To Infinity and Beyond!

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

This article originally appeared on The Player's Tribune.

I was mystified when my fifth grade teacher explained the concept of “infinity” to the class.

Imagine moving from point A to point B, but you are only allowed to go half the distance at a time. When you arrive at the first halfway point, you must stop and recalculate the new half point … and on and on and on. You will never arrive at B, because as you move closer to your target, you see how many halfway points there are between you and your target: an infinite number.

Wait, what?

How could there be a destination that you are approaching, but that seems to keep getting farther away?

The concept of achieving greatness reminds me of my elementary school math lesson on infinity. What is greatness, anyway? This alluring, ever-distant word both taunts and inspires athletes.

I have a weakness. I never feel like I’m good enough.

I’ve set tangible goals throughout my career. And I have attained a lot of them. Still, I’m sure that achieving will never satisfy my hunger to achieve.
Last month, Clint Bruce -- former NFL quarterback and Navy Seal Commander -- spoke to the USWNT about what he calls “pursuing elite.” Among the tokens of wisdom and experience he offered, one thing really hit home for me. “Elite is this land that is fit only for the restless,” he told us.

While I don’t know if I exist in the land of the elite, I’m definitely on the battlefield with restlessness. My restlessness leaves my mind racing as I try to wind down at the end of mandatory recovery day. It keeps me tossing after poor performances. And if I played well, well…playing well makes me itch to play better; there is always room for improvement. This process can be exhausting.

I have a strength. I never feel like I’m good enough.

That same discontentment that gets my mind spinning at night puts a spring in my step the next day when our assistant coach Tony screams, “MAX SPRINTS!” during practice. This restless energy ignites my spirit to push forward. The past is not just an indicator of where I was yesterday, but it is also a launching pad for tomorrow.

People often tell me before games to “be great” -- as if it is a choice I can make. Is it possible to choose greatness? If it were, I’m pretty sure most of us would choose it. Is greatness only available to a select group? Perhaps, but maybe not for the reasons I used to think.

By definition, greatness is a state of superiority: that is, being better than all others. But Clint’s speech has me rethinking this idea. As I listened to him, I realized that “elite” doesn’t mean greatness itself -- but the unwavering pursuit of greatness. That thought is as scary as it is much is in my control?

When speaking about his early days training to be a Seal, Clint said that he realized he was average. “There were a bunch of Olympic athletes and then there was me.” To make it, he needed angles, allies, and advantages to keep up with the people around him. Anyone can pursue greatness. It is not a club open only to the gifted or lucky. You simply have to train to get better and never give up; checking over your shoulder only to make sure you are not where you started. Clint’s advantage was his unremitting pursuit.

I got my first call-up to the USWNT in April of 2012. Before I could exhale in relief – I had made it – I realized this was just the beginning. The USWNT isn’t a place where you celebrate, put down roots, or relax. It isn’t a place at all. Being on this team is an honor as well as a responsibility to my country and myself. Maybe it is another halfway point on the line to greatness: because as long as you can look forward you haven’t arrived. What I do with this opportunity remains to be seen, but I know my success and my team’s success depends on that forward motion.

While greatness may always be viewed as a comparison to the outside world: good, better, best; inside, I know what really matters is the relentless fight for progress. Which means it’s only good when I demand better after I’ve done my best. Striving for personal excellence in this way can be like chasing infinity, which is often frustrating. But striving for team greatness is a bit different. Pushing myself is pushing the game and that is the best thing I can do for my team and my sport.  As we push ourselves we push each other, raising the average. Rising and falling as a team is ultimately more comfortable and shared success is more gratifying.

For the world at large, there is a constant demand to know who or what is the greatest, the best in everything. In soccer, we take measurements in the form of matches every weekend. There are numerous titles to be won. But the end-all, be-all measuring stick will always be the World Cup. Winning the World Cup is that tangible goal that keeps me motivated. But I have to wonder: is a World Cup victory my one and only shot at greatness? It is the pinnacle of football, the reward for a lifetime of work … or is it just another point on the progress line? It’s the one objective that forces me to put my individual goals aside, for the time being, and focus on something much, much bigger than myself. The fact that the opportunity only comes around every four years makes it that much more special. It takes the entire team to win a World Cup, a team that is greater than the sum of its parts. Or rather, a team made up of individuals in pursuit of greatness.

Maybe teams can achieve the kind of greatness that eminently eludes the individual. The World Cup Championship freezes time. The winning team’s name and country are recorded in history and maybe that moment when the trophy is hoisted and medal is placed around your neck is as tangible as greatness will ever get.

In a math class long after my Lunada Bay Elementary School graduation, I learned that for all intents and purposes, the concept of infinity is not functional. So instead of trying to reach infinity, mathematicians describe what the value is approaching: a limit. With limits, the end point becomes irrelevant and the focus falls on the direction you are moving.

The World Cup is the limit. And we’re moving forward.