I spotted him the second I turned around. He was a couple of yards in front of me. I had just sprinted fifty yards but the cheetah inside me wasn’t giving up now. His back was toward me. The ball was by his side and I assumed he would turn soon. I was the only obstacle between him and the goal. The turf glistened in the sun and a light breeze cooled the sweat running down my face. I kept a close watch on him, trying not to blink. Out of nowhere, he fumbled. Like a predator sensing weakness in its prey, I charged. It was a risky move, but there was a chance I could steal the ball and fly up the wings. I knew I was faster than him.
It happened quickly. I went in for the attack and he instinctively kicked his leg out under mine. Our legs intertwined. My knee hyperextended laterally.
Next I knew, I was face down on the turf, pounding the ground and yelling out in pain.
Time passed. Finally, I was carried off the field.
Icing my knee while watching the remainder of the game, I reflected on my performance. I didn’t regret it. With two assists, strategic plays, goal-to-goal sprints, it had been one of my better games. The injury was an unlucky side-effect. Every risk has a downside.
The day after the game when I was hobbling around at work, a fellow soccer player asked me what happened. “I hope you didn’t tear your ACL. That’s my worst nightmare. That’s not the way I want to go,” she said. Later that day, I was stopped again. “Do you know if you tore your ACL? I just started playing soccer and man, I’m just not up for that risk.”
Having always been surrounded by teammates and opponents in full-length leg braces, I too, have forever feared this outcome. The injury requires surgery to fix and inhibits you from running for at least six months. Not to mention the fear of re-injury that will forever chase a person like me.
It turned out that I tore my ACL and my medial meniscus.
I started playing soccer when I was five. From the little league Red Foxes to the high school Varsity Team to the city rec league Cyborg Reptiles, I can’t imagine life off the field. I am not an excellent player, but my speed, strategy, and hunger to win supplement skill level.
Soccer isn’t like running or going to the gym where your own inertia is the only barrier. A pick-up game requires you to wrangle at least three people, locate flat terrain, obtain a ball, and identify goal posts—at minimum. Over the years, colleagues and friends have been subjected to my (polite, yet) incessant begging to come out and play. As an amateur, I’ve often been asked (and wondered myself) what keeps me playing. Until last week, I never had an answer.
Twelve days ago, I got surgery to reconstruct my ACL and repair my meniscus. Two days ago, I started taking literal baby steps toward my recovery. With half of my mind focused on bending my knee with each step, the other half was lost in a realization: I had survived my biggest soccer nightmare. I had faced the worst-case scenario of the risk I had taken. And well, I was dealing. Despite the excruciating pain, I’m optimistic about the personal challenge ahead. I don’t regret that animalistic instinct that landed me here.
I am proud of myself for having taken that risk on the field.
Off of the field, I wouldn’t call myself a risk-taker. I belabor pros and cons; I slosh around in twin puddles of “you can’t go wrong.” I’m not the prototypical thrill-seeker who literally or figuratively just jumps. And this truth doesn’t upset me.
As I took took those deliberate first steps this weekend, I realized why I play soccer. I play to exercise my risk-taking muscle. I gear up to get out there and do whatever I can to win. My animalistic hunger is caged between the goal posts.
And when I take risks on the soccer field, I learn things —about how to think and approach various situations, about leadership and friendship, about communicating with teams—that are directly applicable to every other aspect of my life.
I frequently hear and read the advice that taking “big risks” is the only way to meet your goals. Until now, I feared that my aversion to taking “common” life risks (i.e., quitting my stable job to “do my own thing” like travel or start a company or volunteer) would inhibit me from finding my success. But my recent soccer injury has made it painfully clear that this fear is unwarranted. Risk is relative. There is no objectively big or small risk. And no right or wrong place to take risks. What’s important is to find the parts of your life in which you are willing and wanting to take self-defined risks, and to take them. Then apply what you learn to the rest of your life.
Pre-surgery, I wondered whether I’d want to play soccer again. But I now know that I must. I must because the field is my self-identified risk playground. This is the place where my life goals come into focus.