by becky stormer ~
When I think about the day when I have to stop playing football competitively, I have to think of something else quickly for fear of getting worked up and emotional wherever I happen to be at that time. This might sound ridiculously dramatic, but I truly mean it. I’ve played football since before I can remember and more than any other event or experience it has shaped who I am as a person and who I am as a friend and I can’t bear to imagine the day that I’ll have to say goodbye to it.
Writing this column seems somewhat premature given I am only 25, but the heartbreak I and the rest of the team felt watching a teammate pull out of a training session with a recurring injury that may have ended her footballing career got me thinking deeply about football and team sport and what they’ve done for me.
To start, the friendships I have made playing football are quite simply irreplaceable. The bond you create when your entire team is about to collapse from exhaustion but you’re all still working your arses off until the final whistle is impossible to replicate. And then the feeling of pure joy when you hear that whistle and you’ve won. It gives me goosebumps just writing about it. Aside from the emotional intensity of matches, the childish happiness that playing sport with my friends brings me is hard to describe. For me and all the girls I play with, football has been part of our lives since such a young age it brings with it an association with youthful and free-spirited fun that you don’t get elsewhere in the adult world. I naturally become my happiest and silliest self when playing football with friends.
I think some of what I feel about football is hugely influenced and enhanced by the girls I play with, and this article is partly an ode to them. I have been so unbelievably lucky with the teams I’ve played in over the years, none more so than with Fulham. Whilst I know teams change year by year, the thought of any of any of them deciding that they want to stop playing or they’re too old and the team changing seriously saddens me. Something I love about football and team sports is the (sometimes irrational) protection you feel for your teammates, even if you have nothing else in common apart from football. Your teammate has just made the most horrendous tackle but that is absolutely not a foul and she didn’t mean it ref? And on the flipside, if your player goes down from a tackle the pace at which your teammates come round to defend and support you just warms my heart. I take huge comfort in knowing that I could call on any of my teammates in a moment of need.
Whilst I’m not a hugely reflective person, and I don’t often think deeply or at all about who I am and my personality, I know that some of my best attributes are a result of playing team sport for so long. The ability to be completely selfless in situations, listen to and empathise with other people’s strife, overcome conflict, having patience when things are going wrong, are things that are regularly demanded from me in a sports team.
I have several friends who wax lyrical about the therapeutic effects of running and the clarity it gives them, but this is something I only ever get from football. There’s no time for worrying about my shitty day or personal problems when I’m busy working out where I should be on the pitch, shouting (probably too much) at my teammates (sorry Fulham girls), analysing several decisions at the same time and then deciding what to do. At Fulham we recently had a month’s worth of off-season which was a welcome break from a long and bumpy season as a result of the pandemic. Yet it was just a week in that I realised I was missing the structure, psychological release and happiness that football brings me, which makes me nervous for the future. I ended up in a pretty grim headspace during that month and whilst other factors were at play, several friends made the link to the fact that I had stopped playing football and I can’t help but think this was one of the main contributors.
Playing football has become such a huge part of my personality that I worry about feeling something I can only think will resemble grief when it comes to an end. Will I lose all the benefits I’ve gained from it? Where will I be able to get that competitive and emotional intensity I only feel when playing in a team? I’m not sure what I will do to replace this void, and I have several years to figure that out, but for now I think I’m just going to appreciate every moment in the knowledge that in some way or another I will always be involved in the sport, be that coaching, taking (forcing) my kids to play in little league, or just being a lifelong fan.