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My Greatest Lesson

    By Katherine McElroy (U-M Women’s Soccer ’23)

    One of the greatest life lessons that I have learned is this: Working towards a goal is a worthy endeavor, even when the promise of a successful outcome is not guaranteed. I feel like this idea isn’t discussed anywhere close to enough given that it is the special sauce of growth, resilience, and character development. 

    I was a goalkeeper on the Michigan Women’s Soccer team from 2019 to 2022, and as a low-scholarship recruit who was never forecasted to be a starter, I can tell you a thing or two about working towards a goal with no promise of “success”.

    This is the story of my senior season and everything that I learned about hard work.

    My senior season was the first season that the three-year starter who was ahead of me on the depth chart (and went off to play professionally) was gone from our roster. I had learned a lot as a player from training alongside her, but in the wake of her graduation, there was an opening for a new starting goalkeeper. Right after we finished spring ball my junior year and after many conversations about the coming fall season with my coaching staff, I was convinced that the starting spot was mine to take if I worked for it. There was still plenty of competition left within the goalkeeper cohort, so it would not come easy.  

    Even so, I bet the house– not at all knowing how it was going to work out and with no historical evidence whatsoever to back up my belief that I would accomplish my goal of starting. All I had was my trust in myself, a huge love of the game, and a desire to play at the level that I had been training for during the prior three years. A fellow senior classmate of mine, Claire Dawson and I decided to go to New York and each work an internship while training all summer. Both of us were underdogs that had seen limited– or in my case– zero NCAA minutes going into our senior seasons. 

    New York proved to be a difficult training environment. The problem was not a lack of opportunities–as anyone who has been to New York City can attest. But between work schedules and time spent commuting to the athletic commitments that we had made, we found ourselves busy around the clock. Claire and I played four nights a week on a summer-league team in Brooklyn that usually landed us home at around 10:30 pm each evening, devouring whatever Trader Joe’s frozen section meal we had in the freezer before waking up to do it all again. In addition, every Thursday morning I woke up at 5:00 am and drove to southern New Jersey to attend a session with Jill Loyden (the four-year Women’s National Team second-string goalkeeper behind Hope Solo) at her and her wife’s training facility, The Keeper Institute. Two hours down and almost two and a half hours back, every Thursday, and then I worked my main intern job from noon to 8:00 pm. It was a grind, but a grind that I loved. There is nothing that is more motivating to me than a goal that I find slightly out of reach. I thrive on being an underdog. 

    Twelve weeks of this routine came and went fast and soon it was time to go back to Ann Arbor for my fourth and final season. I was excited to compete, head-to-head–really for the first time given the dominance of the previous starter–with the other keepers on my team to see who would get the starting position. On the first day of training, as we always did each year, we literally hit the ground running the fitness test at 8:00 am sharp. Whereas in previous years I had been a nervous wreck leading up to this day, on that morning, all I felt was confidence. Everything was right and for all ten minutes of our test, I felt the beautiful accumulation of all those late nights and early mornings from the previous three months come to fruition. This resulted in both a personal and goalkeeper positional best score that day on a fitness test that I used to think controlled me. It wasn’t my ultimate goal of starting, but it felt like a good omen.

    Pre-season progressed and I felt like I was playing the best soccer of my life. I was technical, clean, and determined to continue the progress that I had made. The two weeks ended and, with our season opener against Washington State right around the corner, I was hopeful. When the starting lineup came out, I was crushed to not see my name. After all, seeing my name in that lineup had been my strongest soccer hope for three whole years, not to mention my entire New York summer as well. I told myself that it was only the first game and that things could change. But the second game came and went and so did the third, all just the same. Even so, I stayed hopeful. I told myself that it had never come easy before, so why should it now? However, a whole season passed by in the same fashion and I never heard my name called in that lineup, although I did play solid minutes in five games and earned my college letter.

    As we got deeper and deeper into the season, I started to ask myself why I was still trying so hard when it was so obvious that I would not be the starter. Was I permanently optimistic or even a little delusional? I don’t think so. It took me a while, but here’s where I landed: especially at a school like the University of Michigan, I always had the team in the forefront of my mind. Even though in my darker moments, so much of what I had been doing for months (years!) felt like a waste, I couldn’t forget the impact that my training had on my teammates. We Wolverines listen to and quote Bo Schembechler’s famous 1983 “The Team, The Team, The Team” speech all the time: no man is more important than The Team. At times throughout my four years, I felt like the individual and the team could not exist in the same space, but I knew in my bones that my hard work pushed others to be better and supported our team’s accomplishments. In my junior season, I was a part of a team that won the Big Ten championship and went far in the NCAA tournament, and I must admit that I feel proud of the small (but mighty!) part I played in making the high-minute players better. Yes, it would have been so satisfying to see the field during those games, but their victory was mine as well. I also knew that this exact reason is why I chose to go to The University of Michigan in the first place. I wanted a place where people would compete and, even if the outcome didn’t always shake out the way they wanted it to, they would be encouraged to work hard for the team all the same.

    So here is what I learned: It is easier to do the work when you know that you are in complete and direct control of achieving your goal and all you must do is execute. But that is seldom the case because the world is full of teams just like mine. A favorable outcome is almost never promised. Still, you have a choice– will you do the work on only the (oftentimes) sliver of a chance that you will achieve your goal?

    The answer should always be yes. Even if you don’t get exactly what you were aiming for, it doesn’t mean you don’t gain a ton from putting forth the effort. It is simply a different type of gain. The truth is you cannot have one without the other. So, go after what you want and follow the path that aligns closest with your dreams and lets you live out your values. Don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t work out (and, if it is working out every time, set higher goals!) Success will be sweet whenever you push yourself to make your goals possible. Remember to take what you can from the “failures” and never stop trying. If you repeat this enough, you will grow to be resilient and determined beyond measure, and your team will thank you for it.

    Katherine McElroy #77, U-M Women’s Soccer ‘23

    Katherine McElroy, with two years of remaining NCAA eligibility, has signed with Providence College in the Big East Conference for the fall of 2023 to keep the dream alive. She will forever bleed Maize and Blue.

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