Publicly, pro athletes are portrayed as bigger than life. The athletes will say that being a pro isn’t as glamorous as it seems. That’s utter bullshit. Getting paid to play a sport and travel the world doing so? Yeah, pretty damn glamorous.
What the players are really trying to tell you when they remove the shine is that they are human beings who experience the same ups and downs in life that we all encounter. They have the same anecdotes of failure and perseverance, pleasure and pain that a successful banker or homemaker has. Kelly Jenks makes my point. Listen up. Kap
I’ve been here for three months now, but every morning starts the same. I wake up, smile to myself and thank the Lord for bringing me here. I’m currently playing professional soccer in the second highest division in Finland, living abroad (it’s also my first time outside the US.) and being paid to play the game I love. I’ve come to appreciate saunas and sipping coffee at any hour of the day. I respect the Fin’s love for Coca-Cola, Converse shoes and 24-hours of sunlight. And I admire the peaceful nature of the Finnish people and their comfortableness with introversion.
My journey to get to this point though has been anything but smooth. Despite the many hurdles, two months ago I became a professional. I’m living out a dream I’ve had since I was 8 years old.
I’m going to share some mental barriers I’ve overcome while playing my sport in the past 5 years, because tackling the mental side of the game has always been my biggest challenge. It took me a long time (longer than I would have hoped), but I finally understand my motives and how to tap into the mental strength that I posses in order to be a competitor. This is a sneak peak into my journey—it’s not necessarily a pretty one, but it’s a real one.
To give you some background, I started playing soccer at the age of 4. I stuck with it mostly because I was good at it, got to wear hot pink cleats, run around with my hair in pigtails and have Capri Suns handed to me after practice… every little girl’s dream, right? Over the years, I came to appreciate a little more than the cleats, like the athleticism soccer requires, the fast-pace, the free-flowing and uncalculated movements—not to mention the skill involved.
I played with the boys until I was 9 and then joined my first club team. My coaches along the way told me I had a lot of raw potential, and my dad instilled in me that hard work pays off. I never let anyone beat me in a sprint and took it personally if someone did. I would stay after practice for extra conditioning and take extra shots. I became very competitive in everything I did, and I worked hard to improve my game.
What started out as a childhood love slowly changed over time. My motives shifted from playing because I enjoyed it to playing because I thought my friends and family wanted me to. The more successful I was, the more I sought to please other people and surpass the expectations they’d set for me as an athlete.
Coming out of high school, I had clinched almost every award there was for a high school athlete to claim in my high-achieving, competitive and academically demanding hometown of Palo Alto, California. I’d played 4 varsity seasons for the soccer team and 4 for the softball team, had set the school record for career goals on the soccer pitch as a forward and the school record for career strikeouts on the softball mound as a pitcher. I was being recruited by division 1 colleges around the country for both sports. By my senior year, everyone knew me as “Kelly the Athlete” on campus. It sounds like everything I wanted, but few people knew much else about me. This “Athlete” title given to me by my peers was a façade. I started to struggle with being unable to separate soccer Kelly from non-soccer Kelly at times. My identity was that of an athlete, and my life lacked balance.
I felt a lot of pressure to live up to my athlete title, and my self-confidence took small hits each time I thought I had underachieved. I was a competitive perfectionist—a tough combination for me to deal with and I always felt like I didn’t live up to people’s expectations. Who the heck cares what other people think, but I did then.
As a naïve 17 year-old, I compared myself to other athletes and focused on my shortcomings instead of acknowledging my strengths. If I scored 2 goals, I was bummed because I thought I should have scored 3. I dwelled on the 2 shots I missed. If I struck out 10 batters during a game, I focused on the 1 batter I should have struck out but walked on a full count instead. Coming out of high school, on the surface I appeared resilient and strong, but in reality, my mentality was very fragile.
High school graduation came, and I had what I thought was my dream in hand, the chance to play for the nationally ranked D1 Santa Clara University. My heart had always been set on Santa Clara, and it was a no brainer for me to sign with such a prestigious program. This was what I thought I had always wanted—at least I thought so at the time.
When I got to Santa Clara, the seed of doubt in my mind began to grow as soon as I stepped foot onto campus for preseason in August of 2010. I was no longer the best on the team, no longer the strongest or the fittest. Everyone had a soccer résumé that was just as or more impressive than mine. When I looked around at my new teammates, quite frankly, I became very intimidated. I seemed to forget about the skills that had brought me to this point and why I had been recruited—I had a strong shot, had a knack for putting the ball in the back of the net and played very physical, but all these things became irrelevant. All I could think about were the areas of my game that weren’t as strong as my teammates’.
No surprise here, with a mentality like that, my self-confidence started plummeting. By the end of my freshman season, I was in defense mode and playing not to make a mistake. My impact on the field was practically non-existent. Failure scared me more than success excited me, so I figured, what’s best way to avoid failure? Stop taking risks altogether—and not only on the soccer field. I became a lot more introverted during this time, became less social and stopped raising my hand in class. Talk about a mental barrier infiltrating my entire life!
I know this story is sounding pretty bleak right about now, and I hate to say it gets worse before it gets better. Bear with me though, because great resilience can be found in times of trial.
To add to my head case, I had a back injury and was set back for 3 months, followed by some hard things happen at home with my family, which I never saw coming. I carried the burden of injury and family struggles, along with pressure to succeed in soccer and poor confidence, with me to every training session that fall during my sophomore year. The self-appointed pressure was debilitating, and it got to the point where I felt like I might be sick every time I suited up for practice in the locker room. My relationships with my teammates and friends off the field suffered. I considered if I should just quit playing soccer altogether, I mean, why play if it didn’t even make me happy?
The turning point came when I had a meeting with my assistant coach. He told me he could tell that I wasn’t having fun, and it was hard to watch. I broke down in his office. I cringe sharing this, because those 30 seconds were probably the lowest 30 seconds of my athletic career thus far. He gave me two options and said it was my choice—I could stay, or I could transfer. He also said nobody was forcing me to be here. At that moment, something clicked. For many years now, I’d been playing for other people. If you looked up “people pleaser” in the dictionary, it would read “Kelly Jenks.” I was sick (literally) of soccer being the only thing defining me. There were many other aspects of Kelly that needed to be explored. It was time to do what was best for me, and after my meeting with my coach, I decided to take my cleats elsewhere.
In order to regroup, I needed to make a big change. I believe that everything happens for a reason and that God has a plan. Still, taking that leap of faith was one of the scariest decisions I’ve had to make. Transferring to Cal Baptist University (CBU) to play soccer turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life.
From my experience, the right coach at the right time can make all the difference. My coach at CBU challenged me to look deeper at myself. She told me she believed in me as a player and respected me as a person. I soaked up what she said. I set daily goals and reminders to keep myself on track. I started communicating more with my teammates on the field and using my voice to encourage them and applaud them when they made a good play. By communicating more with my comrades, in turn, I focused less on my own mistakes and more on the success of the team. My teammates had my back and started reciprocating the encouragement. If I made a faulty pass, they were there to pick me up. If I made a good tackle, they’d tell me to keep hammering away.
I became much more assertive and my confidence grew exponentially. Each goal I scored brought me closer to realizing my potential as a soccer player. I thought about the feeling of winning, instead of being scared of the feeling of failure. And more importantly, I set my own standards. My standard: To improve each day and become a better soccer player than I was the day before. My standard: to become a better Kelly each day. Another standard: to play for God, and use the talent he had given me.
My self-confidence on the soccer field translated into confidence off the field and I started to let my walls down, became a lot more outgoing, comfortable around people, and I formed healthy relationships. Since I had a much better support system in place off the field to help me with my hardships at home, I was able to leave the “baggage” in the locker room when it came time to play soccer. As soon as I got dressed for training, the next 2.5 hours were designated soccer hours. And I loved those 2.5 hours each day I got to spend with a ball at my feet. I was finally able to separate my two worlds and was no longer Kelly the Athlete. I was Kelly
By the time I graduated from Cal Baptist in May 2014, I’d been named All-American, All-Region, Conference Player of the Year and received All-Conference status. The awards were satisfying, and I can’t sit here and say I didn’t enjoy the recognition… BUT, the awards were not nearly as satisfying as the personal growth that had taken place in those two short years. I was stronger and more mature. I knew who I was as an athlete, but more importantly, as a person. I also knew I wasn’t ready to stop playing soccer, and my lifelong dream of playing professional soccer seemed attainable. Some of my peers in my hometown thought I was crazy for wanting to pursue this ambition (instead of wanting to wear uncomfortably narrow heels, sit in a cubicle for 10 hours a day and work behind a computer). But I didn’t care.
The months after graduating from college were all about self-discipline and applying my new mindset towards reaching my goals. After lots of research, phone calls and emails, I signed with an agency based in Germany. My agent told me to be ready for a call any day when he found a team for me. Well, a month of not hearing from a team turned into 3, turned into 5, then 6. During this time though, I never looked back and put forth 100% of my efforts into doing everything I possibly could to prepare as if I was going to play overseas the next day. I played with a semi-pro team in the states, trained on my own, ran and lifted at the gym 4x a week, focused on my nutrition and coached kids. In January 2015, I got the call I’d been waiting for. A team in Kokkola, Finland was interested. One of the most exciting moments of my life was signing my first professional contract this past February. My signature on a piece of paper had never represented so much.
While it is hard to admit I’ve struggled with controlling my athlete mentality, I believe that adversity makes us much stronger in the end. Being vulnerable about our struggles may also encourage others who find themselves in a similar situation. If my journey as a soccer player had been all smooth sailing, I would not be the person and competitor I am today. I couldn’t appreciate and recognize the joyful moments in my life without having experienced pain, and I wouldn’t appreciate success without having experienced failure. I would not be nearly as grateful for what I have in my life. Being able to wake up and play the game I love is a true blessing worth smiling every day for.