Love Hurts: The Hardships of Being a Student Athlete and Knowing When to Stop

Love hurts. It can cause both mental and physical injuries. I was in a relationship for most of my life that would give me these amazing highs, and soul crushing lows.  I began to play soccer when I was about four years old, using my sister’s old cleats that were two or three sizes too large for my little feet. To make it work, we had to stuff newspaper in the front of them so that each time I would swing for the ball, (and usually miss) my cleats would not go flying off. I still remember running and tripping on the field, never crying, just loving the movement and the freedom it gave me. I knew that this would be something I had to keep in my life for as long as possible. This is where my addiction began.

This passage is not to detail my long-standing affair with soccer. Rather, it is to illustrate how much I care for this sport, how much I thrived in it, and how much I wanted to play in the most competitive leagues, all the way up to D1 college soccer. I did everything I had to, set myself up in the right teams, attended all of the ID camps and talked to as many coaches as I could. I did have natural talent, and by my sophomore year of high school, I had coaches from D1 schools that showed interest in me, that wanted to come and watch some of my games. Of course, I was elated. Sadly, soccer is not totally about heart and talent. It has a large portion that is made up of luck. Or in my case, bad luck.

20503899_1639214389424816_1841492660_n

When I was a junior in high school (the time where most people commit to playing in college), I tore my first ACL. I remember my cleat becoming stuck in one of those aeration holes and twisting oddly. I heard and felt a snap, like a rubber band. I did not trust myself to get up; I remember lying on the grass, trying to keep my tears from falling. I felt totally helpless. This is how I felt for the next six months.

I had the surgery quickly after I had torn my ACL. You have several options when it comes to creating a replacement ACL. A cadaver, the patella tendon, and/or your hamstring can be used. I picked the hamstring, and once the surgery is over you can feel the hole where the ACL was taken from. That hurts almost as much as the ACL repair itself. After the surgery, the doctor came and talked to my parents. He told them that I had one of the nicest ACLs he had seen in a long time, but sadly it was just torn in half. It was bad luck that I had torn it.

My bad luck continued, as the coaches that were interested in me told me that I should contact them again when I was healed and back to playing. Of course, I knew that this meant they would give my spot to another (healthy) player. It was soul crushing, a true low. My dreams of playing D1 soccer were quickly slipping through my fingers.

I tried to turn this into motivation with my rehab, to come back better and stronger. Instead of six months, I only needed five months to come back, totally healthy. But by this time, the only coaches that were still interested in a damaged player were D2 and D3 programs. I still had a chance to play college soccer, but not to the degree that I wanted to play. Regardless, I was still addicted. I would take anything I could get.

This is why I started to look into the D3 school I would ultimately end up going to. I talked to the coach and talked to the existing players, and went to visit the school. It was beautiful, the coach and players all seemed very supportive, and I saw myself fitting well into this program. I committed and was very excited to continue my career as a college athlete, even at the D3 level.

20526488_1639214352758153_799365484_n

Preseason, which came and went, was difficult but manageable. I still loved every moment of playing. We had an amazing season that year. We made it all the way to the Final Four in the NCAA tournament, and I was put on the travel roster for this trip. The experience was amazing. The hotel we stayed at was gorgeous, the fields were immaculate, and the free things we got were the cherry on top. When it came to soccer, this was the best week in my career. But as a college athlete, it is not just about the sport. Along with being an athlete, you are also a student. I am a chemistry major, and in high school I never tried very hard and still received the grades I needed to get into a very good college. College is a very different ball game, as you have to put in the work to receive the grades that you want. In order to get an A on one exam, I had to put in one to two weeks of study time. With soccer taking up 75% of my time, I was struggling to get the grades that my parents and I both expected from me.

During the tournament week, we were all supposed to be preparing for our final exams. My chemistry exam was the day after we were supposed to come home. Coach gave us a curfew and made sure that we were occupied during all of our “free time.” I struggled to stay focused on soccer when I needed to be and tried to change my thinking to chemistry when I had to. This is how your entire college career is as student athlete.

20536170_10210020050163216_1831203365_o.jpg

My freshman year was a challenge for me with this new balancing act that I was not used to, but I still survived. I had received a good amount of playing time my freshman year as a center midfielder, and I knew that I wanted to train harder so that I would be a starter and not just one of the first subs off the bench. I found a competitive team for the summer; they were all D1 players and I was the only D3 player on the roster. When we had our first game, I started the game as an outside defender, and played all 90 minutes. This was one of my soaring highs; I was so happy. We won the game, and I was given a good amount of praise. I knew that I could become a more influential part of my team back at my school. Sadly, my soccer career still consisted of bad luck. Two weeks after this game, I was playing an indoor soccer game and took an odd step and tore my second ACL.

I was freaking out. My friend told me that I couldn’t have torn it, that it was probably just a weird pop that I felt, so I decided that I would test my knee out and play again. I tried to plant on my right knee (the knee I thought I hadn’t injured) and it totally gave out. My ACL was torn. Again. This low was much lower than the one I had experienced my junior year of high school. I held out hope that it was just a partial tear, and not a full one.

I had the surgery in early August of my sophomore year in college, and I remember waking up and feeling the part of my hamstring missing. I knew that this meant that I had torn my ACL and it had been repaired, just like before. I began to just sob uncontrollably. I would be out for my sophomore season.

20504233_1639214392758149_2106569918_n

I had gone to preseason and for the entire year starting two weeks later and I had worked as hard as I could to rehab my leg. This hard work paid off, enabling me to beat my personal recovery record of five months. I came back after four and a half months, stronger than I was before, but they were four of the worst months of my life. I wanted to transfer from my school; I didn’t know if I wanted to play soccer anymore. I was depressed, and the pressure from school as well as from my coach became unbearable. I isolated myself from my good friends, and my grades began to slip.

I decided that staying at my school was the best choice for me, and that I had to dedicate myself more to academics rather than to soccer or my social life. I still wanted to be a part of the team, and the summer going into my junior year, I worked out as much as I could and tried to read ahead for my classes. I felt like I was totally ready to make my junior year the best one. I went to preseason and passed all of my fitness tests and played well. I was expecting to play a good amount that season. I was ready. The first game went by with me playing the same amount that I did my freshman year. I was a bit disappointed, but understood that I did just come off of an injury. This continued on for the majority of the season. I became so frustrated that I emailed our assistant coach because he was the one who spoke to me throughout most of my progress, and to my surprise, I got a relatively aggressive email back from the head coach. He said that I should not go to our assistant coach for evaluations, and that was the head coach’s job. I was taken aback by this and decided to ask if I could sit down with him for a conversation.

When I went to go talk to the head coach, he told me that I had a very high soccer IQ, that I was probably one of the smartest on the team. He continued this compliment with a, “but you remind me of a 35-year-old male when you play. You are just a bit slow. You will make an excellent adult league player, but you just aren’t the player for us.”

For us… that part hurt worse than the 35-year-old man comment. I was a part of us. I sacrificed a social life, a 4.0, and my body. Literally. I had to hold back my tears, refusing to let this man know that he had hurt me.

I was not the only player who had gone through these types of meetings. We as a whole received email after email calling us below average athletes; that we were unfit, and that some of us even had to keep a food journal to lose weight. Every term but the word fat was used in those kinds of meetings. This coach often told us that we were easily replaceable. That we were nothing special. I took this type of verbal abuse for three years, and decided that I was unhappy. I no longer loved going to soccer practice. I much preferred long hours in the lab or hanging out with friends.

20526437_10210020055843358_1901855114_n

This realization was difficult to make; I was an addict that knew the drug was not good for me, but the memories were better than the present. I was living off of the high that I had once had to get me through the major lows that I kept falling into. We then started 5:30am cross-fit and speed training three times a week. That was my last straw. I would not be emotionally abused, then have my sleep taken from me and face this man at 5:30 am, and then again at 6 pm. I was done. I sent him an email that was a big “F You” but in the most polite way. I wrote:

Hi Coach,

I have done a great deal of thinking over the past couple of weeks. I have loved soccer since I was four years old. Sadly, the past three years playing for the Soccer Program has made that love turn to resentment. Soccer is not the pure sport it once was, but has been corrupted into something that angers me, that saddens me, and that has turned me against my best friends. Something I have realized, however, is that my resentment does not come from the sport itself, but it comes from playing under a man who doesn’t see the value of a team, but the value of an individual. A man that thinks the key to winning is by pinning teammates against each other, and instead of building up an individual, he likes to remind us that we are nothing but a body, a body that can be easily replaced. So to this XXXXXXX, I would like to give up my Jersey and allow you to “replace” me. I hope this is easy as you say it is. 

Sophie Staerz

 

His response was just the confirmation I needed that I made the right choice. Instead of acknowledging that he had done anything wrong, he told me that I was pretty much irrational and that my view of him was unhealthy. Just take a peek at his response:


Sophie,

I am sorry you feel the way you do. It’s clear to me that based on your present feelings you are making the best choice. I concur that going on with the team feeling as you do towards me as a person and a professional is not healthy. I think it is fair to say our viewpoints and values are not in alignment. It seems best for both parties that we part ways at this point.

Please remove your belongings from the locker room at your convenience.

Best wishes to you as you move forward.

 

I was the second player on my team to quit this year, and the fifth out of twelve to quit from my incoming class. Now, four months later, six more girls have quit. This had nothing to do with our lack of love for the sport, but the abuse we had gone through emotionally. We no longer felt good enough, fit enough, or intelligent enough. I looked at myself and the words ’35-year-old male’ echoed in my head. This man was not a good coach, nor did he nurture the talent that we had. He was an abuser, and being a college coach, he has found a way to have an endless stream of victims. It was hard not to tell each recruit to go back home and never look back, and the school didn’t deserve that.

I do not regret playing soccer at my school. I have made memories and friendships that will last a lifetime. I have also faced this type of man for the first time in my life, but I know it will not be the last. He will be a graduate professor, or a future employer. I know what to look for in this type of person, and how to protect myself and even potentially succeed under this type of distress.

20464635_1639214356091486_1330430451_n

I still love soccer, but I love it for another reason. It has shown me that sometimes you will have god-awful luck, but that doesn’t mean you should quit – but at the same time, quitting isn’t what makes you weak. It sometimes means that you have grown enough to realize what is best for you, and in that way, quitting may ultimately be the best choice. It gives you time to refocus your efforts. It makes you stronger.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s