“Your time in college will be the best years of your life, be sure to cherish your time there.”
Most college students will hear this phrase many times while they’re in school, whether it be from relatives or from the chatty old lady who happened to notice your college T-shirt in the supermarket. I heard these words in this context for the last time during the opening ceremony speech at my last softball tournament. The fact that my time as a student athlete was soon going to be over didn’t hit me until that moment.
For most athletes, your entire career leading up to college is geared towards finding a school to play for: You go on recruiting trips during the school year or college camps over the summer, hoping that some coach will see your worth as a player and recruit you. Once you’re in college, that anxiety of finding a home goes away and you go back to playing the game relatively stress-free the way you always have. However, it's these years that athletes should really care about the most.
Having dumped so much of my life into my sport for so long, I almost felt like I’d blown it; I should have taken more pictures, paid more attention to each detail of each game, remembered every moment exactly how it happened. I should have worked on my hitting more, or worked out harder in the weight room. I should have started telling myself before and after every game that I am good enough, instead of destroying myself over everything I did wrong. I treated every season of my college career as if it were the same old thing, as though it would never end. Going into my last game, I suddenly regretted everything that I didn’t do.
Did I cherish these moments the way I should have?
My mindset on my final game day was to try to “do things right” at least once before my career ends. I wanted to remember my last moments as an athlete as much as possible, and this fueled a new fire within me. I almost felt high off of the (potentially caffeine-induced) adrenaline that rushed through my body during our pregame warm up. At the same time, a part of me was aching, knowing that day was the “last good day” of my dying career.
When softball becomes wrapped up into your identity, there are few things in life that make you feel the way you do when you step onto a field. Nothing makes you feel more powerful than hitting the ball on that perfect spot on your bat, throwing out a girl at second from your knees or pitching that backdoor curve and watching the batter watch strike three. Even bloodying your nose on a dive back to second base and having to finish the rest of the inning with mini tampons in your nose makes you feel a little sexy.
But no matter how softball makes you feel, you will still take off your helmet for the last time just as I did. You will take off your batting gloves and your EvoShield and put them on the bench, never to be worn in a game again. You will line up at home plate to shake hands with the opposing team, trying to hide the ugly crying that you’ve seen distort the faces of seniors that came before you. You will hug all your teammates for what you feel is the last time, and you may even lay in your dirty uniform in your room for the rest of the day. You can officially consider yourself a part of the generation of athletes that can start stories off with the phrase, “Well, back when I played...” However, what you may not yet realize is that this sport has given you much more than you ever thought it could.
Your ability to work in a team setting will forever be a bragging point on your resume. You will do things that will remind you of little moments with your team that will make you giggle when nobody's watching. Each scar on your body has its own story, each team picture has its own memory. Even though you don’t remember every moment of your time playing the game, the game will always live in you.
If you still have a year, two years or five years left playing the sport that you love, remember this: do your best to cherish the memories you have, but know that you haven’t failed yourself even when you feel like you haven't maxed out every aspect of your career. The fact that you were given the chance to play your sport for as long as you have is blessing enough. Remember what you can, and love every bit of what you can hold onto.
To those who have just handed in their jerseys for the last time: Don't spend all of your energy reflecting on all the “should have done” memories and “what-ifs" of your time playing your sport. The little girl that started this journey many years ago, with shorts riding up to her armpits and stickers on her helmet, couldn't have ever dreamed that she would have the opportunities that you were given or that she'd make it as far as you did. So when those doubts creep in, think of her and love the game as she did: Deeply and without regret.