Learning to Lose
By: Leyuan Zhou
The moment I stepped off the bus, the verdict was clear– we were not winning the game. It was the first of our season, and there was a problem: we were terrible. Not just mediocre, but really, really dreadful. Our middle school team was composed of a mere twelve players, most of whom were complete novices and could barely dribble a ball down the field.
As we walked to the field with our jerseys untidily tucked and our plastic cleats clicking against the pavement, we looked up and gawked.
Our opponents were tall, sinewy, and skilled. It was easy to mistake them for a youth professional team simply because they were so composed. They were practicing on the far end of the field, but as the sun cast a dark shadow on them, their already buff, almost six-foot tall figures instantly became gargantuan beasts that seemed to take up the entire soccer field. We were just a few scrawny sixth-graders, like naive little ants waiting to be squashed. Even under the sun’s incessant rays, my hands quickly turned clammy and cold.
With the referee’s first whistle, our game began. Our team took the kick-off, but our defenders quickly retreated to the eighteen-yard box and surrendered when one of the other team’s strikers charged at them. The opponent effortlessly stole the ball and sprinted towards our goal. The bulging muscles in her leg rippled after each powerful stride, and in the blink of an eye, she cake face to face with our goalie. No one was there to defend her. “Someone mark her!” Our coach’s indignant roar ripped through the scattered communications of our teams’ players. I stole a quick glance at the sideline and felt my coach’s frustration as she flailed her arms helplessly in the air. My chest tensed as I watched the scene unfold in slow motion, knowing that our hapless goalie wouldn’t be able to do anything to change the fate of the ball. Seconds later, the ball sailed into the back of the net, and the opposing team exploded with cheer. My heart sank.
With that first goal scored in the span of a few short minutes, an uneasy feeling settled in my chest. Our team was slowly sinking into a downwards spiral. For the rest of the game, our opponents only grew more and more powerful. Though quite demoralizing, the sheer amount of kickoffs performed by our team to restart the play after our opponents scored allowed us to master that part of the game. It seemed as if after every goal they scored, they feasted on a little bit of our energy. And for the rest of the 90 minutes, their first goal repeated itself over and over again, each time being only slightly different than the last, as the post-scoring celebration turned from a chaotic shriek to a triumphant hug, and then to a humble high-five. My legs began feeling heavy, not because of physical exhaustion, but because I simply lacked the motivation to continue.
My teammates felt it, too. Under the blazing sun, the nape of their necks were gleaming with sweat. They stumbled aimlessly across the field, looking for redemption as they grappled with the opponents for the ball. We looked defeated. As the game neared the end of the second half, the score was 1-9, and we were completely and utterly drained.
Suddenly, what appeared to be a soccer ball landed at my feet. I stopped, taken aback. Who passed me the ball? How did it get here? A million thoughts raced through my head at once, but I knew I had to do something. Without much thought, I chased after the ball, with the adrenaline coursing rapidly through my veins. I fell into a void. The defenders’ shouts muted themselves– the only sounds present were my short gasps and the quick shuffling of my cleats on the turf. The penalty area was within reach. Then, the goalie was only a few yards away. If I was going to do it, I needed to do it now. I swang my leg back and hit the ball as hard as I could. With a loud smack, the ball rose into the air.
It was only a few seconds later that I realized that the ball did not go into the goal. I had hit it too far to the side, therefore causing the ball to spin wide of the post. My heart only beat faster as I felt myself shaking, allowing anger to overtake my body. I was the reason why we lost.
After our brutal defeat, my teammates took to comforting each other in an attempt to mitigate the humiliation of a 1-9 loss. “The score doesn’t reflect how well we played,” they said. But what if I had scored during the last few minutes of the game? I sat in the backseat, contemplating my faults and thinking that a single goal could have saved us from a devastating defeat. I closed my eyes and plugged in my headphones, knowing that it would take a long time before I could truly forgive myself and realize that soccer was more than just a matter of missing a goal.