It's Called Pressure!
When I was young, my sister Tyler and I could be found at our local tennis club swinging racquets wildly. As we chased errant balls on one side of the court, my father hovered near the net on the other side feeding us a seemingly infinite supply of balls delivered with a finite supply of patience. I was pretty good, but my ability to retrieve set me apart.
As an 11 year old, I steam-rolled my way through a summer of satellite championships without ever dropping a set. And then I was told I had to play up an age group. A quick nod and thumbs-up from my mom assured me that this was no problem! And, initially, it was no problem, as I cruised into the finals, my perfect set record unblemished.
"En fuego!" my mother called me. On that fateful August afternoon, it was very hot indeed. Steam rose from the scorching court. I was en route to clenching the first set when my signature drop shot changed everything. The ball bounced twice on her side, the point was mine.
But, my opponent denied it, saying it only bounced once.
Suddenly, I was unnerved. I tried to play on, but I dropped the game, then the set — my first set loss. I was so upset that the tournament director awarded me a break after the set, during which my mother followed me to the restroom insisting that I douse myself with cool water, then get back out there and "destroy the little cheater."
But it was too hot … and it was too late. I was gasping for air. The pro came in and asked if I was ready to go, and before I could think, the words escaped like air out of a balloon popped by a tiny pin: "I can't breathe. I can't play."
With the nod of his head … game, set, match. It was over.
For several years, I was haunted by the memory of quitting. My dad's condemning words echoed in my head.
"I didn't raise a quitter," he said. "Losing is part of life, quitting is unacceptable."
"Pressure," according to tennis great Billy Jean King, "is a privilege." To me, though, pressure is a feeling, and it doesn't feel like a privilege. It is an intangible weight. At its worst, it's an unbearable anchor; at its best, a fragile balloon.
Good or bad, like it or not, pressure is a significant part of both soccer and life. From my earliest memories, I've felt its presence, occasionally weighing me down, but often lifting me up. Mostly, I've been trying to hold on to that balloon.
Literally speaking, pressure is a necessity on the field. The first responsibility of a striker is to know when, where, and how to put pressure on the other team's defensive line. Defensive pressure is about teamwork and communication.
It just so happens that in both English and Swedish, when a player needs to communicate that it is time to step to the ball, she shouts out "Press!" I'm pretty sure you can see where this is going … I can't tell you how many times I turned around and hollered back in frustration, "What!?"
It is ironic that the one direction I should be able to easily understand can still cause confusion. Yet, my role in pressuring has changed quite a bit as I moved from a high-pressure American soccer system to low-pressure Allsvenskan football.
Then, there is the pressure felt as a team. For the six games I have played here, I have taken the field filled with hope and aspiration. Don't get me wrong, I have always experienced a pre-game "buzz," but in the past, the flutter was more a result of knowing "what was at stake" rather than excitement derived from possibility.
In college, I knew what we were capable of achieving. Stanford women's soccer was a fined-tuned machine: putting in the work, churning out the wins. Yes, I have mentioned the benefits of expecting to win. But, expectation can sometimes be a burden, and we carried quite the load during my four-year career. We had to execute; there was no other option, always aware that we had to win every game to have a perfect season. Since we had the tools, there was no excuse for failure. Unfortunately, we eventually succumbed to the indelicate fangs of pressure, year after year, ending with a "pop!" of the balloon.
In Sweden, the feeling of pressure has been replaced by promise. Instead of feeling relief in victory, we actually rejoice! Being part of a growing team and focusing on the progress is actually a lot of fun … and very uplifting!
While there will always be external pressure, what both motivates and haunts me is the pressure from within. Every striker feels pressure to score, to put up stats; that is the nature of the beast. I'm sure every professional athlete feels pressure to be the best.
It seems that as soon as you rise to the next level — at the level you swore you wanted to be — you somehow find yourself needing more: I made the team? Now I need minutes! I get playing time? Now I need to start! It is both a vicious and endless escalator.
For most of my life, I have believed that, like the Nike Soccer ad, this pressure really did make me. As the ever-present motivator, pressure got me out of bed every morning, off to the gym, track or field, and on my way to my "10,000 hours."
But, pressure is a relentless taskmaster, sometimes refusing to let me sleep at night. It is a whisper in my ear that no matter how much I do, I can always do more. And, during games, I spend 99 percent of my mental capacity thinking about scoring, about turning every situation into an opportunity in front of the net: defensive corner … counterattack! When I connect passes in the middle of the field … my touch is on, my shot will be on. When I make a tackle and win the ball … my confidence is up, my shot will go in. And that's the scenario when I am having a good game.
However, after reading Sapolsky's "Why Zebras Don't Have Ulcers: The Acclaimed Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases, and Coping," I am starting to wonder if living under constant pressure is really good for my game, let alone my health.
Pressure both deflates and inflates us. Without its constant company, I'm not sure where I would be today. With my new perspective, I'm back at work, trying to find the right amount of helium to pump into my personal balloon. And when I get it just right, I plan to hold on tight, for I know it will be quite the ride!