re perceiving something. But how else am I supposed to view this? I see players being given opportunities when they don’t even care about playing at this level, when they’ve been injured for the majority of the past year, when they haven’t worked hard, when they only care about the money, and it makes me fucking mad. But they have something I don’t and never have had – they have a name. And they’ve been given an opportunity.

People around me, family mainly, keep telling me that maybe this isn’t on my path. Maybe I should just give soccer up. But why would I give up something I love? Why would I give up the only thing that has ever made me feel fulfilled? Don’t you think that it’s fucked up, that there are players who give up something they love because they’ve never been valued? Because it hurts too much to go through the continual disappointment, the continual politics, the continual bullshit? Imagine if we taught kids these harsh realities rather than convincing them that having a good mentality and working hard will actually get you somewhere because from my experiences? It doesn’t. You need things that you can’t control and that is often the missing ingredient in so many “success” stories. But it’s not something that’s ever talked about. Because you can’t glorify it. And it doesn’t feel good. We don’t want to believe that we don’t have control over our future because it’s disheartening. It’s disempowering. But perhaps embracing this reality might actually equip individuals with the skills necessary to process disappointment. To prevent them from internalising “failures” as there being something fundamentally wrong with who they are. Because chances are, there’s nothing wrong with them, but everything wrong with timing.

So where to from here? I honestly don’t know. I have no wisdom to share. All I have is what I feel in this raw, unfiltered state that I’ve written about here. I’m hurting. I’m disappointed. And I’m fucking jealous. I didn’t get what I wanted and it’s making me bitter, resentful, and pessimistic. Is that healthy? No. But it’s real. And I’m sure there are beautiful things that will come of this, but knowing that doesn’t help; it doesn’t take away from the pain I’m currently feeling. The pain I know I need to feel. The pain of wanting something so badly, and not getting it. The pain of giving 100% and it still not being enough. And I know there are lessons I need to learn. But not right now. What I need right now is to be human; to feel and to grieve.

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