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A Game – Abby Buckenberger

“We fetishize the rising athletes, but we don’t protect them. And if they fail to pull off what we expect them to, we abandon them.”

I am about to open up about a huge part of my life that I, for the past 5 years, have completely shut out.

Many of you who have known me since I was a young girl, as early as elementary school, know that soccer was everything to me for 15 years of my life. A big chunk, I know.

For those of you who have met me since my early 20’s may have no idea because it is a subject that I have long avoided since quitting.

Before I begin let me emphasize something: soccer is an incredibly beautiful game with equal parts grace & grit. It’s an amazing teacher EVEN if your relationship with it turns toxic, you might just realize its teachings later in life like me. 😉

Okay, let’s get into this. Growing up I was after one thing: success. Success in conventional terms that is. Winning. Accolades. Titles. Trophies. Performance-driven goals that I would do anything to achieve.

I craved the dopamine that assisted winning, of being held high in my parent’s eyes. I craved the pride that came with representing my school well. I craved the attention and comments from others about Thursday night’s game. I craved being in the newspaper. Receiving all-conference records. I craved being looked up to by young players. The responsibility of being a role model to them was something I never took lightly. I craved the exhaustion that came with leaving everything I could out on the field. I craved the burns and bruises that were to follow a tough game. I craved the pity from supporters when my performance just wasn’t enough. I craved the trust and validation from my coaches. I worshipped them. I craved pressure. I craved being the best. I craved proving people wrong. I craved just about anything that would keep me from reflecting on my actual identity — one devoid of this game.

I wasn’t ready to live without it. Until I couldn’t live with it.

Following high school, I signed to play with the University of Puget Sound a Division III school whose reputation was more than admirable in the eyes of many PNW players and coaches. With over 12 years of consecutive conference titles and a coach who would also coach the U20 Nationals Team, Women’s Sounders, and scout for the US WNT, it was “prestigious” to say the least.

To say I was excited would be an understatement. To say I was ill-prepared for the year to follow would also be an understatement.

Physically and skillfully I kept up. It was a pace faster than I was used to but I caught up quickly and would go on to start for most of the season as a center-back. I wasn’t a shining star by any means but I fulfilled my role as solidly as I could. The threatening pressure to perform perfectly absolutely paralyzed me and kept me from my true potential.

Mentally is a whole nother story. I was in an environment that (looking back) was mostly supportive and grounded. But in my head this was it, this was my chance, the pressure was on. My inner-child and light-heartedness had no room to breathe. I silenced her. I was on edge, constantly. I was suffocating. I was so afraid. Out of my element. What do I say. What do I do. How do I get these girls to like me. To accept me. To want me to succeed. More importantly, how do I get this coach to notice me? How do I get him to trust me? To BELIEVE in me? How do I succeed on this team. It was a puzzle I would work on day and night the entire year being there.

I was weighed before every single practice. Forced (seriously-urged is a better term) to consume a giant Gatorade protein bar before and after each session. Tabs were kept on performances at each practice. The starting team would scrimmage substitutes every single day. The demoralizing nature of “what it takes to win” would seep into every corner of the collegiate experience. I was getting C’s in classes that I previously excelled in. I am not even sure how I managed to play and practice every single day. The thought still debilitates me a bit.

Thank you, God for the relationships you gave me through this year of struggle and lesson. If it were not for them I am not sure how this process would have played out. Aly, I am specifically talking to you here. Thank you, I love you. Mom, you too. For your unconditional love + support. Thank you.

After finding what I guess was just a way to survive on this team we would eventually win the conference, I would go back to sitting bench most games, playing for a few minutes here and there just to give rest to the starters mostly, and once in the National Tournament, we would find ourselves in a shoot-out and I was called on to kick.

Freezing, I would try to warm up the best I could. I had always been great at penalty kicks. I thought of my parents, my Dad, who I knew would be watching the game online while we were in the St. Louis snow. His support was endless, he was my biggest fan since day one.

I stepped up to shoot, if I make it we win. Left-footed I would shoot to the lower-left corner, a trick that fooled most keepers. It didn’t. She saved it and the shame flooded in like nothing I had ever felt before. Two more kicks followed and we end up losing the game.

I shut down. All of me. I contemplated terrible things, I skipped school for a week. If I wasn’t depressed already (I so was) this was sure to trigger me into an even deeper depression. I was at an all-time low. Embarrassed, full of shame, and remorse.

Later that night having dinner which I barely ate, my coach pulled me aside and told me to drop it, to stop pouting. He questioned if I had tried and given it everything I had. Which made me begin to question myself, had I? Was I not trying hard enough? Not focused? Was I not seeing something other than my missed kick? My brain would spiral.

I hung on every last word this man said for an entire year. Like he was a God. And it was my aim to please him.

To this day I will forever remember the comments that were made to me.

The following weeks would consist of severe avoidance, avoidance of teammates, my father, coach, family, friends, my boyfriend at the time, I did not want to face anyone.

This is where my Mom stepped in. I am not sure she knows of how profoundly she impacted my life during this time, but I am lucky to have her to say the least. We would talk on the phone for hours at a time every single day. I remember first bringing up how unhappy I was and she listened in support and understanding. Something I was not used to. I asked for help. Anything. The next time I was home I would make my way to our Doctor to get on antidepressants.

No one knew how to deal with “Sad Abby” for I had always been upbeat, in high spirits, some would even describe as a light.

The phone calls continued and she created such a safe space for me to reflect and process my feelings. Transferring schools came up and expecting to hear resistance and shame, for I had made a commitment, the opposite came. “You don’t have to keep playing soccer, Abby. You aren’t locked into anything.” At first, I am sure I scoffed at her remark. But it would sit with me and days later I remember telling her, almost exclaiming my resentment for this game, that I was DONE.

She supported me every step of the way, and transferring to Eastern would go on to change my life forever. Thanks, momma.

The few years following my “retirement” were incredibly challenging. I felt like a disappointment. A failure. A coulda-been. So my resentment grew. Not only did soccer make me feel like a failure, but it also made me look like one in the eyes of everyone who knew me as great, I would wrongfully think to myself.

My relationship with other members of my family would also change. Especially the one with my Dad. Our bond came from this game. It was our shared source of fulfillment for years. The hours we spent talking about, watching, and thinking, the hours and money spent traveling and driving for this damn game is unfathomable. So when it stopped it felt like we had started over, like we were to meet each other for the first time. It was frustrating and challenging at the time, but I am (finally) so grateful for all of it. We now have an incredibly solid and stable relationship that grew upon a foundation of respect and support. I feel seen by him. Who knew that ending the one thing we had in common would only progress our relationship further than I could have ever imagined. Love you, Dad.

Through it all I have come to realize this:

Soccer was never at fault.

My Dad was never at fault.

And I was certainly never at fault.

The point of this post is to expose the deep and hard truths that I have finally uncovered through years of an obsessive and disordered relationship with a sport whose dark side was exposed by a win at all costs mentality.

The game is beautiful and should be enjoyed by all. It is a teacher of patience, grace, and grit. It is one of the most beautiful sports in the world — adored for good reason by many.

But that adoration can turn evil very quickly. Mine did. I was undertaken by chronic stress. Not only on my body but my mind & heart. And thus, it has taken me 5 years to write this post.

I am proud to say today that nothing + no one owns me like this anymore. I walk tall in my own values and have accepted “failure” as a common part of life. An experience that within lies great lesson and learning. I can see when old belief systems arise and I take action to correct them. Crossfit for example, I refrain from scoring my workouts so that I can enjoy the workouts without placing weight on how I performed. And it is safe to say I can finally enjoy sport without being attached to the performance or result. I can finally PLAY. And I am THRIVING as an athlete. My body is capable of more than I could have ever imagined. And I can fill spaces with the same whim and charm and laughter that makes me, me unapologetically. I am free.

So, if you are an athlete, reevaluate the pressure you taking on and in turn placing on yourself. It’s ok if you are feeling torn. It’s ok if you want to get better. It’s ok if you want to keep playing. It’s also ok if you want to stop. You’ve been taught that your worth is in your performance, this is a lie. There is so much to learn and gain from any sport. From relationships to leadership, the skillsets that can evolve are gifts from God. I have come away with so many of them, even in lieu of my personal experience. The biggest one being, no matter your skill level, you are more than enough.

If you are a coach, just be careful and avoid perpetuating a culture of disorder. Your players are there to learn, and they look up to you more than you’ll ever know. Please do not take advantage of this. Use it for good, to truly lead. People do not perform at their peak in unsafe spaces or when intimidated. You have the power to further spread the message that the life-skills and character players develop from this sport is one thousand times more important than any goal they will ever score. Thank you, Justin Carey.

If you are a supporter, check in on your loved ones and see how they are doing outside of their sport — because guess what, they are a human at the root of it all, don’t lose sight of that! 💕

I was stuck in an extremely toxic relationship with soccer (especially collegiately) and it took years to rid myself of the shame that followed quitting. (Side note: I still have to quiet that voice sometimes!) Just know that we CAN enjoy these truly remarkable games if we create a culture that allows us to do so without attaching our worth, validation, and identity to the result. And we CAN heal our traumas and wounds caused by toxic, stress-fueled, and debilitating belief systems.

Shoutout to all my people out there doing just that, and who have seen me every step of the way.

To all my teammates, I LOVE YOU. And I am deeply sorry for the intensity, yelling, anger, and more that followed my “passion” for the game. As you can see now, it was all in a selfish attempt to win. You didn’t deserve it and if you are reading this I want you to know that you are more than worthy ASIDE from your athletic abilities or performances.

I love you all. Thanks for listening. ✨💕⚽️

Abby Buckenberger

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Thanks for sharing this, you are awesome !

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