What Does it Mean to Be an Athlete?

The following article is reposted with permission from yaelaverbuch.com

For the majority of my teenage years and throughout my professional career I have been told by a number of coaches that I wasn’t “athletic.” It’s true, I will never be as fast as Heather O’Reilly over 40 yards or have the vertical jump of Meghan Klingenberg. Some of this has been determined by my DNA (hey parents, don’t feel too guilty when you read this!). But in the past couple of years, I’ve realized how detrimental this belief system has been to me as a player, and how perhaps I’m not truly as ‘athletically incompetent’ as I’ve been made to feel.

I’ve always believed that I’m capable of improving the athletic areas of my game by small margins, and that I can find ways to gain other advantages—by being efficient on the ball or having good positioning. But I spent a lot of time trying to prove people wrong, trying to show them that despite the major obstacle of lack of athleticism I could still play at the highest level. 

Recently, there have been three major realizations that have literally changed how I feel about myself as a player. For anyone of you who is very passionate about what you do, and whose work is deeply tied to your feeling of self-worth, you will immediately understand why these three realizations are the greatest gifts I could have received.

1. I realized that I don’t operate well trying to prove people wrong. In my own training it can serve as motivation, but I greatly prefer to prove someone right. If a person believes in me, I thrive on showing them that they’re right. I urge everyone to come to understand which of these motivational styles you prefer, and put yourself in an environment that aligns with it. To those in a position of impact: coaches, mentors, teachers—be cognizant that people often need to be motivated in different ways. For the last 10 years of my career, I have been trying to prove people wrong. That wasn’t the environment I needed to be in to flourish. This leads directly into my next point.

2. I can pinpoint the specific moment this paradigm of negative to positive shifted for me. Last season, when Becky Sauerbrunn left F.C. Kansas City to go win the World Cup, our head coach Vlatko Andonovski asked me if I would play center back. I laughed at first because I had always been told I was much too slow to play that position, and also not good at defending. I shared these concerns and he simply said, “You read the game well. I know you’ll be fine.” Those words literally reshaped years of thinking throughout my career. Someone believed that I could do a job at which I had been continually told was impossible for me to succeed. This gave me the confidence to try and to prove someone right. Don’t get me wrong; I made my fair share of mistakes, but through that process I gained enormous trust in myself in areas I never thought I could.

3. January of 2014 was the last U.S. National Team event I’ve been a part of. The coaching staff expressed concern that I wasn’t athletic enough to succeed with the team. Competing with and against some of the best athletes in the women’s game, I could completely understand the concern. Nonetheless, it hit me hard because it touched on all my fears that had been instilled in me over the years; no matter what I did, how hard I worked, maybe I just can’t be good enough. Yet while I had these fears, deep down I never truly believed them as truths. I needed to find someone to help me who didn’t believe them either. That’s when I started working with Chris Gorres. I told Chris about myself as a player, my strengths and weaknesses, the current state of my career and my future goals. He didn’t want to know much more, but instead did a physical assessment by having me go through some basic movements. We got right to work. It honestly took me a bit to completely buy into what we were doing. At first, I was INCREDIBLY sore. We worked with heavier weights than I ever had. We were in the gym more days than I liked to commit to that type of training. We tried different activities that I’d never done, including boxing and basketball. I often felt silly and uncoordinated. Sometimes, on the days we did speed work, he even encouraged me to skip pickup, which was the equivalent of blasphemy in my soccer ideology. But Chris has completely changed how I see myself as an athlete. He made me believe in myself as athletic by addressing areas of my weakness head-on. Most importantly, though, he showed me how to use my body (with all of it’s pros and cons) to be my best. I’m tall, with long legs. I had always been told that to accelerate I should start with short steps. That was one of the first myths I believed that Chris debunked. He told me, “Just cover the distance. Get from point A to point B as fast as you can with as few steps as you can.” I’m not the same as the majority of other soccer players I compete against, and Chris is able to recognize that and look for ways for me to succeed with my body type.

Today, when I think about the question “What does it mean to be an athlete?”, I have a very different reaction than I would have had a few years ago. For me, being an athlete is about using what I DO have to gain an advantage, rather than trying to compensate for what I don’t have. And it’s about finding people who believe in me and working to prove them right, rather than constantly having to prove people wrong. 

This transformation has left me feeling like a new player. As a 29-year-old entering my eighth year playing professionally, it has given me renewed energy and motivation. And at this point in my career, the way I feel about my capabilities and contribution on the field is everything.

Get more from Yael at yaelaverbuch.com


Yael Averbuch

Every day I feel extraordinarily grateful to be living my childhood dreams. I work hard at what I do and will never stop setting new goals and pushing myself to be better, but I don’t see it as work because I enjoy every moment. There are countless people who have helped guide me along my journey, as coaches, mentors, friends, and supporters. To me soccer is much more than my job. It is a game that I love and respect far beyond my own involvement. I pursue my goals with every ounce of my being, but above all, I love the journey.