P.O.V.ey: Stepping back

In our lives, there are a lot of times when something won’t work out, something won’t feel right or something will make you unhappy. In the majority of these situations, we would step back, reassess and look for a solution. An example: You aren’t happy in your job, so you look for a new one. It might seem scary at first, but happiness is worth the temporary dread you feel as you sit in your best smart interview attire outside the potential new bosses’ office. Simple, right?

So, why is it that when football isn’t working out, or when you’re not enjoying the sport as much, that we often look inward and think ‘what am I doing wrong?‘ without searching for a solution in order to move forward? When you think that you’re the problem, the whole situation becomes a whole lot more complicated to solve, and for those of us whose football plays an integral part in our lives, this sort of problem can become all-consuming.

The pandemic has given me a lot of time to reflect on my previous footballing experiences, both positive and negative. I’ve been stuck at home since March, looking forward to everything that next season has to hold, but this sort of positivity and optimism is something that I’ve lost on numerous occasions in my footballing career.

Looking back to those occasions, it’s clear to me now that stepping back from football and giving myself some time would have been the best thing for me. I wish that I had been able to see that earlier than I did at the time, as it probably would have saved me a lot of pain and angst, but I guess these are things we learn from… It’s for that reason that I’m sharing these experiences with you now; If you see anything of yourself in my stories, hopefully it shows you that you can make a change and save yourself from self-implosion. Perhaps ‘self implosion’ is an overstatement, but at least it might save you from irreversibly changing your relationship with football…

Example 1: From Russia with love stress

If you’ve read a couple of my previous posts, you might know that I spent half a year living in St. Petersburg, Russia. I went from the beaches of Barcelona to snow, ice and the never-ending grey skyline of Russia’s second biggest city. Having enjoyed playing football in Spain, I was keen to get involved with the game in some way in Russia, and I didn’t fancy 6 months without any sport! Before I flew out, I did my homework on a number of options, eventually settling for futsal and beach football (both indoor) as my potential options in the -21° weather.

When I arrived, I messaged a few clubs and tried to sort out going along to training sessions. I ended up joining WFC Zvezda – a beach football club; arguably the best in Russia, in fact. I turned up to the training session not really knowing what to expect, and to be honest I was pretty petrified. I had to get on the metro for about an hour to get to the venue, and then get picked up by one of the coaches at the station at rush hour. I was stressed out of my mind before I even got to the training session!

Some of the Zvezda players in action. Photo: ЖФК «Звезда» Instagram

I carried on attending sessions for a month or so, and although I improved a lot in that time, I was still pretty uncomfortable within the team. Everyone was perfectly nice, but the language barrier and my lack of confidence really held me back. I had given it a good go, and it took me too long to realise that the whole experience was just adding to the other stress that came with moving to a completely new country, studying at university and being away from family.

My first session was a baptism of fire. I’d never played beach football before, and I struggled to translate the Russian instructions from coaches and advice from other players, as well as concentrate on playing well and learning the rules. Finishing the session, I felt completely deflated. Not only was I struggling with understanding all the Russian language (despite having intensively studied it for two years), but I felt out of my comfort zone with the football itself, which I thought would come to me relatively easily. It didn’t help that the majority of the women were players for the Russian national team with insane skills… I shouldn’t have compared myself to them, but I did.

Now that I’m back on home ground, beach football is still one of my favourite sports. The end of August will see me travel to the Isle of Wight to play for Elite Soccer in the Women’s Super Cup, before fighting it out in the European Championships qualifying in September. I think that if I had pushed myself to carry on any further in Russia, I would have lost any and all confidence and enthusiasm for the game and subsequently would have steered clear in the UK, which would have been a massive shame given how much I enjoy getting out on the sand.

Example 2: National League negativity

After coming back from my year abroad for my final year, I wanted to play club and uni football, so I joined local Women’s National League side. I had missed pre-season as I was still working in Spain, and ended up joining up with the squad after their opening games had already been played. I knew one of the players from the university team, but I struggled to fit in with the others, who were all slightly older and had clearly been playing together for years.

I soldiered on for a while, and tried my best to integrate into the team as well as prove myself on the pitch, but wasn’t feeling overly positive about my decision to sign for the club. On top of that, the coach at the time was very uncommunicative. I was on the bench most matches, and obviously was keen to try and improve, however, there was barely any advice or guidance on what I needed to work on, which made it almost impossible to break into the squad.

All of this time, I was also balancing my university studies and part-time shop work, so the weekends were precious to me. It was frustrating to be told that I would get game time, then travel to away venues (sometimes 2 hours or more away) to sit on the bench for the whole 90 minutes AND not know how to improve. Disclaimer here: I don’t mind sitting on the bench, but the circumstances surrounding this particular bench spot were the frustration. If the coach had been honest about it and pointed me in the direction of what to work on, maybe it would have been a different story, but being promised game time and then not getting it was soul-destroying.

After about half a season with the club, I decided to leave and sign for Almondsbury Ladies who were based north of Bristol. I spoke to the National League coach and told him I was thinking of leaving. He said he would speak to me properly about staying… He never bothered, so off I went!

Joining Almondsbury was a breath of fresh air. Coached by the eternally enthusiastic and supportive Gary Ford, and made up of a talented and welcoming group of girls, it was worlds away from where I had just been. From the first training session, the girls were all making an effort to include me and get to know me, and matches were so much more enjoyable when I actually got playing time and didn’t feel under extreme pressure to perform.

My final game with Almondsbury #UpTheBury

Sadly, I only got to play with the Bury girls for half a season, as I graduated and ended up moving away, but they really gave me a massive confidence boost and I owe each and every one of the girls a debt of gratitude.

N.B. If you’re looking for a team in the Bath/ Bristol/ Cheltenham area, Almondsbury is the only place to be!

Example 3: Academics over away days

This one is for any of you out there who decide to balance university study alongside high-level sport. For me, it was a struggle, and I really tried to make it work for far longer than may have been wise.

I chose the University of Bath for two main reasons; my course (there weren’t many universities offering Spanish and Russian…) and the sport. The women’s football setup at Bath is fantastic, as are the facilities and coaches. Their first team compete in the BUCS South Premier (the top level of women’s university football) with the second team not far behind, and they have a development team for more recreational players. Sounds great, right?

For the first two years of uni, I dragged myself out of bed at 6am twice a week, stayed on campus until 11pm two evenings a week to train, and tried to fit in gym sessions and conditioning on top of that. For some courses, this was the dream set-up, but for me, it was a complete nightmare.

My course was a bit of a medley. I had seminars for Spanish, seminars for Russian, lectures for politics and history and then I did French as an extra. Each day I probably had around four or five hours of contact time, and had to get all my reading and assignments done in the small amounts of time that I wasn’t at training or in the gym.

I then had to make the decision whether to miss lectures on Wednesdays in order to make the trek to Hertfordshire, Brighton, Aberystwyth or Portsmouth to name a few. Normally for away days, I would take my laptop and try and work on the coach to catch-up with what I’d missed. However, if you’ve even tried to work on a coach, train or bus, you’ll know that it is nigh-on impossible. Even if we had home games which meant I could attend my lecture, it would then mean that I had to sprint across campus (very embarrassing), throw on my kit, and either I’d make it just in time for the end of the warm-up or I’d make it in time to sit on the bench.

It was after I got back from my year abroad that I had an epiphany… I just couldn’t juggle all of this. I was completely burning myself out, and my grades were suffering. A month or so into my final year, I quit the football club completely and concentrated on my course. My average went up from a 2:1 to a first in less than 2 months. Coincidence? I think not.

Now I’m not saying that it’s impossible to do both. I know loads of the girls played football the whole way through their courses and came out with fabulous qualifications, but for me, it was too much. It took me three years to realise, but academics had to come over football. Perhaps more importantly, my mental health had to take priority, and if that meant giving up one thing in my so-called ‘university experience’, so be it.

I don’t regret it.

Why am I telling you all this? And why does it matter?

So, three examples, one clear message.

A message that I would share with anyone; whether that be male or female footballers, youngsters or veterans – if something doesn’t feel quite right, step back and take a long look at yourself, your happiness and your priorities.

I assume that if you’re reading this, you’re either a player, or are interested in football, and let me be clear that I’m not saying that football was the route cause of the issues above, but I am saying that sometimes it wasn’t the solution. On the three occasions I have shared with you, stepping off the pitch was the right decision – I concentrated on myself, my mental health, and my general happiness, and I don’t like to think about what might have happened if I hadn’t done that.

I might have decided never to put football boots on ever again.

I think nowadays, we all put a lot of pressure on ourselves to make things work, even against all the odds. Even going into this season, I felt under tremendous pressure to make the right decision on who I signed for, especially taking into account previous experiences, but we should realise that things aren’t always going to work out, and that’s okay. We just need to be ready to put our happiness ahead of playing football, which isn’t always easy, but can be necessary.

The silver lining

This post has taken me months to write. None of us like thinking about negative life experiences and typing them up in black and white is… traumatic. However, let’s end on a positive note. Despite having to step back and hang up my boots (metaphorically, in the case of beach football) on a few occasions, I’m now in an extremely positive place. This season I will be back playing with my childhood club Wycombe Wanderers, I’ve re-signed with FA National Futsal Series side Reading Royals, and I’ve got a shot at making the England Beach Soccer team (with a lot of hard work in the next few months).

What I’m trying to say is that there’s always light at the end of the tunnel. My final bit of advice – put your happiness and health above everything, including football. Live by that and you might end up thanking me in the future!