Join Our Newsletter
Knuckleheads With Quentin Richardson and Darius Miles
Letter to My Younger Self
The Only Way Is Through
By Kelley O'Hara
I’m not even sure if you know this story yet, but to this day, it’s still one of Dad’s favorites. It was when he and Mom went in for your U13 evaluations. The way I remember it, your club coach, Brian Moore, asked you to leave the room so he could talk to your parents. But Dad swears you were there when Coach said it.
Either way, what he said was pretty crazy.
He said that he thinks you have what it takes to one day play for the U.S. National Team.
The U.S. National Team!
And whether you were in the room or not, I’m happy to tell you that he was right. You do have what it takes.
I know, seems crazy right now considering what just happened and what you’re feeling right now. It’s the summer of 2003, the summer before your sophomore year in high school. You’ve just finished your first regional Olympic Development Camp in Alabama. It was fun, competitive and the games were intense. (It was also a bit spooky, because you’re pretty sure Montevallo is haunted, but that’s neither here nor there.) Every state ODP team from the South region was there, and every girl on every team was competing to make the regional pool.
Out of 250 some players, you made it. You were one of the top 40 for your region. But they don’t just stop at choosing the best pool of players. They make another cut to select the best t , , of players — from 40 girls to 18. And this is important, because the players that make the regional team will go on to a big national team camp with the other regional teams. Making the region team is the stepping stone for making it to the youth national team.
That’s why, when you got a text from one of your friends saying that she had made the team, you were happy for her ... but also pretty hurt. Because you were still waiting for a call.
One that would never come.
Because you didn’t make it.
To say that you’re upset about it doesn’t really do the feeling justice. It’s more like ... anguish. But that feeling you have in your gut — that knot, that sickness, that disappointment — is a good thing.
Because it tells me that you really want this.
Giving up isn’t in your DNA, is it?
No. You’re too competitive. Too scrappy. Maybe even a little
You’ll be living in Brooklyn while playing for Sky Blue FC in the National Women’s Soccer League. You’ll play most of that season through a lot of pain. More pain than your 14-year-old mind can even imagine right now. It will get so bad that you’ll be driving to practice one day, and you’ll start crying in your car because every time you put your foot down on the brake, you’ll know that your ankle isn’t right. You love soccer, and at this point, believe it or not, you actually love going to practice. But you’ll start to dread it because you’ll know that when you put your cleats on and go out on that field, you’ll be in a tremendous amount of pain. It will push you to the absolute brink.
That will be the most difficult thing you experience in your professional career.
Tougher than getting cut from any team.
Tougher than any loss.
ear 14-year-old Kelley,
Rejection is a blessing. Everything happens for a reason.
In a weird way, you actually kind of needed this.
Like I said: Rejection is a blessing. Everything happens for a reason. And the only way is through.
I mean, it wasn’t so long ago that you almost quit soccer. You were 13, playing for Lightning in Fayetteville, Georgia. Coach Brian and others had been asking you throughout middle school why you weren’t playing ODP like some of the other girls. And honestly? It’s because you weren’t ready for all that. Yes, you enjoyed playing soccer, but you didn’t loveit. At the time, you loved playing a bunch of different sports, hanging out with your friends, and ... just being 13. And you were starting to feel the pressure to put all your focus into soccer.
It wasn’t bad pressure. It’s just that people saw potential in you, and they wanted you to make the most of it. That’s it. It all came from a good place.
You just weren’t ready.
And that’s O.K.
There’s a famous quote from Anson Dorrance. He’s the soccer coach at North Carolina. The story behind the quote is that he was driving to his office early one morning when he saw a person running sprints alone in the park. The person was bent down, hands on their knees, breathing heavily, exhausted.
As he got closer, he realized it was Mia Hamm.
When he got to his office, he wrote down on a piece of paper: “The vision of a champion is someone who is bent over, drenched in sweat, at the point of exhaustion when nobody else is watching.”
A printout of that quote will be pinned to your bulletin board through your high school years, next to the magazine cutouts of surfers and all the pictures you developed from disposable cameras. You’ll look at it almost every day. It’s going to almost turn into your motto when you realize just how much work you’ll need to put in if you want to be great. And it’s your work ethic and competitiveness that will carry you all the way from where you are today, to the U20 team, to Stanford, and eventually, to where Coach Brian said you would be all along.
The U.S. National Team.
You’ll be part of a team that makes it all the way to the World Cup final in 2011.
You’ll be on the team that wins Olympic gold in London in 2012. Yes, you read that right, Olympic gold. Are you freaking out yet? Well, get this: You’ll play every minute of every game ... as an outside back. (Just take a second to laugh at that.) All your hard work will pay off, and next, you’ll have your sights set on the World Cup in 2015.
But to get there, you’ll have to make it through 2013, which will be one of the toughest years of your life.
UTAH ROYALS FC
The Players' Shop
The Players' Shop
Join Our Newsletter
Taylor Baucom/The Players' Tribune
By Kelley O'Hara
Nicole Boliaux/The Players' Tribune
And the only way is through.
You probably just rolled your eyes at that. You’re sitting there feeling the most dejected and defeated you have in your life and now here I am, your 31-year-old future self, writing to give you some advice, and that's the best I have for you? Well, it is. Let me explain why.
Coach Brian was right.
You probably just rolled your eyes again. That’s right, the coach that you butt heads with on the daily at practice, because you’re so competitive and he sees it, and who knows that the fire inside of you is something special and won’t let you settle for being mediocre.
You’re not going to like this when I say it, but you’ll look back one day and realize that he was right about a lot of things. He’s the most pivotal coach in your young soccer career. But there’s one thing in particular that he was absolutely right about. And how he knew back then, I’m not really sure ... but he did.
In fact, this won’t even be the last time you get cut. Just wait till the U20 World Cup. (That’s right, you made it to the youth national team level — but that’s a story for another day). It will actually be your second go-round with that U20 team, just before your junior year at Stanford (more on that in a minute). You’ll have some pretty intense internal strife about whether or not you want to be on that World Cup squad because it will overlap with your college season, and one of your biggest goals will be to win a national championship for Stanford.
Well, lucky for you (I guess), you won’t have to decide. Because on that U20 team, you’ll be playing for Tony DiCicco, a World Cup-winning coach.
And he’s not going to take any of your crap.
And at one point, after your team loses in the final of the World Cup qualifier in Mexico, he’ll have some pretty specific thoughts as to why you lost. But you’ll have a different opinion, and you’ll voice it to a teammate at the airport ... in front of an assistant coach. And when Coach DiCicco gets wind of that, he’ll call you up and tell you that you’re out.
He’ll cut you, on the spot.
He’ll say it’s because of your attitude. That you need to be a better teammate. A better person.
You’ll be sick — like physically ill.
Honestly ... you’ll feel a lot like you do now. Defeated. Dejected. Embarrassed.
But this will be another opportunity for self-reflection. This time, not about commitment or hard work or about whether this is what you want or not. Your competitive fire will have grown so strong over time that you will be determined to be the best individually. And with that determination, you will demand the same from your teammates and coaches. That’s part of being a leader. Part of being a winner. And what you’ll realize from this setback is that there is a right way to do that.
You'll just have to learn to use that scrappiness and competitiveness more, and learn how to channel your hot-headedness for good.
Remember how I said rejection is a blessing, everything happens for a reason and the only way is through? Well, after you get cut, you’re going to do a lot of soul searching and you’re going to learn you need to evolve, as a person and as a teammate and as a leader. You’ll show up in August for your junior year at Stanford and turn your focus to one of your biggest goals: winning a national championship. You’ll take the lessons learned from Coach DiCicco and the other obstacles you’ve overcome, and you’ll use them to help lead your team to the national semifinals your junior year. The farthest the program has ever gone. Then, as a senior, you’ll go even further, all the way to the final.
Ninety minutes away from that goal that you want so badly to reach.
You’ll square off against UNC — the nation’s powerhouse in women’s college soccer, the school you turned down to go to Stanford. Your team will fall behind 1–0 early. Third minute. But you’ll hang tough. As the nation’s leading goal scorer and a team captain, you’ll feel a personal responsibility to help bring your team back. So you’ll be extra aggressive. But you’ll get a little too aggressive on one play and you’ll get handed a yellow card.
One goal for your team is all you need right now. Just to tie it up. Then you can worry about setting your team up for the game-winner or winning it in OT or on penalties.
You’ll just have to keep fighting.
When you put your cleats on and go out on that field,
you’ll be in a tremendous amount of pain.
It will push you to the absolute brink.
It’s an amazing journey you’re about to embark on. It won’t be an easy road. The ones worth traveling usually aren’t.
Rejection is a blessing. Everything happens for a reason. And the only way is through.
And everything works out the way it should.
There’s a tough road ahead of you. You just have to focus on the things that you can control. Because no matter what happens, through the good and the bad, you can always control what you do next. How you react to adversity. Your strength comes from who you are in the valleys of life.
So that pain and that heartache of not making the regional team? Feel it. Own it. Learn from it. Because it’s the disappointment, failure and rejection along the way that will make all the successes that much sweeter. You just have to push through it.
Because the only way is through.
And in the end, all the success will make the toughest times worth it.
You just have to want it.
Something tells me you do.
Good luck, kid.
The U.S. National Team!
Maybe I should
just quit soccer. I can be a normal person, right? I don't have to be a soccer player anymore....
Will I ever be myself again?
Taylor Baucom/The Players' Tribune
Omar Vega/Getty Images (right)
But if there’s one thing I know about you, it’s that, more than anything, the people in your life mean everything to you. And when you considered leaving your club team and quitting soccer, the first thing you thought about was your friends. Especially your best friends in the world, Katie and Tannah. These are friends that will stick with you for the rest of your life, well beyond soccer. You guys do everything together. You’re a team. If you quit now, you’d be leaving them. And you knew you couldn’t do that.
Plus, giving up isn’t in your DNA, is it?
No. You’re too competitive. Too scrappy. Maybe even a little hot-headed sometimes, right?
That’s why I said you kind of needed to experience getting cut.
Because I don’t think you realized how badly you wanted it until they told you that you couldn’t have it.
When somebody tells you no, you don’t quit. You go back to the drawing board and figure out how to get a yes. So not making this team will light a fire in you. This is the turning point in your young life where you decide soccer is IT. Now, you want to prove — to yourself, not to anybody else — that you cannot only be good enough to make that team, but that you can be the best.
But the road to being the best is going to be tough.
Then, with about 18 minutes left, you’ll go for a slide tackle on a North Carolina player. It’ll be the same kind of tackle you’ve done 1,000 times before. But this time, you’ll sort of get stiff-armed, and instead of getting the ball, you’ll catch the player’s leg.
As soon as it happens, you’ll know.
The ref will run towards you and pull out a second yellow card, then a red, to confirm it.
It’ll be a disaster. You’ll be absolutely gutted. You’ll wander over to the bench, sit down, and bury your face in your hands because you can’t even look at the teammates you just let down. Then someone — you’ll be so upset you won’t even remember who — will come over to you and say, “You can’t sit here.”
No ... when you get red-carded, you don’t go to the bench.
You go to the locker room.
So you’ll go inside and sit by yourself while your team finishes out the season — and your college career — by losing the national championship.
You’ll feel like ... well, honestly?
You’ll feel like an a**hole.
You’ll feel like you let your whole team — your whole university — down.
This one is going to sting for a while. Actually, more like ache. It’s going to be one of the most painful losses of your career.
And down the road, when you look back on your time at Stanford, you will think about that red card and the fact that you lost the game. BUT ... that ache will heal, which in the moment will feel impossible. And as the years pass you’ll watch Stanford become the most dominant program over the next decade, winning three national championships along the way. You’ll be proud for your coach, Paul Ratcliffe, and his deserved success. You’ll be proud that you were a part of those earlier teams that helped build a foundation for the program. But more than anything, when you look back on your experience at Stanford?
You’ll just be proud to be a Cardinal.
Eventually, the pain will become too much and you’ll go see a specialist. He’ll do what’s called a stress X-ray, where he’ll basically take your right ankle and kind of yank on it to open it up a little and see how loose the ligaments are. And when the doctor tugs on it, he’ll say, “Wow ... I’ve never seen an ankle open up like this before.”
Reconstructive ankle surgery.
You’ll respond the only way you can think to at the time.
Then you’ll walk out into the hallway and just start sobbing. I mean, you’ll completely break down. You’ll go home and cry all night, wake up the next morning and think, Maybe I should just quit soccer. I can be a normal person, right? I don’t have to be a soccer player anymore….
And to convince yourself you could just be normal and not get surgery, you’ll go for a jog through Prospect Park. You’ll feel the pain in your ankle, but, mostly, you’ll think about what a life without soccer would be like. And you’ll realize pretty quickly that ... no, you’re not ready to go do something else.
You still love this sport. This game. This crazy ride. And you’re not ready to walk away just yet, because there are still some things you want to accomplish.
And if the ankle reconstruction is what you’ll need to continue doing that?
Then that’s what you’ll do.
That’ll mean surgery. Crutches. Wearing a boot. You’ll be living in a second-floor walk-up apartment in Brooklyn. Your rehab will be on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, so you’ll spend days crutching to the bus stop, to take you to the subway, to take you to another bus stop, and then crutch all the way to the clinic. A long, exhausting process. It’ll be six weeks before you can even put any weight on your ankle again.
But the toughest part will be the mental aspect.
Wondering, in the back of your mind ... Will I ever be myself again?
In the moment, you’ll have no idea. You’ve never had to do something like this before. But you’ll figure out ways to stay happy and competitive, even though you can’t be playing soccer. Once you get the go-ahead, you’ll bike in your boot from Brooklyn to the Upper East Side to get to rehab. And when you get out of your boot but you’re not cleared to run yet, you’ll challenge yourself racing laps on your bike around Central Park.
It won’t be easy. And injuries will become a harsh reality of getting older and competing at the highest level in the world.
But, man, it will be so worth it.
Coming back from that injury will allow you to be a part of the U.S. team that will make it back to the World Cup final in 2015. Although you won’t step on the field during the tournament until the quarterfinals, you’ll score the goal that seals the 2–0 win in the semifinals against Germany and sends you to the final against Japan.
This time, you’ll finish the job.
You and your teammates will be on top of the world.
You’ll get back there in 2019, winning a second straight World Cup.
Even Coach Brain couldn’t have seen that coming.
I’m telling you, it’s an amazing journey you’re about to embark on. It won’t be an easy road. The ones worth traveling usually aren’t. But believe me, there will be a lot of good that comes in your life and in your career, too. Some amazing things, actually.
But I don’t want to spoil too much for you.
You’ll have to experience some of it for yourself.
But whatever it is, it’s all there for you if you put the work in. And, one day, it will all bring you to where I am right now: 2020, competing to get back to the Olympics and to win another gold medal in Tokyo.
And trust me. When you get here?
You will have so much to be grateful for.
Will I ever
The Players' Shop
Join Our Newsletter