The Next 90 Minutes: Youth Sports and the Warrior Within
Soccer was my first true love. There is something magical about the game, about competing, about the delicate blend of strategy and execution. My feet had a fluidity when I played; soccer became my own personal pipeline of euphoria, shooting through my veins as soon as I set foot on the field. Soccer felt like dance. Growing up, games and practices were as much a part of my life as was my need for breakfast. My teammates became some of my closest friends.
But what I didn’t realize at the time was that competing provided me with a gift: I was learning how to pull out the very best of what I was capable of doing. Every week I was practicing the art of pushing my limits, if only for that 5-minute drill, that scrimmage, that game. This is what makes youth sports so much more than just a cardio workout: Sports teach you to work together as a team, how to seed yourself, how to get yourself to the next level, and how to respond to the unexpected with agility and aptitude.
For me, sports were about something more than just fresh air, jokes with friends, and running around. When I took the field, something different took over. Something relentless, but calm. Something determined, yet composed. When I took the field, skill blended perfectly with ease. Greatness felt effortless. It was my flow state, like the conscious mind took a backseat, and the subconscious took over. This is what ‘game time’ meant for me.
One year, one of my soccer teams made it to the state championship game. As club players, our seasons were year-round, and I remember the state cup was played in February. It was a cold, rainy Sunday the day of the championship final. Not a peep of our usual, 15-year-old girl pre-game banter was heard in our locker room. One by one, we all pulled up our socks and taped in our shinguards in a meditative trance.
We knew that the next 90 minutes were the most important 90 minutes we had ever spent on the field. We knew our entire year came down to this: There would be no leaving our marks. There would be no lazy passing. And not one time would any of us back down. That ball is ours, and it belongs in one place: the back of the net. Today we would take the field.
Sports place us in the arena, and not just the literal arena — the metaphorical arena. There, it is just you versus the moment. You are there to dance with the unexpected. You are there to work together as a team to conquer the task at hand. It’s a job that requires each individual to bring her best to the field.
When we decide to push ourselves to the next level — in whatever form that means for us — we are walking into the championship game. It is us versus the moment. We must bring forth more than we have ever brought forth before; we must give our all to “the next 90 minutes.”
That rainy Sunday in February, the ref blew the final whistle and every one of us gasped back tears. We were down a goal. We lost — we lost the championship in overtime. Many of us too tired to actually cry, yet tears rolled down the faces of me and my fellow exhausted, heart-broken 15-year-old teammates. It hurt to bring everything we had within us, and to learn that it was not enough. Not that day, at least.
But as a team, we had never had a better game. Everything we did was at a higher level than our standard. I saw myself do things I didn’t even know I was capable of. As the ref’s whistle lulled to an end, I remember even the winning team breathing a sigh of relief, looking around in bewilderment as if we all had just experienced a shared trauma. Every single player on the field was stunned — what was that? “Was that soccer?” our looks said to one another. Instead of hustling to the sideline at the blow of the whistle, no one moved, many of us dropped down to the field right where we were standing. Everyone exhausted, one team overtaken with sadness and the other in relief. With wide eyes and a sound of shock in their voices, opponents reached out and said, “wow, great game.”
What had we just experienced? That day, every player on that field met her ‘inner warrior’. Every player stepped onto that field with more determination than she had ever felt, and together, we all elevated our game. That 90-minutes-plus-overtime was the most epic battle any of us had ever fought.
My team didn’t walk away with the first place medal. And second place wasn’t enough for any of us. But each of us did walk away with the experience of what it means to get yourself to great. To access the inner warrior. To channel the very best of what we’re capable of and take it to the task at hand.
Our sport was now much more than something we did a few times a week, more than just fresh air and running around, more than a reason to see our friends. Our sport unlocked a side of ourselves we hadn’t yet seen. The side that calls on us to bring out our very best in the face of a challenge. This is what makes it such a true honor to compete.
That was 20 years ago, and I don’t play soccer anymore. As adults, as professionals, we face challenges every day. But without the edges of a soccer field or a 90-minute time box, it’s easy for everything to start to bleed together. If things feel routine, we start to lose our edge.
But when it’s time for a big new challenge, I remember that day. I remember that girl. I taste just how much of an honor it is to compete. And I get ready for “the next 90 minutes.”