Jake Salas '20 was one of only a few sophomores to make the Varsity Soccer Team. The experience changed his game.
Stepping onto the varsity soccer field for the first time as a rising sophomore was painful. The transition was anything but smooth. I had spent the previous year on its neighboring field - the J.V. field - where being “the man” wasn’t all that hard. There, I had familiarized myself with each individual area of the field, and I knew exactly what to do on the ball. My carefree, attacking style of play fit the team, and the happiness that the games brought me was unmatched. My freshman fall was great, mainly because of my results on the soccer field.
Playing well and knowing my identity on the field has always meant a lot to me. On the varsity field, I was forced to play in a different system, focused around tactical defense. It was all new to me: the coaching, my position, and the stage. If I were going to succeed and contribute to this team, I would have to challenge myself as a player in new ways and learn to adapt to a much bigger stage.
After the first game of the season, I realized I had to make some changes. For starters, the carefree element of my game transformed into relentlessness. My work rate increased in training and games, but that wasn’t enough. I had to minimize my time on the ball to avoid having it stripped away. The varsity level provided players with a fraction of time as compared to J.V. — it was no longer about being “the man;” instead, it was about being a part of a machine that was the team. Finally, I had to be far more aggressive, getting scrappy and tackling harder.
Aside from the physical factor of the game, I had to adjust mentally as well. I was one of only a few sophomores playing on the varsity field, and the big occasions were difficult. More people lined the side of the field than ever before. The only way I was truly able to get past the nerves was by focusing on my identity as a player. I understood my role on the team, and as time went on, I saw myself improve.
These changes weren’t easy to make; I was doing a complete 180 from the gameplay I had developed for years. Changing all of this took time, and I struggled for consecutive games. Sometimes I even hated playing, but the friends I had made on the field couldn’t have been more supportive; the environment with the team was awesome. We were the “Bird Gang” – we treated each other like family, putting in hard work on the field, and spending time together off it. This camaraderie was exactly what I needed.
I also learned to remember the good in my game. During my streak of bad games, I had one or two where I’d go out and play with nothing weighing me down. Those were the games where I was able to show my true potential. I’ll never forget the way I played against Hun, Lawrenceville and Princeton Day School last year. During those times when I felt stuck in a sort of rut or slump, thinking about those moments helped restore my faith in myself.
Even the best athletes will find themselves struggling at times, especially when facing new challenges. But relying on those around you, staying positive and focusing on your strengths will always help you see the light at the end of the tunnel.