Dear 18-year-old Katie,
It’s August 22, 2013. You’re pale, quiet, and as your mom will remind you four years later, you look more nervous than she had ever seen you. And you are exactly that: nervous beyond belief. You have no idea what college will entail and most definitely have no idea what college field hockey has in store for you.
Your club coach didn’t help your nerves when he told you that you would be lucky to play for one minute during your first year at college. You’re lucky he said that, and you’re lucky you were so nervous. You were nervous because you cared. Whatever anyone says, don’t be afraid to be nervous. When channeled appropriately, nerves can be your greatest asset. They are what makes you work so hard—they humble you; they better you.
I remember your first day of preseason like it was yesterday. I think you almost had a heart attack—yes, you literally almost had a panic attack on the field. You kept it to yourself, but all of a sudden, you could hardly breathe and thought you were never going to be able to catch your breath. Don’t worry—you caught your breath, and you kept going.
Your saving grace will be your teammates. They will be your best friends for the next four years, and probably a lot longer. Becca, Meredith, Tayor, Cal, and Kendall. These five other first-years will be your foundation for the next four years. Love them, cherish them, laugh with them, embrace them, and never let them go. They, along with the rest of the team, may often be the lone positive you will find in the middle of an unbearably difficult practice.
In spite of your difficult first day, you will make it through preseason. The first game will come around before you know it, and yes, you will still be quite nervous. You won’t start the game, but you’ll remain hopeful to get in for even a minute.
About 10 minutes into the game, your head coach will call your name and tell you to sub in. You’ll be like a deer caught in the headlights.
You’ll sub in for the left forward. Columbia will be pressing the other team in their defensive 25. You will hear Marybeth yell at you to push up the field. Katie, please listen to her. When you do as she says, you will find yourself intercepting the ball and putting it in the net. Your teammates will all come running up to you. That will be your first collegiate goal. Smile and cherish the moment. You will learn that goals are no easy feat. You have a lot more work to do.
I won’t walk you through each game of your first year, but I will tell you this: You’ll have a great first half of the season. You’ll score 10 goals, but don’t focus on that. In the second half, you’ll question yourself as a player, you’ll complicate the game, you’ll lose your inner spark, and you may even forget what it means to love the game. You won’t score again.
But, don’t focus on that either. Don’t focus on yourself—focus on the team. Focus on the 24 other girls on the field working their hearts out, playing for each other. Play for them. Don’t give up—they are right next to you, pushing the entire team to be better.
When you look back on your four years, two parts will stand out: field hockey and friendship. These two will forever be intermixed. You will leave college with some of the greatest friends you could hope for. You will laugh with these girls until your abs hurt beyond belief. Don’t stop laughing; don’t stop smiling. This joy and this love of life will bring you very far.
Now, you are going to make it through your first and second years before you know it. By this point, you will have many meaningful friendships. You will have found your place in this school.
You will come into your junior year more out of shape than you have ever been. You interned all summer, putting fitness at the bottom of your list of priorities. Your legs and body will hate you for this decision. Preseason will cause you the worst physical pain you have ever endured. It will hurt to sit down; it will hurt even more to stand up. But do get up and do keep going. Sometimes, when all you think about is the short-term pain, you forget about all the long-term possibilities.
Junior year of field hockey will be extremely difficult. Physically, your lack of fitness will contribute to all the setbacks. You won’t play as well as you probably could have. But that’s okay. Here’s why—you will end your season with a very simple choice in front of you: quit or play.
But you won’t walk away, because you don’t believe the choice is just yours to make.
You will have 24 girls right next to you, probably feeling the exact same way. You will suffer together, you will get up together before the moon has gone down. You will run the endless sprints together. You will hold each other up and cheer each other on, all while some may be vomiting through the finish line. You will all gather in a circle screaming your heads off in support of one another, and you will all max out in the weight room. You will come back to school at 11 a.m., before many students have even woken up, and you will have already completed a 4-hour practice together.
This type of bond, this type of team effort, exists only in the world of team sports. Like I’ve said, the journey is not always easy, but the joy and the accomplishments that you can achieve as a team are truly unachievable by yourself.
So, Katie, forget about the choice of quitting or playing, because you will never quit. Team sports are ingrained in your soul, and you will never shy away from that. So, if I could tell you anything, it is this: Most athletes will consider quitting at one point in their life.
Don’t avoid that feeling, but make a choice. Choose to stay or choose to go, and whichever you choose, stick to it 100 percent and put that choice behind you. Because once you choose to play, you can pursue what really matters. You can pursue your team, and you can focus on being the best teammate that you can be.
You can be the teammate who sprints off the bus at 6 a.m. to run to another dorm to wake up the teammate whose alarm didn’t go off. You can be the teammate to run next to the girl struggling to make it through the sprints. You can be the teammate to lead by example. By God, you know that you have had 24 other teammates who will do all these things for you.
And yes, you may even set a record or two along the way. But by the time you finish your collegiate career, you will realize that your individual accomplishments are anything but individual. You will realize that they are the combination of your teammates’ influence from your first through to your senior year, and are a direct result of all the help your coaches have provided.
And you will also realize that these four years go by faster than you can imagine. There are only 68 games in these four years. That’s only 4,760 minutes of competition. Maybe that seems like a lot. I assure you, it’s not.
It will all end before you know it. The time will come when you are in your last huddle and the team cheers, “For the Pride!”
When this happens, do not cry (you probably will). Instead, smile, because you and your teammates did it. You went from a timid and nervous 18-year-old to a proud and wholehearted 21-year-old teammate.
You may never be on the field cheering “For the Pride!” again, nor get the privilege to wear the university’s uniform, but because you choose to play, you will forever be a teammate and you will always have a team by your side.
Senior Katie Ruesterholz is a forward on the field hockey team and the program record holder in points and goals scored.
From the Lion’s Mouth is a content series that provides Columbia’s coaches and student-athletes with a platform from which to share their experiences and connect with the Columbia community.