Every elite athlete certainly shares a level of heightened appreciation for the Olympics. When I watch gymnasts take a deep breath before a pass on their floor routine, I feel the release of tension as they free their minds and let their preparation take over. When I see track athletes on the starting line or swimmers on the blocks, I feel the pressure of the countless hours they’ve invested for that very moment. Tears of victory and defeat are infused with intense meaning for someone who has cried them.
Watching world class athletes accept the highest of highs and sometimes agonizing lows brings to mind a common quote, originally attributed to sportswriter Heywood Hale Broun:
"Sports don't build character, they reveal it."
I beg to differ.
I do believe that much of our character is shaped in our early lives, well before sports take hold as a meaningful and important piece of the puzzle. But I have personally experienced many situations in which my participation in soccer has actually built my character. It's part of the reason I'm so incredibly grateful for all I've experienced in the game, good and bad.
Very soon after I decided that I had goals in soccer and wanted to pursue them seriously, I understood that it would mean challenging myself and leaving my comfort zone. Whether it was my first session with a personal trainer, being the only girl on an all boys’ team, or going to guest play for a team, I was often is situations in which I was anything but comfortable.
These situations helped me to build confidence. I was very shy, but was forced to introduce myself to new people. I never felt part of the group, so I had to believe in my own worth without always looking to coaches or teammates for positive feedback.
This process also helped to make me an empathetic person in a many ways. I understand what it’s like to be new, uneasy, or not fit in. So now, I try very hard to make sure anyone I’m around feels wanted and comfortable, because I know very well what it’s like to feel neither.
The UNC women’s soccer program is the epitome of a competitive sports environment. Because everything you do is recorded and ranked, it can be extremely stressful and leave you feeling isolated. This was the first time in my career when I really bonded with teammates, and relied on them more than ever before. I learned to love and respect my peers and what it means to create a family outside of blood relatives. I learned the strength of that family and how to support someone who is going through a hard time.
We bonded through our similarities and involvement in the UNC soccer program, but also explored our differences. I got to know, understand, and respect people from vastly different upbringings (in terms of location, religious beliefs, and personal values).
At UNC, I also learned how to be a leader. I was taught to be a trustworthy middle-woman between my teammates and coach, and that the best way to lead others is to serve them. I also learned, through trial and error, that a leader should never delegate a task she would not do herself.
As a professional player, I've been fortunate to be part of wonderful teams, with great success. Yet I’ve also been taught, again and again, to accept defeat and situations out of my control — not because I want to, but because I literally have no choice. I’ve moved my life overseas and had to rely on other people more than I wished to, which taught me to be humble and gracious. I’ve been cut from teams, sat on the bench, and had to move multiple times, which has all served to reinforce for me why I do this in the first place. I’ve learned to focus my energy on the areas I can control: my well-being and fitness, technical tools, and my character.
Being a professional player has also taught me to use what I have to positively impact others. Whether it’s signing autographs, speaking to a team, or coaching youth players, we pro players are often called upon to give back. From those opportunities, I’ve felt the power of inspiring others. It’s something I choose to do now as much as I can, and something I learned through the platform of professional sports.
Perhaps one of the most important lessons being an athlete can teach us is that we are all works in progress. Sports may reveal character in certain moments, but through those moments we have the opportunity to go back to the drawing board: to create, or recreate, our character.