• Lauren McCaffrey

More Than a Game

TW: This post contains discussion of eating disorders, depression and anxiety.


My love for the game of soccer began when I was four years old. At the time my family and I didn’t realize the impact it would have on our lives and the countless hours we would dedicate to the sport.


Soccer evolved into much more than just a game.

Every weekend we would wake up at the crack of dawn and drive hours to tournaments all over California, to play 90-minute games under the scorching sun. My teammates understood the joy and fulfillment this brought, but to everyone else it seemed like an obligation hindering my social life.


(Photo provided by Lauren McCaffrey)


My friends frequently told me to “just skip practice” so I could join them at social events. But soccer wasn’t an obstacle standing in my way of fun, it was my priority. There was no time for lingering after a school day. I would go directly home, complete an hour's worth of homework, eat dinner, and drive 30 minutes to my two hour practice. By the time I got home, I was exhausted and ready to go right to bed.


As a high schooler, I began to realize that soccer was a door that presented many opportunities. It became my identity. When I didn’t play well, my mood instantly dropped.


If my team lost, I’d carry the weight with me. When my coach wasn’t satisfied with my performance, I felt worthless. In the end, if soccer wasn’t going well it meant I was a failure. My happiness became dependent on my success in soccer––an overwhelming pressure that I had placed on myself.

After spending most of my freshman year of college on the bench––a humbling reality–– I was determined to earn a role on the field.




(Photo provided by Lauren McCaffrey)

Following months of grueling summer preparation for my sophomore season, I fractured my foot. In October 2020, a screw was surgically implanted into my bone to stabilize it. I trudged through the snow on my crutches for two months and sat disconsolately on the bench through daily three hour practices. I cried during the night when everyone slept and began skipping meals out of guilt about being inactive.


Although it was clear that I was struggling, I feared that I would burden my teammates if I accurately expressed my distress. When I was asked about my mental and physical health I often answered mechanically, as if it had become a habit to muddle the truth because it made things easier. I suppressed my struggles and justified it by telling myself that others had it worse. I began spending more time alone and isolating myself.


In the athletic community it is common for athletes to feel the need to “power through it” and choose to struggle in silence, unwilling to communicate hardship.

I felt like if I expressed my true inner conflicts, I would potentially jeopardize my role on the team.


It took me a while to come to terms with my disordered eating habits. Transitioning from two hours of running daily to a sedentary lifestyle is a difficult concept for an athlete to grasp. My logic was that I didn’t deserve to eat because I wasn’t exercising as much as my teammates. I was faced with a jarring reality; my excessive restricting was jeopardizing my bone recovery and potentially prolonging my time off the field. Regardless of my level of physical activity, in order to heal, my body needed to be nourished.


After nearly 10 months, I was back on the field. My mental health instantly rebounded and I began to feel like myself again. However, during practices, my foot recovery progressively worsened despite the screw that was supposedly holding my bone together. I faced overwhelming pain.


The unbearably sharp pain pulsated throughout my entire foot, suppressing my passion for the game and only allowing me to focus on surviving each practice.

The light at the end of the tunnel had begun to fade and my dream of returning to the field slowly started to slip away.

I downplayed my suffering to my parents for as long as possible before finally hitting my breaking point. I called my mom one night with tears rushing down my face. I had bottled up my emotions and pain for too long. I choked up as I tried to get the words out.


“Soccer used to be my outlet and source of joy,” I said. “But I’m tired. I’m mentally and physically exhausted.”






I explained that I came to practice every day questioning whether or not I would make it through another one. Rather than concentrating on performing, I was fixated on ways to prevent my pain from increasing. I’d leave practice with a severe limp and in a walking boot most days.


My happy place had turned into my greatest stressor.

My friends had noticed a shift in my mood and I had begun to revert back to my old ways––self isolation.


“You shouldn’t play soccer anymore,” my mother said.


My mom had realized that not only was I enduring physical pain on a daily basis, but my emotional health had drastically deteriorated. The next few days I felt dazed and confused. I knew what was best for my mental and physical health but I had not come to terms with giving up on such a significant aspect of my life. I thought back to my first games as a four year old and how the sport had been my release for 17 years.

Undeniably it had lost that role in my life.

I had reached my breaking point––I was ready to sacrifice soccer for the betterment of my own mental and physical health. Medical retirement was my best and only option.


The decision was made. Soccer didn’t define my worth and success. I felt relieved.


However, my mental health battle was not over. The following months I was lost. My identity had been stripped from me. I struggled to find purpose and passion outside of a world I was so deeply connected to.


I didn’t realize how much soccer dominated my life until I was no longer in the bubble. I sat through dinner conversations revolving around the sport that was once mine everyday and relaxed on my couch on Thursday nights to watch my teammates play.


Approaching one year of my medical retirement, I have had time to reflect on all soccer has brought me. I was introduced to lifelong friendships, given the opportunity to pursue my dreams at a top university and ultimately grew stronger from the adversity I faced.


Although soccer is just a game, the irreplaceable lessons it taught me will never leave me.


(Photo provided by Lauren McCaffrey)

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