Written for a college writing class and non-football playing readers.

I show up to the field in shorts and a training top, carrying cleats in the bag on my back and a water bottle in my right hand. The air is still warm, even at this time of evening. The sun has just about set, casting long shadows of trees across the field. I hear the shrieks of children as they run through the field in a mighty game of tag. I expected the smell of grass but instead it’s dry and uncut – odorless. This isn’t a surprise since the hottest days of August were only a couple weeks earlier. I make a mental note to test the grip of my studs before getting into the session. 

Any other Thursday night this would be a normal practice. I would arrive and say hi to my girls before getting into a warmup. Tonight is different. Tonight I’ll be tested more than I have been the last few months. Tonight will be exhilarating and scary. Tonight I’ll have to prove myself if I want to stay. Tonight I train with boys.

This isn’t just any boys team. I’ve played with under nineteen boys and a vmsl men’s team last year, but this boy’s team is better. Much better. They’re the FVSL (Fraser Valley Soccer League) Premier Division boys team. The highest amateur soccer you can play as a male soccer player before signing semi-professionally to League One or professionally in the CPL (Canadian Premier League). 

I’m starting to sweat. My teeth chatter slightly from the adrenaline rush overcoming my senses. On the drive here, I contemplated taking the wrong exit by “mistake” several times. I hadn’t expected to get so nervous. I’ve just played the second highest level any woman can play in Canada – League One. I’m a semi-professional for goodness sake! What’s got me in such a nervous state? 

I take a deep breath. You can do anything, I say this mantra to myself as I count my breaths. One, in through the nose. Two, out through the mouth. I release the air and press a hand to my stomach, trying to breathe out whatever is inside me that’s making my stomach twist in knots. Everything is going to be okay.

The boys show up one by one. Then a few cars carrying four or five guys. Carpooling – a very standard operation. Something to know about athletes is unless we’re professionals and paid well, we’re all broke. Every penny goes into our sport. Equipment, coaches, staff, refs, field time, facilities, therapy, physio, meal prep, gym memberships, gas money. I grew up being chauffeured around the city by my own mother. I spent more time in the car listening to explicit songs than anywhere else.

I set down my bag at the bottom of the fence, changing out of my shoes and lacing up my cleats. Why do I have to be so difficult? I snap myself out of the negative thought, No, I’m not the only one striving for more. 

In fact, there are many stories of female footballers, who are now top tier either in European leagues or representing their countries, that played with boys during their youth. All of which were eager and hungry for the challenge. Playing in their respective clubs and leagues wasn’t fulfilling enough. Most of these women had to fight for a chance to play, both against boys and throughout their professional careers.

I straighten my back, remembering my purpose. It was always so much bigger than me. So much more at stake. I wasn’t just representing myself, but an entire group of female athletes. I would represent them well. I had to. This was a responsibility I placed on myself willingly. There was already so little advocacy for women in athletics. I couldn’t take my role lightly as I got myself ready for the session.

Playing with my women’s team served me well. It gave me the intellectual challenge I needed to be the sharpest and quickest thinker on the pitch. But what women lacked was creativity. Audacity. Fearlessness. Most women played afraid. Not all, but a good majority. The number of fakes or crowd pleasing moves is significantly less in a women’s match versus a men’s match. I, myself, was the same way – playing from a place of fear. Knowing that was true, I couldn’t stay in the same environment that bred what I already was. It was time to step beyond comfort and safety, into the spaces where I would grow. As Brené Brown once said, “There is no courage without vulnerability.” My nerves ease as I lean into the discomfort. This fear would soon dissipate, but that would only happen if I chose to face it – chose to grow. 

My motivation to persevere takes me back to struggles in the past. Problems between friends, teammates and especially coaches. Teammates that are unable to support each other, people whose loyalty is easily lost and coaches that don’t want what’s best for you. Each and every experience has shaped me and led me to be in this moment, where I’m still and always will be, fighting for myself. 

“Taya, good to see you,” my coach’s enthusiasm and warm smile draws me out of any lingering anxiety.

“Coach, good to see you too!”

We shake hands and he nods to me, a silent acknowledgment of the waves I’m making by standing with his team today.

“Let’s get going, two laps!” Coach says, and we’re off. Jogging through the uncut grass, a group of people, ranging from boy to man to young woman. 

As we jog, I overhear conversations among the team. Discussions about school, work, the past weekend and the season ahead of them. I don’t make any efforts to integrate myself into the group. I know deep down it’s still too early, they might need some time to warm up to me. And I still have everything to prove.

After the warmup, Coach rounds us up for a team chat. I note the frequent glances in my direction and questioning expressions. 

“I know all of you have your own lives… work, school, family, but we need to arrive on time. When I say 7:30 practice, I need us all to be here at 7:20. We don’t have much sunlight, and when it gets darker quicker, in a few weeks, our practices will end sooner. Please, just make sure you arrive on time,” he addresses the team. I wait for Coach to mention me, even just a small announcement, justifying why I’m here… but he doesn’t. He continues, “Next weekend is our first game. So, we’re preparing for that these next two weeks. Get into groups of six at each rondo.”

I brighten at the mention of rondos. One of my favourite drills to play and coach. The drill incorporates every aspect of the game, except skills that involve distance such as shooting or long balls. 

I jump into a four by four square grid and wait for some teammates to arrive. To my surprise, no one seems to bat an eye and I’m quickly accompanied by five other players in the grid.

Before I can even touch a ball I’ve gone down a rabbit hole of thinking. What if I bring the team level down? What if they don’t respect me? What if I ruin something here? 

I get on the ball, take a touch and make a simple pass out. Just do the next right thing… one at a time, I reassure myself. The next play involves a one touch reaction. I make the right decision and keep the ball moving on the ground. I just have to prove to them that I belong here, I tell myself, angling my body to receive the next pass. Receive, touch, play. Receive, touch, play. Receive, touch, play.

The minutes fly by and Coach calls us all over for the next drill. I wipe the sweat off my brow with the back of my hand, releasing a breath. I did it. One down, a few more to go. 

Throughout the next few drills I fall into the flow of the game. My mind eases, letting my muscles do the job. It becomes instinctual, where to be and when, which foot to receive with and which to make the pass with. The world around me falls away. All I feel is the ball moving between my feet and the soft sound of cleats on grass. I pass between two defenders, splitting them. Another turn and pass. I shoulder check and make a quick pass before the ball can be taken from me. Completion after completion after completion. I’m playing flawlessly… but safe. I’m not taking any risks, taking players on or creating plays with dribbling. 

I’m folded at the waist, hands on my knees, catching my breath and thinking of all the ways to change this pattern I keep seeing in myself. The pattern that has leaked out of soccer and bled into my life. My work. My relationships. My lifestyle. The fear of failure and inability to take risks. It’s kept me chained down and boxed away for so long. It’s kept me living and dreaming from a lonely, scared place. 

“Hey, Taya!”

I look up at the mention of my name. It’s my Coach. From outside the grid, standing next to an array of soccer balls, with one under the sole of his cleat, he looks at me with a determination and confidence I have yet to see in my reflection in the mirror. 

“Don’t stop! Rest later!” He yells, gesturing firmly to the game around me.

I straightened immediately, this was no place to sulk. I could contemplate while getting myself back into the game. I got on the ball, moving too slowly and having it taken. I bite the inside of my cheek. I know I can learn from the boys around me, and start to pay close attention to those that are successful and those who lose the ball easily. Within minutes the coaching tips came back to me – disguising your intentions. Every time there was a fake, from a step over to a simple shoulder drop, the defender lost their hold on the player.

The next ball that comes towards me, I drop my shoulder left, feeling the defender shift his weight behind me, I spin to the right and make the pass. I hear a quiet “oooo” throughout the team and smile to myself. This wasn’t so bad, I was already doing what I’d come to do – learn. 

By the time the session comes to an end the sky hash darkened, the last rays of light receding back into the horizon. 

I knock my cleats together, watching the clumps of grass fall. 

The team huddles up for an end of practice talk. Coach stands at the front, patiently waiting for the few stragglers to join. 

“Today was good. We still have lots to work on before the season starts… not this weekend but the next one. Please show up early so we can start on time. That’s all, see you tomorrow,” he says, clasping his hands in front of his chest.

The team claps and begins to disperse. I ask Coach if he needs help taking equipment to his car and end up with the ball bag and some cones. 

As I start my trek to the parking lot, one of my teammates stops me. I set down the bag and look at him. He has tan skin and dark hair. Taller than me but lean with a face still in the process of maturing. I vaguely remembered him from earlier, one of the boys who had joined my grid for the rondo. 

He sticks out his hand and I shake it firmly. “I’m Trevor,” he says, smiling.

“Taya,” I reply, breaking the hand shake. 

He grabs his phone out of his pocket, “Are you in the group chat already?”

I shake my head.

“Okay, I’ll add you. What’s your number?”

I stare at him for a moment. Just like that? Almost too easy. Where was the resistance? I expected to fight for survival but instead I was being offered to join the team group chat.

I shake myself out of my stupor. Adjusting my backpack, I give him my number.

“There you go… added,” he says, powering off his phone and returning it to the pocket of his joggers.

“Thank you,” I nod to him.

He nods back and turns away, joining a blonde haired boy that walks with him to the parking lot.

I get back to my car, throw my bag onto the passenger seat and close the door beside me. I watch from behind my windshield as my new teammates climb into their own cars. 

Opening the front pocket of my bag, I fish for my phone. On the lockscreen is a notification. A feeling roots itself inside me, growing quickly as I click the notification and open the chat. I’m filled with warmth as I see the list of players and my name added to the bottom.

I’m too nervous to say anything, fearful that I’ll be removed once they find out I’m here. I tell myself I’ve tricked them. That soon they will find out the truth – I don’t belong. I haven’t proven myself, and they’ll never believe I’m good enough. Soon they will exclude me, for what reason do they have to include me? I sit with the imposter in my car, staring at the screen in disbelief.

And yet, in the silence, a question surfaces. Its whisper breathes down my neck and arms, raising goosebumps along my skin.

Why is it so hard to believe you belong?

Photography: SportsUp BC

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