Why I Chose To Stop Playing Soccer

It seems that telling the end of this story requires a visit to the beginning. 

Growing up, my older brother was always a ‘gold standard’ for me. As an external moral compass, sometimes he set the bar high - he told me there was no need to take “study drugs” in college when I was feeling curious. He said our own brain power will be suitable. Sometimes he set the bar fairly low - after all, I opened a retirement account first! But in most arenas, starting at a very young age, I wanted to do whatever he was doing. 

When people ask why I started playing soccer, the answer is easy, “because Ben played soccer”. Like I said, I wanted to do whatever he was doing, so I started as soon as I was old enough and was constantly striving to keep up. I went to his practices with my own ball and cleats, eagerly waiting on the sideline until a kind coach would let me join in a drill, any drill! 

As a young, budding human bean, I was very fortunate to have opportunities to try many different recreational sports and activities. There were plenty of things other than soccer that I enjoyed: music, dancing, swimming, singing; but when it came time to make choices, I eventually chose soccer over all the others. 

We both played throughout high school and Ben played in college. He played with the UCSC club team and I thought that when I got to college, I would too. After college, he mostly stopped playing. By then he had a deeply rooted love of travel and an interest in scuba diving, as well as white water rafting. He sort of naturally moved on. 

Here our stories differ. Despite trying out three seasons in a row, I never made my college club team. Each year I got my hopes way up, and each year they came crashing down. I tried other things, thinking that maybe that my soccer playing was done. I tried boxing and went to one triathlon team workout (we swam a thousand yards for time, long-course in the pool. After being lapped endlessly and feeling that with each lap I might die, I never returned for another session…). I took voice lessons and studied abroad. I enjoyed each immensely (except for the tri-team), but they never took the place of soccer. So, I found other ways to keep playing. I joined the local women’s city league, played any pick-up game available, and as many intramural teams as possible - I think one quarter I was on as many as five teams. 

At some point after college, I decided that I was not ready to be done competing. I enjoyed the recreational leagues, but I was craving something more. In 2015, After doing a little bit of research and a LOT of training, I tried out for a women’s semi-pro team in the WPSL league. This team played in Orange County, so being a Santa Barbara resident, I drove several hours just to try out. After the first session, the coach told me that I was not really ready. I asked for some feedback, which he willingly shared, and he invited me to come back one more time the next week. So, I went home and trained even more, then drove back again a week later. 

I made it. Barely. I could tell he was reluctant, but I had improved just enough in the areas he suggested that he decided to let me join the team, although he made it clear that I was unlikely to see much game time. At that point, after being rejected so many times from a team that I desperately wanted to play for, I didn’t care about the game time. I WAS ON THE TEAM. I felt confident that once I had a chance to receive coaching feedback, I would catch up to the skill level of the other players. 

The breakaway that led to my one and only goal!

Every week I drove to Orange County, trained, sometimes stayed a few days to be there for games on the weekend, then drove back to Santa Barbara to work and train on my own. I loved every bit of it. Despite the coach’s idea of ‘constructive criticism’ being communicated in the form of, “You’re too slow,“ we became friends and I learned a lot from playing for that team. Despite his doubts and warnings at the start of the season, I got at least a few minutes of playing time in each game and even scored my one and only semi-pro goal! 

The following year, in the summer of 2016, I played with a team that traveled abroad. We played a tournament in Spain and some friendly games in France. Unfortunately, I got the worst food poisoning of my life in Spain and had to sit out most of the tournament. Apart from that, I had a fantastic time traveling with a good friend, playing in the friendly matches, and getting into all kinds of travel silliness, including drinking champagne in Reims, watching a EuroCup match under the Eiffel Tower, and tanning like a Spaniard on the coast of Mallorca. It was highly enjoyable, but not quite enough focus on the soccer for me. I still wanted the high- intensity competition. 

In February of 2017, I flew to Seattle for the Reign FC tryouts. I had no delusions about making the team, but I wanted to see what the level was like. And let me tell you, the level was high! The pace was fast, touches were crisp, and players were very strong on and off the ball. What an experience. I left feeling like I had a more tangible goal and a better grasp of it would take to achieve it.

You can’t tell from the photo, but there were snowflakes falling that day in Seattle.

You can’t tell from the photo, but there were snowflakes falling that day in Seattle.

That spring I was riding high on the inspiration from my glimpse of the professional world of soccer, and I helped create a women’s team to play in the state cup tournament. With the help of one of the most determined, soccer-savvy women I know, we not only fielded a strong team, we ended up hosting the tournament. Returning from a mild MCL sprain, my playing ability was questionable, but I felt immensely proud to help organize and lead a women’s team wearing Sol jerseys. The young girls that I coached at the time participated in the event and it was a positive experience for all. During this tournament I met many talented female players from Santa Barbara, Ventura and some from Los Angeles. In talking to some of the LA coaches, I realized that I could keep learning this fast-paced level of play without driving all the way to Orange County. 

Sol Women’s State Cup team warming up

Sol Women’s State Cup team warming up

So, as we rolled into summer, I chose to return to the semi-pro league. This time, I found a team in Los Angeles, tried out  and made the team (yay!). I drove down once a week for practices and again on the weekends for games. The practices were my favorite. I absolutely loved them. I was playing well, keeping up, and vastly improving as a player.  However, I did not thrive in the games and soon the small amount of playing time that I strived for started to dwindle. 

I did my best. And as I have said several times, I loved every bit of it. I did not mind driving four hours to practice for two. I did not mind spending my weekends driving all over southern California to mostly sit on the bench (except one time, I did get pretty upset). I loved spending hours and hours every week training in Santa Barbara with friends and alone. I loved playing with the men’s league to try to increase my game pace. I loved playing with athletic, strong, smart female players. I loved being coached and learning new aspects of the game. I loved discovering new capacities within myself as a player and a teammate. I learned so much. 

Unfortunately, by the time I started playing with the first team, the Pateadores, I had already had two concussions, that I knew about. I wore an absurd, bright red kickboxing helmet every time I stepped on the field. During my season with the second team, the LA Premier FC, I had a minor scare/mild concussion after a collision with a kite surfer. Luckily, within a week I recovered, and was able to finish the season. 

The following fall, I had a third concussion, and that one was a doozy. A seemingly minor collision with another human on the kickball field (of all things…) laid me out for months. The hit was less severe than the other injuries, but the effects were worse. I sought treatment and help in the recovery process, but when the time came for another soccer season, I was untrained, out of shape, and still not feeling healthy. I decided to take more time to heal, knowing that the window to play at that level was limited and choosing to step away likely meant that I would not return. I decided that getting to play at a recreational level would suffice, if it meant that I could still play and love the game. 

Several months later, after what felt like ample rest, I moved to San Francisco and eagerly found a new women’s team to play with. I was excited to get back on the field at any level, on any field. It felt to good to run and play again and I was excited to get to know a new team of players. But it would seem that it was not meant to be. The second game into the season, I ran face-first into another player’s shoulder and felt immediately panicked that I may have another concussion. I knew that meant more time away from the field. I desperately contacted my doctor asking how likely it was to hit someone that hard and not have any concussion symptoms. He was not optimistic. 

I agonized over the decision. Playing has always taken precedence over everything thing else I do. It motivated me to eat well, sleep soundly, train constantly and work enough to support the travel needs of playing all over southern California. I had several people very close to me, who rarely give direct advice, suggest that maybe it was time. I chose to stop playing soccer. I keep reminding myself that it was a choice. Because it feels much better to choose something than to feel like the victim of your circumstances. I choose to value the health of my brain and the chances of future endeavors over my love of soccer. 

I started a new journal when I moved to SF and I recently have been reading back through it and reflecting on my time there. I can hear the tone change, the feelings become darker and more frustrated. The depression started when I stopped playing. I always knew that soccer would not last forever, but I thought it would be my body that gave out. I have always kept those other activities that I enjoyed as a kid in mind, planning to pursue them AFTER soccer. Music, especially. I thought, music requires more of my brains and soccer more of my body, so I will play soccer as long as my body holds up, then I can switch back to music. I did not count on soccer threatening my brain. 

Listening to my dad play two concerts in the past few days (he’s an impressive clarinetist), I have found myself wondering where I could be in the music world if I had chosen to follow that heart instead. If I had skipped the soccer years and stayed in band. Luckily, there is room in my heart for both. I would not trade my soccer experience for anything. It has shaped who I am today and who I will be tomorrow, even though I do not feel certain that I know who that Jessie will be quite yet.

Thank you, Soccer, for being such an important part of my life.  

Thank you, coaches, for all that you taught me.  

Thank you, teammates, for the support and the challenges.  

Thank you, Ben, for leading the way. 

Thank you, Mom and Dad, for washing all my smelly socks, and for coaching and encouraging me.

Thank you, grandparents, for your support and cheerleading. 

Thank you, friends, for understanding, “I can’t, I have soccer”, and for showing up, taking photos, and participating in the joy. 

Thank you, college coach, for the conversation years later about not making the team and for the chance to be a part of it in a different, meaningful way. 

Thank you, Dr. Holt, for doing your best to keep me in one piece. 

Thank you, Soccer. You are, and will always be, my first love. 

And now, I choose to let you go. 

Written by Jessie Hernandez.

@jessierosestrength