Wilson Finds Joy in True Adversary

Lindsay Wilson, Staff Writer

Within the heart of every successful athlete exists the motivation that empowers them to to achieve their goals. For some, this inspiration was planted and cultivated from the words of a coach, family member, friend, or famous figure that lies in the back of their mind whenever they step onto the court, track, or field, driving them to endure that final sprint, leap over the last hurdle, knock the ball into the back of the goal, or swish the net as the buzzer sounds.

I have played soccer for many years, spending hours and hours on the field in hundreds of practices and games, yet I am still a little unsure of the source of my motivation. I have a passion for the game. Making a great tackle or assisting a goal brings an adrenaline rush that I cannot put into words, but sometimes, after running endless sprints in grueling practice sessions, or after being chewed out by my coach, I feel uncertain about why I love kicking a ball into the back of the net.

A couple years ago, while writing a research project on an inspirational figure in sports, I came across a quote that I will never forget: “You are never really playing an opponent,” Arthur Ashe said, “You are playing yourself, your own highest standards, and when you reach your limits that is real joy.”

These words have always been in the back of my mind, puzzling me because I couldn’t figure out what they meant.

You have no control over the actions of other people and you most certainly cannot make people do what you want, so how can you be playing against yourself? You have no connection with the players on the other team. How can you expect to predict what they will do on the field?

I could never wrap my head around what Ashe said. None of it made any sense to me.

Recently, my club soccer team and I played in the Las Vegas Players Showcase. Ranked as one of the top 10 youth soccer tournaments in the nation, hosting hundreds of premier college coaches, it was definitely a test of our concentration, skill, and will to compete.

We were put in the top flight; every team we faced was the best in their state and, several, were nationally ranked in the top 20. After coming back from 3 months of high school soccer, everyone was anxious as to how we would play after only 2 weeks of practicing together again.

Before our first game, our coach held a team meeting. Scrunched into a small room, we threw ourselves over the double beds and onto the floor, even sitting on top of each other in order to fit. There was a feeling of closeness that had been lacking in the previous weeks. For the past year there had been a sense of uneasiness between all of us due to competition for starting positions. But, as we sat together in this tiny room, I felt the tension ease and, for the first time in a while, I felt good about us as a unit; I was reminded of the team we were before the high school season.

My coach has never been one to be at a loss for words, so it was of no surprise when he broke out a notepad covered in cursive and began to speak as if preparing for a long lecture; but, strangely, he didn’t say much. Mostly he let us talk.

We discussed the importance of a stable mental game when playing sports. Hearing what my coach said and listening to how my teammates felt, I realized that, even after years of playing soccer, I’d never truly understood what it means to be an athlete. I’d always thought that being a great player depends on skill and strength, not on mindset. All of my life I’d been convinced that the elite were the fastest, strongest, and most adroit. I never knew, even though I’ve witnessed several amazing comebacks and watched many inspirational sports movies, that determination, will, and the desire to win are what truly shape the outcome.

This was further ingrained into my mind after the course of the tournament.

It was unbearably hot and dry in Las Vegas, even though it was the beginning of spring, and we were definitely not in the best of shape, but we pushed through, winning both of our games. Both opponents were competitive, but the third team we faced was definitely one of the best I’d ever seen at the girls’ youth level.

The Nevada Heat is one of the best clubs in the nation, ranked #1 in their state and in the top 20 nationally. Most of their juniors and seniors are committed to elite colleges.

Before the game started, my coach told me that the girl I would be defending was committed to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, one of the greatest soccer programs in the nation. I remember feeling nauseous at the thought of marking such an amazing player, but I responded, “Oh, well doesnt’t that sound like fun.”

I never thought that I would be able to keep a player like that in check. In one of the first plays of the game when she came at me, making an incredible move then dribbling past like I was nothing, I felt it was over.

After the girl got past me, I wanted to give up and just accept that there was nothing I could do to stop her. But, thankfully, the second time she got the ball, she mis-passed and kicked the ball out. I was incredibly relieved that she hadn’t taken me on again, but I was still afraid of the embarrassment I believed to be coming. When I went to retrieve the ball, fighting back tears, I passed a referee that looked very concerned. As I ran back, he turned to me and said, “Keep it up. You’re doing great.” This man was a complete stranger, but he still reached out to me, as if he sensed that I was undergoing an internal struggle. His words ended up being enough to get me through the rest of the game.

After two early goals against us, we were down 2-1 at halftime; but we made an amazing comeback in the second half, winning the game 3-2. Most of the college coaches left in the first half, believing that the outcome of the game had been determined.

Few witnessed the best comeback of the tournament.

My coach’s lecture and the game against the Nevada Heat helped me to finally understand Ashe’s words. I wanted to give up once I saw the amazing talent of the girl I had to mark, and I almost did. I didn’t want to step up to the challenge in front of me. But once I was reminded of my role in the team by that incredibly kind referee, I knew I couldn’t stop and give in to fear. In a sense, my strongest antagonist was myself; I was the one who was holding me back, not the girl from the other team.

It was an amazing tournament for so many reasons. We ended up winning our bracket, gaining the title of champions of the Las Vegas Players Showcase. When we heard that we had won the tournament in the airport, everyone was jumping around and hugging, but I didn’t join in because my mind was elsewhere. Amongst the celebrating and screaming, I was remembering the 80 minutes we played on a dirty, grass field at Bettye Wilson Soccer Complex, North Las Vegas. I was reminiscing of the place where I finally understood the significance behind Arthur Ashe’s words.

At this moment, standing in an airport, I realized why I spend so many hours training to chase after a muddy ball across a field. I play for games like the one against Nevada Heat. I play to push myself past my limit, for myself and for my teammates.

I play for sweet victories.