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  • Kelsey Irwin

Game of Life: Lessons from a College Athletics Career

By Kelsey Irwin

June 18, 2015 will forever be engrained in my life story. I was two weeks away from leaving my hometown of San Diego, CA and heading to Blacksburg, VA to begin my college soccer career. I was participating in an all-boys ID camp for a European soccer club, Fulham FC. The intensity, speed, and physicality of those players would help me prepare for the college level.

During a scrimmage on the fourth day, I stole the ball from an opposing forward. As I broke free, he crashed into my leg. I heard a loud pop. All soccer players know and fear that sound, a telltale sign of a torn ACL. In a matter of seconds, my freshman college season ended before it began. Life as I knew it was flipped upside down. Instead of joining Virginia Tech as a contributing player, I’d be hobbling in on crutches unable to do anything other than cheer them on. It would be the first season in my life that I was relegated to the sidelines.

Fast forward four and a half years: I had finished my bachelor’s in three years graduating with Magna Cum Laude honors, finished my master’s degree in three semesters, became a four-year starter, three-year team captain, and picked up nearly a dozen accolades for my academic and athletic achievements.

I thrived with the pressure, stress, and ongoing commitment that came with playing a Division 1 college sport. It’s not for everyone and the attrition rate is pretty high. For those who didn’t have that experience, it’s like having the job you absolutely love while balancing the demands of classes at the same time. My soccer journey has brought so many life lessons. I wanted to share a few of them:

Learn to be comfortable in the unknown.

No matter who you are or what you’re pursuing, there’s a good chance that pain will be part of the process. You have no choice but to expect it, deal with it, and continue moving forward. In sports, we often deal with physical pain and emotional pain. Both types of pain provide a sense of uncertainty with no clear outcome. I am living proof that blood, sweat, and tears go into our pursuit of excellence.

Throughout my college soccer career, I dealt with numerous injuries that required me to be sidelined while my body could heal. In my final season I was faced with another knee injury that would require surgery. I played two full games on an injured knee and then opted for surgery in hopes of returning before our conference games began. The typical recovery time for this injury: 4-6 weeks. My recovery time: less than 2 weeks.

Through injury, practice, and competing, I realized that nothing is a given. Being comfortable in the unknown doesn’t mean lazy. It means choosing to be focused on what you can control instead of panicked over what you can’t.

Life will not go to plan, have one anyway.

Benjamin Franklin said, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail”. As athletes, we have plans for everything, and I mean everything. We have running plans, lifting plans, practice plans, meal plans, recovery plans, and much more. However, the utilization of plans doesn’t necessarily mean that everything will go according to such plan. It just means that we have provided ourselves with a sense of direction in a context which is measurable.

Before every season, our coaches would guide us through a goal-setting exercise. We would set two types of goals: process goals and outcome goals. Process goals were easily measurable and by crossing off these goals, we would successfully be able to cross off our outcome goals. For example, one of our process goals would be to defend Thompson Field or in other words: win all home games. If we could win all our home games, then we would put ourselves in a strong position to make the ACC and NCAA Tournaments (outcome goals). In every season, we still had to adapt. The plan wasn’t set in stone, but it gave us a way to mark our progress.

Be active in your pursuit of curiosity.

I was blessed with curiosity and competitiveness. I always wanted to know how things worked and why. That curiosity was overlaid with a drive to win. I wondered how I could be better as a player, as a teammate, and as a leader. And how we could be better as a team. Asking the questions isn’t enough. Results come from the actions that follow answers.

In my case, the actions meant doing more, a lot more. We can’t achieve the extraordinary by making an ordinary effort. My work habits included extra individual film sessions with coaches, 5:30am yoga classes before practice, weekly boxing sessions, re-watching every game just hours after it finished, and analyzing professional players who play the same position. Few people saw my extra work but that didn’t matter. I was focused on doing everything possible to help the team.

Free kicks are one example. Over the years, I have spent countless hours practicing these kicks that result from fouls by opponents. I have probably taken at least 10,000 in my lifetime and missed more than 75%. Last season, a teammate and I would practice free kicks three times a week. We were frustrated for lack of opportunities within scoring range. Chances finally came against Boston College in the 16th game of the season. The result? I scored on both chances and we won 2-1. One of my shots was named as a goal of the year in the ACC.

Note to self: keep wondering how things can be better and keep taking action to make it happen.

Allow your goals and dreams to become bigger than your excuses.

There will always be reasons not to do something. Some people spend more time avoiding a task than they would if they just did it. Self-discipline is an athlete’s superpower. It’s why I finished my undergraduate degree in three years and my master’s degree in a year in a half all while playing college soccer in the best women’s conference in the country.

The primary differentiator between failure and success boils down to the ability to stay on track. Graduating with Magna Cum Laude honors with a full class schedule and 20+ hours per week of practice, film, lifts, and meetings – along with travel and games – meant that time was precious. Our lives often reflect our choices. And anyone can choose discipline over excuses.

Take responsibility for yourself and your teammates.

I believe the most powerful way to lead is by example. And the best example is set by people who own their work and understand their impact on their team. They’re accountable to themselves and their teammates. Through my work, my attitude, and my performance, I wanted to be a person that my teammates and coaches could lean on. I felt like I represented the Virginia Tech Women’s Soccer Team on the field, in the classroom, or anywhere else.

One of the main questions I constantly asked myself is how I could empower those around me to be able to express their own strengths. I had a quote hanging on my locker: “life doesn’t owe you a damn thing”. It was a reminder to me that credit must be earned every day.

Teams that thrive genuinely enjoy the process.

Each soccer season is a big project involving lots of people, details, and variables spread out over an extended time period. Lining up all those factors requires a process which begins as soon as the prior season ends. Most college athletes would agree that there is simply no off-season.

Soccer is a fall sport, so the bulk of the off-season occurs in spring. The process in the spring involves long conditioning practices, grueling weight training, and cold weather. Games are for practice only. Most players dislike the spring program because it’s hard. With the regular season months away, many struggle with the mental battle of sustaining the hard effort without the joy of playing games.

I always took a long view and believed that the workload was crucial to future success. And, for us, our best seasons followed the times when the group collectively fully embraced and even enjoyed the process. We fell short of our goal to reach the NCAA tournament in 2017. The team went into the off-season training process individually and collectively committed. The difference in energy was tangible and results showed with a run to the Sweet 16 in 2018. While leadership has an important role in defining the process and engaging the group, each person has the responsibility to do their part.

Like soccer, life demands the ability to address new challenges and unfamiliar situations while working with others to achieve mutual goals.

Photos provided by Kelsey Irwin


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