How do you convince yourself that your only job as a professional athlete is to smile and try as hard as you can each day when you’ve spent your whole life chasing results and success?Cari Roccaro
I’ve been playing soccer for 23 years. My whole life I have played this sport because I love it — it’s my passion, it’s what drives me, it fills me with joy. When I was younger, it kept me out of trouble, helped me channel my energy into something fun, and allowed me opportunities to easily make friends. As I got older, soccer helped open doors for me that never would’ve opened otherwise: I’ve been able to travel the world and experiences new cultures, attend the University of Notre Dame and get a great education, and compete in games on the world stage, even winning a gold medal. Soccer has given so much to me, and I owe so much of who I am to this sport.
To put it simply, soccer had always fulfilled me.
Interestingly enough, the sport I’ve played my entire life, the thing that has brought me so many highs, has also presented me with some serious lows. As I got older, soccer became more than just a hobby, more than just the thing that got me into college, it became my job. It became the thing that allows me to put food on the table. It became the thing that ensures I have health benefits. It became the thing that allows me to have a place to live. Instead of just being something I did for fun or something that filled my heart with pure joy, it’s now something I do to live.
Despite soccer now being my livelihood, I still love it with every ounce of my being. It’s still the thing that lights a fire within me each day and I’m my most true self on the field. But, because of what this sport provides me — financially stability, health insurance, and a place to live — there are definitely days when adversity hits and those pressures take a toll on me and feel more significant than they used to.
Once contracts and money got involved, mistakes and failures felt heavier — they weren’t just mistakes anymore. At times they could be the difference between being employed or not, which could be the difference between me being able to afford to live or not.
Because of this, it became harder to move on from adversity and brush the lows away. For my first few years in the NWSL, the pressures started to weigh me down. My livelihood and my performances on the field started to feel so dependent on each other, and it was terrifying and difficult to adjust to. It became harder and harder to shake off the mistakes and failures because this wasn’t just a hobby for me anymore and I was no longer a kid. There were days that this sport, this thing that I’ve loved for more than 20 years, became nothing more than just my job, and because of that I wasn’t as fulfilled as I once was.
So how does one deal with that? How do they deal with the inevitable pressures that come along with their favorite thing in the world now also being the thing that affords them the ability to pay their car insurance? How does one now handle it when adversity strikes? And is it possible to feel the same fulfillment in your sport that you once did when playing was just for fun? How does one maximize fulfillment as a soccer player through all of these low moments?
Shifting My Mindset
This is something that took me years to learn, but I now know it’s possible to feel just as fulfilled in soccer as I had felt back when I was younger. It hasn’t been easy, but after years of feeling weighed down by the adversity and pressures of what this career presents, I was able to change my mindset.
When I first entered the NWSL in 2016, I was someone who felt the pressure. I had a short fuse, I wasn’t patient with my mistakes on the field, and I acted in irrational ways when I felt I was failing. At that point in my career, I was constantly weighing the pros and cons of playing soccer as a job, comparing myself to others, and losing confidence. I allowed my days to be ruined by bad performances on the field and I felt little to no fulfillment from the sport that I fell in love with many years prior. This lasted for a few years, until my mentality completely shifted.
I’m now a player who is more carefree on the field. I changed my goals to things that are 100 percent attainable each day, and that has allowed me to become a better player and to feel that true love for soccer every single day again. Instead of harping on performance-based goals, I shifted my focus to goals based on improvement and pleasure.
My two goals each day are “smile and grow.” It’s as simple as that.
Concentrating more on development and enjoyment has allowed me to push myself to the limits and compete with less pressure, which allows me to feel lighter, and results in a more fun, positive, and successful version of myself while I’m playing.
So how does one just become care free like this? How do you convince yourself that your only job as a professional athlete is to smile and try as hard as you can each day when you’ve spent your whole life chasing results and success? It’s an odd thing to process and adjust to, but I truly believe it has been the saving grace for my soccer career and emotional well-being.
During the beginning weeks of quarantine in March of 2020, I sensed my mentality starting to shift back to how I was in 2016. The adversity, uncertainty, and pressure in my life was at an all-time high, and I felt my new carefree, overly positive, “smile and grow” attitude slipping away with every passing day because of the pandemic. While I was reflecting on this, I was also trying to figure out how I could channel my energy toward helping my mind not slip back to that negative state from 2016. I knew “smile and grow” was very helpful for me, but I really started to think about my mental habits off the field and my mindset when adversity came my way. In addition to focusing on improvement and enjoyment, I needed to remind myself of the other ways I helped myself feel fulfilled throughout my career.
Finding Commonality with Others
I started wondering if my other friends, other professional soccer players, had a similar mentality as me, and what their thoughts were on maximizing fulfillment off the field during their careers. I conducted 10 interviews with both male and female professional soccer players across the MLS, USL, NWSL, and USWNT. I asked all of them if their days outside of their sport were affected based on how a practice or game went, and how they maximize fulfillment through the highs and lows of soccer. After comparing all of their answers, I was quite surprised to find thoughts that were so similar to my own.
The common themes were that they work as hard as possible, think about the big picture and put things into perspective, journal, find ways to hit the reset button, find passions outside of soccer that are fulfilling, disconnect from the identity of only being an athlete, live in the moment to avoid overthinking, find a balance between eliminating pressure but still be competitive, control the controllable goals (growing, smiling, working hard), have fun and enjoy it.
It’s rare to find athletes who can show up to the field and completely avoid pressure and adversity. It’s also rare that those in other occupations can show up to their jobs and avoid pressure and adversity as well. But a shift in mindset and some of these mental habits can help minimize the magnitude of negative experiences. These strategies seem so simple, but they take conscious effort and practice in seeing what works best. It takes time to learn which of these could work for you to enhance performance, while also feeling as fulfilled as possible through all the craziness that a job brings. But if you can start to become aware of your thoughts, recognize them, acknowledge them, and shift your mindset, you can stay competitive in your job, push your limits, and strive for success, while also maximizing fulfillment without dwelling on the negatives.
The starting place is to become conscious of your own thought process. You might have to break it down: What makes you tick? What excites you about your job? Are you able to take what you love about your job and remind yourself of this when your confidence slips? Are you able to recognize what you love about your job and find other areas of your life that allow you to experience a similar excitement as well? What are ways you can enjoy your day despite a tough day on the field (or in the office)? Can you find an outlet or something you look forward to that will be fun no matter how your workday went? Can you set larger goals in your job but also set smaller and simpler ones so that your objectives are 100 percent achievable each day?
This is something that takes a lot of effort and careful thought because transforming your mindset is a unique and gradual process. For me, if I can walk away from the field each day and say, “I enjoyed myself today,” and “I improved today” despite any mistakes I make, that’s a win. If you can walk away from the field or office every day and feel like you achieved that small simple goal, feel excited about other life passions outside of your job, or are able to hit the reset button and live in the present moment, you’re most likely putting yourself in a place to feel fulfilled regardless of any mishaps that took place that day.
A few years ago, I used to think being mentally strong and getting the most out of myself as a soccer player was going to come from me acting tough, having thick skin, and winning. However, the pressures of my job and the ways I handled adversity left me feeling passionless for the game and unfulfilled. But I now know that it’s possible to love soccer and feel satisfied in my job no matter what the day brings.
When I remind myself why I play, what makes me tick, what my attainable goals are, and that I’m not defined by my performances but more by my effort and character, it brings me right back… right back to 23 years ago when I was kicking the soccer ball and felt nothing but pure joy. And I will never let that feeling go.