I can distinctly remember going to watch the U.S. women’s national team train in preparation for the opening game of the 1999 Women’s World Cup.
I was only 12, but I have a vivid image of driving to the Pingry School field with my parents and sister and watching the practice. We stood behind the goal, close enough to clearly see the players and what they were doing, but still far enough so that we were unnoticed and not interfering. I was shy, and the last thing I wanted were for my idols to see me spying on their training session. I know the exact shooting drill that they did. After all, I went out and replicated it with my dad later that afternoon. One of the highlights of the experience was when a few stray balls came our way and we got to kick them back to the players. Of course, I wanted them to notice my technique and that I was more than a mere groupie. I ran to collect a ball that Kristine Lilly had shot and kicked it back to her. She obviously could recognize from my return pass that I was on track to be “one of them” in the near future … or so I thought.
This past week, Lil came on for me in our game against Mexico in San Diego. It was my seventh cap and her 343rd. As I ran to the halfway line to give her a hug as she subbed in for me, I couldn’t help but see her through those 12-year-old’s eyes for just a second. Although I wasn’t happy about coming out of the game, I was honored to be replaced by such a fútbol legend.
Going straight from preseason in Florida with Sky Blue F.C. to San Diego and then Salt Lake City with the national team for two games against Mexico has been a grueling adventure. I found myself mentally and physically tired in ways that I don’t think I ever have been before. This month on the road has been filled with highs and lows in performance, ups and downs in confidence and several new revelations about fútbol and what it means to be a professional.
My thoughts at the moment can be best summarized two ways:
¶Balancing the highs and lows: I know that I’ve written about this before, but it continues to reappear and challenge me. It is always surprising to talk to players who I assume have arrived and that I’m confident. There is no such thing!
No one ever reaches smooth sailing for good. Every player, no matter how talented, experienced, or established goes through the same struggles. It’s an interesting dynamic when you train, day in and day out, among and against players who are all skilled at what they do. Ebbs and flows in confidence are so noticeable.
I find that the true challenge is to continue to improve when you’re frustrated and not at your best, and to learn from and enjoy the times when you feel like you’re on top of the world. It’s so important not to get too high or too low emotionally, because none of it is permanent. The only thing that should be steady is improvement, so that’s what I try to focus on. Not easy!
¶You must be patient, yet it is beneficial to be impatient. This is a clear contradiction, but I’ll explain. I met with Pia [national team coach Pia Sundhage] in San Diego, and she pointed out to me the importance of patience in this process.
I’m still a fairly young player and it takes a long time to gain the experience necessary to be truly effective and consistent at this level. The aspects of my game that I strive to improve will take a lot of time to master. I try to keep everything in perspective and be patient with the process.
I think a quality that is very important to my, however, success is my impatience. That I am never satisfied drives me to work hard. As much as I understand that things take time, it absolutely kills me to not be the best at every single thing we do.
I know that I am not one of the fastest players, but when I see the list of our test results for 40 meter speed in Sky Blue F.C. preseason, I am angry that I’m not at the top. I know that I shouldn’t expect to be a starter on the national team right now, but I am disappointed with myself when I’m not or when I don’t play 90 minutes. I know that a lot of players are better in the air than me, but I am discouraged when I’m not a target on set pieces. These things may sound silly, but that’s how I think.
I guess the key to this all is balance. Being a professional athlete, or striving to be consistently excellent at anything in life, is about balancing the highs and lows, the patience and impatience, and of course having fun along the way. I soon head back home to New Jersey, have a few days off, then resume preparation for our home opener with Sky Blue F.C.
The journey continues.