Sophie Henry

My hands shake. A lump of air forces its way up from my gut, nestling itself just beneath my diaphragm, each breath labored as my head jostles against the seat. I’m covered in sweat and mud, in a familiar uniform: black socks, black shorts, gray jersey with “Seattle United” in metallic letters above the thick corporate logos that changed with each uniform cycle, an Elite Clubs National League patch just above the small of my back. I can feel the lingering anxiety about earlier mistakes during the tryout as I text my parents, each blue message sent more and more intense as I hold my breath, trying not to cry:

“Just finished up C1 tryouts, they were fine.” A pause, ten minutes. Then: “I don’t know if this is what I want to do. The club tryout brought back a lot of anxiety and stress. I just don’t know if I really want to play. I’m having a really hard time you guys.” 

I felt encapsulated by failure. Thousands of dollars had been shelled out for my development, for training and travel and tournaments. Countless hours — both my own and others — were spent crafting delicately phrased emails to send to coaches, rewatching game film and creating highlight reels. Soccer absolutely would be a part of my future: in March 2020, I was invited to participate in a U-17 World Cup Qualifier Camp for the Jamaica National Team, in what seemed to be the pinnacle of hours upon hours of practice and motivation. I’d be playing for my country. I’d be travelling to Mexico City to play in the qualifying rounds of the tournament. I’d commit to a college. Though the tournament was canceled — thank you, COVID-19 and Jamaica’s cash-strapped program — for a brief sliver of time I felt I had it all. I was the player my younger self would be proud of, one who wasn’t necessarily the most showy or talented on the team, but who knew how to put her head down and work hard. 

But here I was, sitting on the shuttle back from the intramural fields, having a panic attack about whether or not soccer would be a part of my life at Yale. I had emailed my Jamaica coach about my fall plans, and the line — “I plan to play club for a semester, then discuss walking onto the varsity team” — that I sent clattered in my head. What was I thinking? How could I do that if I couldn’t even make it through a club tryout?  I was letting everyone down. I was repenting for holidays spent at showcases instead of with family: “The Cranberry Cup.” “Surf College Cup.” “State Cup.” I let down my parents, who spent their weekends driving me to my games across mountain passes in order for me to play teams in our league, through wind, rain and snow. I also let the girl I knew down, the one who’d come to orchestra concerts sweaty from having changed out of practice clothes, desperately apologizing to my director for being late. Anabel as a person was inseparable from Anabel as a soccer player, the girl who only saw life through the lens of becoming the “elite” player she so desperately wanted to be.

***

It’s not just me who was once ingrained in becoming an NCAA athlete. There is a surprisingly large contingent of students at Yale who had opportunities to play Division I, Division II or Division III sports at other schools, but instead decided to come to New Haven. Most of them are here in the pursuit of academic opportunities or because of a perceived “better fit.” Marcus Lisman ’25 is one of these students, having been recruited to run Division I track and field and cross-country at Vanderbilt University in the spring of his senior year after a stellar cross-country season. He came to Yale in pursuit of academic excellence and for what he noted as an apparent “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” but also in the “hardest decision of his life.” 

Lisman still follows the Vanderbilt men’s track and field and cross country Instagram accounts. “Seeing the team travel all over the country, seeing them in awesome races, seeing them do well — that could have been me,” Lisman told me in an interview, “I could have been a part of that group of guys, that community within a community.” He’s found a new group of community in Yale club running, which he describes as an entirely different athletic scene from that of high school as well as what he envisioned a varsity program would look like. 

Indeed, Ryan Hagen, associate athletic director for Campus Recreation and Payne Whitney Gymnasium and a member of the club sports office, stated that “there are no parallels between high school sports and club activities.” My club soccer scene in high school operated under an intense, development-based model that centered around achieving success at the pinnacles of competition, with little regard for the social aspects of the sport. But Yale’s clubs, in Hagen’s words, “serve as a [space for] social, physical and mental well-being,” in which “many of our students, like most club sport participants throughout the country, pursue club sports for the social engagement and connection to other students with similar interests.” 

Though club sports are an excellent option for specialized athletes, the transition can be difficult for students accustomed to rigid, intense practice schedules. For Lisman, the relaxed organization, combined with the fact that most club sports teams at Yale are student-run, has allowed him to explore more of his passions. After all, running is no longer the sole purpose of his endeavors. “Motivation needs to come from much more from within instead of being obligated to go,” he said, “I think what’s solidified is how much I enjoy the challenge of it because now I don’t have to do it anymore. I’m just performing for myself, becoming the best runner I can, doing the little things right and really rewarding myself for the hard work that I’m putting in.” 

***

Back in the Yale IMs shuttle. I had never allowed myself to envision a life without soccer until that moment on the bus, when all the hard parts of my soccer-centric outlook came cascading down, confronted with my sport in an entirely new environment. Trembling in my seat, I felt the same anxiety attacks before each game. That same bubble in my chest I felt on the bus would surface and leave me rummaging through identical black team bags on the sideline searching for a rescue inhaler. I tried to summon the brave face I’d put on in front of my high school club coaches as they chastised me in bellowing British accents. I suppressed the tears that used to fall on the sidewalk outside Grass Lawn Park. I heard the voice of an emotionally abusive male coach screaming at the missed touches and passes of the tryout, despite the girls around me happily chattering on the bus. I ached with echoes of the injuries that had never quite left my body: Achilles tendonitis, torn hamstrings, tibial stress fractures. In that moment, it became painfully evident that I had been pushing myself to perform at the highest level, ignoring the warning signs that my mind and body were in overdrive.

What I was experiencing was what Hagen describes as the reality of my time as a high-performance athlete ending. He noted that “for some it’s high school, for some it’s college, for the lucky few it’s after a professional career.” I had for so long worked for a college career without any regard for what that pursuit was doing for my body and mind. The anxiety and physical pain as a result of overtraining was outweighing my love for the sport. The burnout had been building up for some time, but it didn’t hit me until the 6:15 p.m. bus back to Payne Whitney Gymnasium.

At the core of my being, I knew that soccer was something I still loved. But the pursuit of playing at the highest level, and the confirmation bias I saw in the fact that those around me were so readily willing to shell out the time and resources necessary for that pursuit, had transformed a sport into a lifestyle, and a lifestyle into a cage. 

College was supposed to be different, I told myself, and I needed it to be different. Soccer could be a part of my identity, yes, but it couldn’t be my whole identity. 

***

There was a certain element of feeling the need to prove myself in my angst over soccer at Yale. The sudden disappearance of the varsity attachment to my name amplified the already-intense grip of impostor syndrome that I felt the moment I stepped foot on campus. I felt the need to cling to my old identity as a form of proof of my worthiness, because I saw my prior commitment to soccer as a component of my acceptance to Yale. It seemed letting it go would betray everything that got me here.

Sherrie Feng ’24 was also a recruited athlete in high school, considering an offer from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to play Division III soccer. Her opportunity, she told me, came from a chance encounter at a soccer ID camp. Despite having played at the elite level for her high school club team, she wasn’t actively looking for opportunities to play college soccer. Feng noted that in high school, she balanced her “I play sports identity” with the “I am really into school identity.” “Coming [to Yale],” she said, “I remember feeling like ‘Oh, I’m so free to make up whatever I want in terms of how I want to prove myself to other people.’” 

Perhaps for us former high school athletes, the need to prove ourselves didn’t come from the desire to win competitions, rather from the desire to belong to something. Feng noted that club sports’ social community — like that of the C2 women’s soccer team that she and I are now both a part of — is a valuable aspect of her soccer experience here at Yale. The involvement in the social aspect of club soccer has led to me feeling less like just a soccer player and more a member of a soccer community. Feng expressed a similar sentiment, stating that she’s “definitely gotten worse as a soccer player. … How I play soccer and how much I play soccer has to do with how much I identify as a soccer player.” Only now, missed touches and whiffed balls are more an occasion for well-meaning laughter from teammates than biting reprimands from coaches. Soccer is simply a sport. 

***

I’ve started to find places of belonging off the field that bring immense amounts of joy: writing, spending time with newfound friends and diving headfirst into classes. I decided to join the C2 soccer team, which doesn’t play in a league and has an equal number of practices as it does delightfully amusing initiation activities — if you saw us doing a silent interpretive dance in the Starr Main Reading Room in September, you’re welcome. When I step on the field with the C2 girls, it’s amidst jokes and a community that has reminded me of what it means to play for the sake of play. 

For some, club involvement at Yale is directed towards walking onto a varsity sport — Lisman has set his sights on next fall’s varsity cross-country team’s standard qualifying times, working with a coach from his hometown to get his times where they need to be. For others, it means picking up a new athletic passion or playing at a lower level. 

Regardless of what others do, I’ve found contentment in taking Feng’s approach, enjoying soccer for what it is and giving myself time to distance myself from the hyper-intense, hyper-anxious headspace of my past athletic pursuits. A life of fear is not a life to live. With this in mind, soccer cannot be what it once was.

Feng said it best in an email sent to her old high school club coach, when implored to “not give up the opportunity to further your soccer career,” to “reach out to the [Yale] coach and do it:”

“Actually, I think I’m good,” she wrote, “I want to figure out what I want to do.”

ANABEL MOORE