View from the sidelines: Injury gives soccer player new perspectives

September 9, 2019 — by Shama Gupta

Until the last few games of high school soccer in sophomore year, I had no idea how games played out from the bench. I was used to the adrenaline rush of cheering “TOGA!” and breaking out onto the field with my teammates before the referee’s whistle started the match. 

Looking back on that time on the field now, I’ve realized that no matter how much I would complain about being tired, sore or soaking wet after a rainy day, I loved playing hard and helping my team — something I didn’t truly realize until my playing time diminished because of injury. 

On a particularly rainy practice session a few weeks into the winter season, I slipped on the turf and landed on my back. Although I wasn’t seriously injured, I couldn’t walk, sit or stand normally. After requesting to sit out for the game the next day, I spent the 90-minute game getting really familiar with the bench for the first time that season. 

It may have been the fact that any sitting position made my spinal cord feel possessed, but that felt like the longest soccer game of my life, not to mention the fact that a “Lord of the Flies” essay awaited me at home while I helplessly sat on a bench at Fremont High School in a two-pound parka jacket.

During the long two hours that we were there, however, I noticed a few things:

Being a substitute or a coach on a 50-degree rainy day was far more painful than slipping and sliding on Fremont’s muddy grass field. 

People on the sidelines watch players on the field meticulously. Even from 50 yards away, recognizing players and their mistakes were actually really easy — which  took me back to the thousands of bad touches I’d taken in my past eight years of soccer.  

Being on the bench is far less engaging than being on the field. Now, don’t get me wrong, I cared about the outcome of the game, but I wasn’t on my toes anticipating what would happen and trying to prevent or build it. I didn’t feel any less a part of the team. It’s just that I wasn’t a contributing factor to the team’s performance. 

Against my better judgment and my parents’ wishes, I  conceded to the coaches’ reminders that I should get back on the field as soon as possible. I was especially aggravated when the head coach told me that he was advised by other coaches to think about my “tendency to get injured” before putting me on varsity.

Thinking back to my multiple ankle sprains in the past year, I felt like an unreliable player, which made me push myself to get back onto the field as soon as I could. 

So after a few days of sitting out, I started to hobble around practices and half-heartedly go through the motions during drills. During games, I’d run with a hunched back and try to kick the ball without actually moving (which obviously wasn’t going to work out for me). Ultimately, my bad decision and poor playing quality led to more time on the bench. 

This series of events also motivated my parents to be more cautious, who then told me not to be too aggressive and to “play it safe.” Admittedly, I started to fall into this disposition and convinced myself not to exert “too much” energy. 

Although it wouldn’t affect everyone this way, not starting games (or at least not being put in fairly early), along with my new unbothered state of mind significantly affected the way that I played when I was put on. I wasn’t being “soccer smart” and didn’t have the same confidence as before my injury.

Despite warming up on the sidelines before getting on the field and trying to stay engaged, I felt like I was being haphazardly thrown in and expected to “integrate” myself.  I was attacking late, positioning myself incorrectly and simply not being as useful as I should’ve been. If there’s anything I’ve learned from being on the bench, it’s that being there is harder and more stressful than it seems. 

Before this season, I never thought about bench players and the challenges they face. As a result of my own experience, I’ve developed a  newfound respect for teammates who can run off the bench and be ready to contribute (this requires a surprising amount of confidence and enthusiasm). Even so, with this lesson learned, I hope to be on the field at the beginning of games more often this year. 

Let’s just say that getting inspired during team huddles to assert our underdog confidence by screaming “1, 2, 3, TOGA!” was a lot more fun when it led up to running onto the field rather than turning around and walking to the bench.