CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Every time I think I’ve “figured it out,” I’m proven wrong. I think that I’ve gotten to know myself as an athlete, got a handle on my career, dissected this crazy game I play … and then I have some sort of epiphany. The more I learn, the more I realize there is left to learn. I’m about to go play pickup. I’m sponsored by Nike and can get whatever training gear I could possibly want or need, but I’m wearing my favorite Barca shorts and an old Nike T-shirt that is worn and faded. My cleats and turf shoes are in a plastic shopping bag, and I have a gallon of water I bought at a gas station to help me stay hydrated. I’m a professional athlete who thinks juggling with friends in a Costco parking lot is one of the most fun things in life. Pickup on the intramural fields in Chapel Hill blending in as “one of the guys,” is just as enjoyable to me as playing in a big stadium with beautiful green grass.
I am constantly learning about myself and this sport I love.
Up until this point in my career, I’ve been fine with fighting for a spot, battling (sometimes what seems like uphill) to get on the field and to stay there. But after this past W.P.S. season of limited playing time, it hit me: I need to play. On my club team in high school, I was always held to a high standard and challenged, but there was a level of comfort. I knew that my team needed me, and I was free to just simply play and get better through trial and error.
There is a fine balance as a player between being pushed and being free to make mistakes. Playing in college at North Carolina, I was a starter, but definitely never had that comfort level. The way Coach Anson Dorrance runs his program, you constantly feel the stress to compete for your spot (which is one important element of athletic growth). For the past three years, playing in W.P.S., I’ve been in and out of starting lineups. I’ve been subbed out of games, been on the bench for 90 minutes, and even at times questioned whether I would be selected for the 16-player travel roster. This being said, I’ve been on two of the three W.P.S. championship teams and have enjoyed playing on rosters stacked with talent. Ultimately, I haven’t had a season that I feel my contribution was even average compared to my personal expectations, though.
So far, that has been O.K. for my development as an athlete. I’ve learned what it means to be a good professional, seen what it takes to play with and against the best in the world, and continued to hone my strengths and work on my weaknesses. Finally, though, I feel that I need a specific environment to continue to improve. I need to play somewhere where I feel that comfort level like I did for my club team. I am searching for that environment.
I understand that I will always have to prove myself as a player and earn my spot, but no longer do I feel that I can maximize my development on the training field. I need game experience and the freedom to make mistakes and see where that takes me. Until I find that comfort in a professional environment, I will continue to find it on the pickup field, where I can “just play.”