I remember it entirely too well. My last college soccer game.
We played Duke and lost 0-2, my parents flew in from New Jersey and, when the whistle blew, I lost it.
After handshakes and a post-game talk from our coach, I sat on the bench with my head in my hands and cried.
Shortly after I had someone tap me on the shoulder, “Umm Meredith, we need the bench.” I looked up and the stands were empty, the goals were tucked away, the corner flags were packed up and I was sitting on the last piece of furniture that our grounds crew needed to end their day. And just like that, I was no longer “Bill’s daughter/Matthew’s sister/Jessica’s friend/Mindy’s goddaughter the soccer player.”
I was … Meredith.
I had spent over three quarters of my 21 years of existence competing, so now what?
My sleep schedule was determined by my next tryout, my diet was altered based on my game time, birthday parties and school dances were missed, my little brother spent countless Saturday mornings waking up in our car as my parents drove me up and down the Northeast to different tournaments. I was dedicated. I was motivated. I was disciplined. I was a go-getter. I had priorities. I had a purpose. And now what?
Life after athletics, at whatever level, isn’t easy. There’s an identity to rediscover. Some people have a longer adjustment period than others and I was no exception.
Nearly every employer that interviewed me the summer after I graduated asked why I had no job experience on my resume, and passed me up.
Did they not know that I spent my summers up at 4:30 a.m. to get my conditioning training in before class at 8 a.m., followed by two hours of study hall after lunch and a game of pick-up with the men’s team in the afternoon? I finished my homework and was in bed by 9 p.m. to prepare myself for the next day.
The better part of the next four years I searched for something that would give me the same satisfaction as competing in the Atlantic Coast Conference but I did not find it. I moved from Raleigh, N.C., to Westport, Conn., to Boston, Mass., to Copley, Ohio, and had a new job at nearly every stop.
What I learned was this: You will fail and you will fail often, don’t be afraid to succeed. Figure out why you were so talented at your craft and take those strengths to your workplace. Remain the same dedicated, motivated and disciplined colleague as you were an athlete. Be the best at whatever you do. We have learned and developed skills that can’t be taught in a classroom or read in a book or perfected during your new hire training classes. These are skills that will set you apart from the rest and were often learned through your greatest defeats. Those lessons are invaluable.
The most impactful lesson I ever learned was at 9 years old. My team was in the championship game, and my coach asked me to take a penalty kick but I declined. We ended up winning and I couldn’t wait to get to my dad after the game to show him my trophy. When he asked me why I didn’t take that kick I told him it was because I didn’t want to miss and lose the game for the team. He shared with me that not taking the kick might have ensured I didn’t lose the game but it also ensured I had no chance at winning the game either. I didn’t even give myself the opportunity to succeed.
Make sure you always give yourself that shot at success. Go after that promotion, that raise, that stretch assignment and if you don’t get it, figure out why and focus on being better.
It might take a while, there might be a time where you feel like nothing will be as good as playing the game you love in front of family and friends, but trust me when I say you are already a step ahead of the rest.
Sure, life after college athletics can be difficult, but if you channel that same passion and commitment into something new, you’ll be surprised at what you can accomplish. And if you’re like me, you could even be offered a spot on the company soccer team before you are even offered the job. Maybe it was the three goals I scored in my first game (or was it zero?) but that was two and a half years ago, and I have been fortunate enough to find a place where I can accomplish anything I want as long as I take those same skills I learned during my soccer career and apply them to my professional career. I hope everyone can find that same place.
Previously written for Crain’s Cleveland.