By Kim Decesare

Usually I have a lot of emotions, all the time.  Mostly, I am happy, outgoing, positive and loud as hell.  The people who know me never have to guess what I am thinking and know that I wear my emotions on my sleeve.  The two months leading up to my last game, I entirely avoided the thoughts about it being my “last” of not just “something,” but the last of my “everything” for what feels like my entire life.  Unlike my normal self, I’ve suppressed the emotions of change, the biggest change I am about to face and I am still trying to figure out why. 

I have been a bit irrational with the thoughts about it being my “last” time to do things as a professional.  Last time taping my ankles for a game, last time I have my yoga-esque preparation stretch, last time I will juggle 21 times before putting the balls in the ball bag and the last time I could physically play with a team that I feel I can make an impact on the field with.

Two weeks ago was the KNVB Cup Final.  PSV vs Ajax, rivals.  The biggest rivalry I have participated in since my college days of Duke vs UNC.  For me, this game was a bit more personal than just an American coming to the Eredivisie Dutch league and playing a cup game with a club. This is because on November 19th 2017, the first time I played Ajax, I broke my tibia, clean break straight through the bone.  

Kim after suffering her leg break v Ajax

 

Just like that, done

 

I’d come to the Netherlands to revive my love for the game, get good minutes in and get better.  By game six, I was out with the unluckiest injury I’ve ever had.  Although I knew that there was hope for a full recovery before the season ended, my mind drifted elsewhere.  I came to the conclusion that I can no longer stay healthy on the field long enough to get better, and I need to feel that I can get better in order for me to be happy playing.

This leads me to today.  As I sit here in the airport, I finally have the chance to catch my breath and collect my thoughts.  The past three days have been a whirlwind of emotions that capped off an eventful season abroad and 20 years of playing.  I knew what to expect but couldn’t emotionally prepare for it.  My last game as a professional was a loss and I didn’t even sniff the grass. 

I had completed five and a half months of rehab, pushing not only my body but also the opinions of my medical staff and coaches to the limit.  At first, mostly everyone said I likely wouldn’t be healthy this season, but then month-by-month their opinions changed.  I came back, played in the three games leading up to what I thought would be my “last” game and then was hit with pure devastation.  The game was over, we lost and I didn’t get the opportunity to contribute on the field.  It felt as if every hardship that I had encountered throughout the past ten years, had hit me like a ton of bricks.

From the 80th minute on, I was in tears on the bench.  Normally, if I ever felt an emotion that wasn’t going to influence my team in a positive way, I suppressed it.  This time I didn’t, I just cried.  Not the graceful tears rolling down your cheeks type of cry, I sobbed and sobbed.  I had given so much of my heart and body to the game throughout my career, and in those last minutes, I felt ultimate defeat – worse than any loss.  I had this hope, like I did every time I stepped out on the field, that I was going to be the difference, make the change, and seize the moment. 

This time, my last chance, I didn’t get that opportunity and it hurt….bad. 

A tough defeat to take

 

It’s Okay

 

I am not here looking for sympathy or pity.  This is an opportunity for whoever is reading to know that careers, which are not entirely packed with countless minutes, prestigious awards and multiple championships, should still be recognized as successful.  It is all about how you define achievement and what you decide to learn from it.  I consider myself lucky to have the ability to move on from things quickly and see the bigger picture.  Let’s be honest, you don’t learn as many lessons from the easy, happy and positive experiences, as you do from the shitty ones. 

It’s okay to struggle and it’s okay to ask for help.  It’s okay to have a bad training session or be in a slump.  To be always being the one rehabbing from an injury… it’s okay.  I know that these words will hit home with many: it’s okay to let up and not be so hard on ourselves when we make a mistake.  It’s okay to not feel okay sometimes too.  Dealing with so many injuries throughout my playing career, I sometimes found it difficult to stay positive.  On the outside it was always, “Kim crushes rehab… she’s focused, determined, dedicated, etc.”  But those who are closest to me know that what was portrayed on the outside wasn’t always what was going on, on the inside. 

If you’ve seen me play in a professional game, consider yourself lucky.  For a lot of my career, I felt like I was a professional injury rehabber first, professional soccer player second.  And when I was healthy and vying to contribute on the field, I felt overlooked and passed up, or I felt frustrated that my body wasn’t doing what I knew it was once capable of doing and had done so many times before… but it’s okay.  You know what makes it okay?  I will never have to regret my effort.

Effort is a conscious choice every day.  There were a lot of things about my soccer career that were out of my control and a lot of things that were not consistent.  The nature of sports breeds highs and lows… throw in college (and all the chaos that comes with that), living in different cities/places in the U.S. and around the world, coaching changes, politics, player trades — there is so much that is not in our control, but it feels good now to look back on what I did control- my effort and attitude… day by day, one step at a time… I have never regretted putting in the effort

 

Lessons

 

I am the strongest believer in you get out what you put in (in case you didn’t gather that from the above re effort).  I’ve been on teams who have given nothing and received nothing, and I have been on teams who have given everything and gained all of it back.  If you are not willing to make sacrifices for something that you want, don’t expect it to give you anything in return.  I am not talking only about awards and achievements (I mean, those are really great too), but, more importantly, happiness and meaningful experiences.

When you know better, do better.  These last couple of years have opened my eyes to how many people (be it teammates, coaches, or support staff) are afraid to do better.  The more I have been watching, learning and becoming less naïve, the more I see others cut corners, even in the world of professional sports.  I have seen glimpses of this before with teammates along my journey, but as a player you suffer directly from not performing or showing up with the proper attitude.  Players have consequences.  For the most part, as a player, if you don’t prepare properly, it shows up one way or another when it matters, and the acute pain of that failure causes you to reassess and change your ways.  If you don’t change, you know you will continue on experiencing these painful moments.  They either become lessons that make you better going forward or repeated failures and on high performing teams, there isn’t much tolerance for repeat failures.

Overall, my observation over the last few years has been that the level and effort of players is consistently higher than the coaches and support staff we are provided with as female professional athletes.  It makes sense if you think about it in purely financial terms.  When coaches and support staff have the opportunity to go to a better paying job in the college game or to the men’s side- they take it.  This leaves female professional teams with those who aren’t recognized for more lucrative positions.  If we believe that career advancement is largely meritocratic, this leads one to the conclusion that those left to tend to female professionals may be less qualified and, more importantly, those who aren’t incentivized (i.e. where’s the $$ for these coaches and support staff?!) to put in more effort to become more qualified for their current role.  

Of course, I believe there are exceptions, so shout out to all of the coaches and support staff giving their best every day because they love what they do, and it is in their nature regardless of monetary compensation to be the best they can be.  But, overall, my observation has been that the effort/qualification of coaches and support staff has fallen short of the effort/qualification of the professional female athletes… and trust me, the majority of us players are not being incentivized financially to give it our all, but we do anyway.  This is why we need to continue to push the envelope, find solutions to be able to properly fund female professional sports and when we know better, to speak up and do better.

Team after team, year after year, I encountered a ton of changes throughout my career… expected and unexpected.  Enduring that trained me to feel comfortable being uncomfortable.  I realized that even though there are a lot of changes around me I will always have the ability to hold to my character.  I’ve learned that it’s okay to stand up for yourself and others in order to do the right thing.  We shouldn’t avoid conflict just because it appears to be the easier route.  As women, we are often afraid to show too much confidence in a fear of it being taken the wrong way or seen as cocky.  But it is up to us to stand up for what’s right and to push each other and those around us to be the best version of ourselves.

The lows make the highs higher.  I feel qualified to say this because I have experienced quite a few lows.  Injuries crushed me and, in some stretches of time, defined me, but at the end of the day, shaped me as a person and as my mom would say, “built my character.”  I learned to find happiness in small victories, like winning a 4v4 tournament in training, or completing a run after a knee surgery.  The mind is a powerful thing, it can really beat you up if you let it and we are all going to have those days when the negative thoughts seem to be winning out… but just like a muscle, I learned to train my mind to see the success in those little accomplishments because had I not, I would have struggled to be happy.  As athletes, we’ve all heard the “fake it ‘til you make it” motto, but I prefer “control what you can control” (and you always have control of your attitude).  We all have the ability to train our mind to strive for small victories… those will help us gain confidence and before we know it, those small victories will become bigger ones.

 

What’s Important

 

If I ever told you that I was obsessed with soccer and it is my everything (peep my first paragraph), I lied.  In my more “mature” years I’ve realized that it’s not the sport that I love so much, but the people and the relationships that I have made throughout my time on the field that truly keep me chasing the game.  In life, through personal, real and respectful relationships with those who you can count on, you have the foundation to achieve the ultimate goal, happiness.  

You are never too cool for a little girl who looks up to you.

The people that I have been fortunate enough to surround myself with, have helped me in every aspect of my career and life.  I have learned how to be empathic, how to hold others and myself accountable, to be trustworthy and honest and have a mental toughness through the thick and the thin. To acquire those indispensable qualities and develop the leadership to pay them forward, is what’s important.

As a female player, it’s important to acknowledge that we don’t have sold out stadiums, we aren’t often on national TV, players have part time jobs just to make a living and our contracts are just fractions of what they could and should be.  With that being said, it is so important that future, current and former pro players take on the responsibility of helping to grow the women’s game and to set examples for young girls to follow. You are never too cool for a little girl who looks up to you. 

 

Thank Yous

Teammates and those I’ve met have always been key

Thank you from the bottom of my heart to everyone who crossed my path during my playing career thus far.  From the mainstays, to the one-monthers, to my family and friends, my coaches, teammates, doctors, trainers, PT’s. mentors and the people I care about most, thank you, for endlessly supporting me. Thank you to every little girl who loves the game and to every college and professional player out there for the constant inspiration.  To those who believed that I could take the leap and play at Duke University, D1, ACC, thank you.  Thank you to the coaches who saw my worth and helped me succeed, and a more important thank you to the ones who didn’t.  You fueled my fire to be a good person, a better player and a great coach one day. 

 

New Identity

 

I refuse to use the “r” word because nothing is permanent and I will never let go of the game that made me, me.  Although I still have some sadness about not playing, I can confidently say that I am at peace with my career.  I am proud of myself for being able to play for as long as I did with the injuries and setbacks I’ve had.  I did it. I became what my seven-year-old self wanted to be, a professional soccer player. I knocked down doors to continue to play at the highest professional level when the odds were against me. I had the opportunity to play pro in the U.S., Sweden and the Netherlands.  I’ve learned something new from every person I’ve met and every place I have lived along the way and those experiences are irreplaceable.

I am now continuing my ever-evolving dream and will be a full-time coach.  I take pride in being a role model for those who have looked up to me throughout my playing career and I hope to serve a similar role as a coach.  It is highly important to me that I help to grow the game in the U.S. and give girls an even better opportunity than I had to reach their potential.  I’ve had to say goodbye to my many teams, teammates and beautiful places, but fortunately never to the game.  I welcome this next adventure with open arms.

 

Dream big, inspire others.

 

Kim DeCesare

#11, #19, #27, #3, #12, #18, Coach