Chapter 4: MAKE RELATIONSHIPS – ROOKIE: Surviving Your Freshman Year of College Soccer
Imagine this: It’s the opening morning of preseason and the very first thing you’ll encounter is a fitness test. You’ll stand on the goal line with teammates spanning out on either side of you. You look at the teammate to your left, then the teammate to your right. You realize that you don’t know either of their names, yet here you are, on your first day of college soccer, competing against them for a chance to represent your university. Your entire day will be filled with moments just like this, competing against strangers – competing against fellow rookies trying to get noticed, and against returning players who are fighting to hold onto their positions and who view you as a threat.
It wasn’t so long ago that the first day of preseason was like that for almost every rookie. Teammates were adversaries before they were friends. For plenty of freshmen, it still looks like that; but it doesn’t have to.
In this book you’re going to read a lot about returning players. Don’t worry, some of them will become your best friends. But that’s somewhere down the road. For now, let me tell you something very important about returners: They are incredibly territorial. If a player was a starter last year, she feels entitled to start this year. If she didn’t start but the starter graduated, she feels as though she is entitled to that spot because she waited her turn. Your coach won’t share those views on entitlement, but that’s irrelevant right now, because all that returning player cares about is protecting what’s hers like a Mama Bear. You’re a threat, and when it comes to soccer, she’d just as soon kill you and eat you.
One of the best things you can do to help your own cause is to develop a friendship before you start competing against her. If you don’t, then on the day you meet, you’ll be meeting as adversaries. That’s a tough foundation for building a relationship, and it’s a tough way to gain acceptance into the team.
When preseason opens, you want to have some allies in the returning classes. You want some of those players to know you and to like you because they’ll be your guardian angels and your passport. If they like you, they’ll get you inside the club. I cannot possibly overstate how important this can be.
How can you build a relationship before preseason? Well, you can graduate high school early and enroll in the spring semester. I am not advising you to do this. Personally, I loved high school, so there was no way you could have talked me into leaving early and I would never try to convince someone to do otherwise. I’m just letting you know that it’s a trend that has been growing over the past few years and it would meet the objective of establishing relationships well before preseason. If high school has lost its appeal, this is an option you may want to consider.
If leaving high school early isn’t for you, how about enrolling in summer school? A lot of returning players spend their summers in town. You can take a class or two, earn a few quick credits and be left with an abundance of time to learn your surroundings and develop friendships with your future teammates.
Summer camps are another excellent relationship builder. Most college coaches run soccer camps and many of the players serve as camp coaches. See if the coach will hire you for a few weeks during the summer. Camp staffs tend to bond very well. There’s something about trying to manage a group of 200 small children that leads to the birth of beautiful friendships.
If you can’t get yourself physically connected to your teammates, then use phone calls, email and social media to build your relationships. Hopefully you spent the night with a player when you visited campus. Stay in touch with that host and the other players you met. You don’t want to be a stranger when you step onto that field, so make the effort to stay connected.
I’m also going to advise you to do some reconnaissance. The internet is a valuable cheat sheet and you should use it to your advantage. Read everything you can about the team. Study the roster. Read the feature stories. Read every post-game article and watch every video. Listen to the interviews. You can learn an awful lot about your future teammates if you just pay attention.
When you show up to preseason, you want to know everything you can about the returners, starting with their names. Especially their names! Have those names committed to memory before you arrive. This will make your life much easier on so many levels.
And since you’re doing recon anyway, pay attention to anything the coach says. If you just extract the coach’s quotes from a season’s worth of articles, you’ll have a pretty fantastic idea of what the coach is looking for in his players and how he wants his team to play. This information is completely free. Take advantage of it. It’s another great chance to sharpen your axe.