Washington Post – Steve Yanda – October 31, 2009 – Sports Psychology – CHARLOTTESVILLE — An all-state honoree who set her high school’s records for goals and assists doesn’t expect to be warming the bench midway through her third collegiate soccer season. A three-time state player of the year in basketball possesses plenty of options other than performing a role unnoticed by nearly everyone.
Katie Carr, a redshirt sophomore for the Virginia women’s soccer team, is all of the above. She does not start and barely plays for a Cavaliers team that has earned 15 consecutive NCAA tournament berths. Once the heartbeat of any team on which she played, Carr carries out a far diminished responsibility. Her value is tied to her performance in practice, where official stats aren’t kept and victories are mostly of the moral variety.
Virtually every roster of every college sports team includes athletes such as Carr: players who were stars in high school, active for nearly every consequential minute of every game, but who now spend more time watching rather than competing during matches.
“It’s hard because when you win a game, you’re ecstatic, you’re happy, you’re happy for the team, you’re happy that we’re doing well,” Carr said. “But then at the same time you’re like, ‘Well, how much did I really contribute to that?’ ”
For Carr and the constituency she represents, athletic validation comes in subtler forms, such as a dime-size scab crinkled on the bridge of her nose, lingering evidence of a slide tackle she executed in practice the day before. Carr hasn’t played in seven straight games, and she’s been on the field for 16.8 percent of the total minutes Virginia has played this season.
Carr’s primary task involves devoting countless hours and immeasurable amounts of energy and focus during practices to ensure that her teammates — some of whom stand between her and the prominence she used to own — have the best chance to succeed come game time. Her function on the Cavaliers, though far different than she ever imagined it would be, remains vital, her coach says. But for a long time, Carr struggled to come to that realization.
“The beauty of playing a team sport to me is you’re really sacrificing your service to the team,” Virginia women’s soccer Coach Steve Swanson said. “It’s not an easy thing to do. These guys are giving a lot of time and a lot of sweat and a lot of tears, and they’re sacrificing it for the team. The biggest thing you have to balance in a team sport is you have to decide at some point, ‘Why am I doing this?’ ”
Below the dunes
For six days during every preseason camp, Swanson takes his squad to Maple City, Mich., where the Cavaliers train and scrimmage against Notre Dame. In August 2007, Carr and the rest of the incoming freshman class learned the most daunting task of the trip was climbing nearby sand dunes, some of which rise as high as 450 feet.
When it came time for that exercise, though, Carr stood aside. She had torn her left anterior cruciate ligament and some of meniscus during the first soccer game of her senior season at the Walsingham Academy in Williamsburg and had to sit out her first college year for rehabilitation. No practices. No games. No bonding with teammates over the shared accomplishment of conquering a sand dune.
“They all could celebrate that because they did it together, and I kind of was just there cheering, you know?” Carr said. “It was hard from that aspect, just that I wasn’t going through the same things they were going through.”
She paused as the memory replayed in her mind. “Honestly, I think that’s what made me fall in love with Virginia even more was the fact that the coaches were always there for me,” she continued. “Never was it like I was overlooked. I would be running sprints around the field while they were practicing because I couldn’t play with a ball yet, and every time I came around someone would be like, ‘Yeah, here we go. Let’s go, Katie.’ That was one thing that really helped me out that made it, not okay, but better than it could have been.”
The frustration — and the questions that fueled it — did not intensify until the following spring, when Carr was back on the field trying to recapture the mobility and speed that once made her an elite two-sport talent. During a high school career in which Carr tallied the second-most points in the history of Virginia girls’ basketball, she was courted initially by such storied women’s college programs as Tennessee and Connecticut. But Carr had decided by her sophomore year of high school that soccer would be the sport she would pursue.
She said one of the main reasons why she chose to play at Virginia was the experience she had during a summer camp run by Swanson before her junior year at Walsingham.
“Honestly, up until the day that my parents dropped me off, I was crying,” Carr said. “I didn’t want to go. ‘This was so stupid. Why are you making me do this?’ And then I came to camp and I got seen.”
For most of the camp, Swanson had Carr compete with and against the pool of players from which Swanson was recruiting. By the end, one of the camp counselors approached Carr and told her Virginia was interested in her. She felt wanted and needed and more than a little flattered.
By the fall of 2008, the first season in which Carr physically was able to play for the Cavaliers, all of those emotions had faded. She appeared in five of the team’s 23 games, starting one. Carr said she second-guessed herself constantly during practices. Am I just a practice player? Is this what I’m here for?
During games, Carr said she would go through the motions during warmup drills, reconciled to the fact she almost certainly was not going to play that day. Virginia advanced to the third round of the NCAA tournament, and Carr wasn’t completely sure how to feel.
“Just knowing that we’re getting results and we’re getting the wins, I’m excited about how the team’s doing, but you question what you really brought to the table,” Carr said. “We always talk about how it starts at practice. You push each other, you do all that, and yeah, I can do that. I’m fine with doing that, but at the same time, you’re like, ‘Did I really make a difference in winning this game?’ ”
John F. Murray, a sports psychologist based in Palm Beach, Fla., said a college athlete dealing with such an internal debate must be able to expand his or her definition of what it means to be a member of the team. For those with prolific athletic backgrounds such as Carr, Murray said the process is more drawn out.
“Most of these guys are viewing it as whether they’re just fodder for the other players or someone to help out,” Murray said. “Everybody would like to play, but there has to be some level of acceptance of the reality of their role, sort of a resignation at some point, but also an extremely altruistic purpose.”
Following the 2008 season, several members of Virginia’s back line graduated. A starting spot at the center defender position — Carr’s position — became available, and her confidence sprouted from the opportunity in front of her. Finally, Carr thought, a chance to make what she considered a meaningful impact. She said she showed up to preseason camp in the best shape of her life.
‘You have to get over it’
Swanson could empathize with the player who was on her way into his office. He was a three-sport athlete in high school who played four years of varsity soccer before signing on at Michigan State. During his freshman season as a Spartan, though, Swanson said he didn’t play at all and that he took his predicament personally.
“You say, ‘Well, I must not be very good,’ and you get down on yourself,” Swanson said. “Psychologically, it doesn’t help you in terms of your development, and you start focusing on things that you have no control over, really. During my first year I really struggled, but I was fighting myself. And it wasn’t until I had a good conversation with my coach where he told me where I was and he made it out very honestly.”
In late August, Swanson had a similar talk with Carr, a player for whom the coach said he has the utmost respect. Carr had started the first game of the season — a 1-0 loss at Penn State — but played only the first half. Carr called earning a spot in the starting lineup “a breath of fresh air,” and for a few weeks, the questions — Do I really want to play soccer? What do I want to do? — died down.
Carr sat down in Swanson’s office, expecting to talk strategy or improvement, and heard her coach deliver the news: She would no longer start, and in fact, she would change positions entirely. An influx of talented first-year players had just entered the program and the coaching staff felt one of those players was a better fit at center defender. Carr would move to defensive center midfielder, a position she last played in high school.
Swanson said it was one of the most difficult meetings he has had with a player in 20 years as a head coach because “you want to reward people like Katie.”
Furious, Carr left the meeting but had to report immediately to practice. The questions returned. What is she doing that’s better than I can do? What did I do wrong?
“I was literally driving myself insane,” Carr said. “I started to realize that I couldn’t do that anymore. You have to get over it. I had spent the past two years in my own head.”
Carr returned to practice the following day determined to embrace the role laid out for her. She said she accepted that her performance in practice could impact the team’s play during games. Her minutes declined while her attitude improved.
Anne Carr, Katie’s mother, said she has noticed an evolution to the manner in which her daughter handles her frustrations on the soccer field, as well.
“She doesn’t want you feeling sorry for her,” Anne Carr said. “She doesn’t want you to say, ‘Oh Kate, I’m sorry.’ She’s like, ‘It’s fine.’ She doesn’t want that” sympathy.
On Sunday, Virginia will play its regular season finale against Miami, and whether or not Carr plays, she’ll at least be content in her newfound perspective. Soccer has made her more disciplined, responsible and humble. Those lessons, acknowledged in retrospect, are why she persists. She could have gone to another school and played as soon as she was healthy. She could have played another sport entirely.
“Or I could come here and have all these hardships and have all these, not letdowns, but things that you question about yourself and then you start to find answers,” Carr said. “I’ve realized a lot of things that I didn’t even think I could overcome. I think I’m a better, more mature, more understanding person because of it. Yeah, I’m really grateful to have come to this school.”
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