Why we play – Henrik Olsson, Soccer

Senior Henrik Olsson leads the Brewers on the counter-attack and as the team’s captain. He credits soccer for providing him a gateway to forging valued friendships in unfamiliar places. Courtesy of Henrik Olsson

I didn’t even know how to properly kick a ball until I was 10 years old. This was not for lack of trying—my parents encouraged me to play as many sports as possible at school. The only thing going for me in sports was the fact that I was relatively athletic. Never the fastest, strongest, most coordinated or most skilled kid—but enough to play a sport and not make an absolute fool of myself. This year, I spent my final season with the Vassar men’s soccer team as captain. If it wasn’t for this sport, I would not have made the same life-long friendships, and I would not be the person I am today. The story of how I got to this point in life is very different from that of many other student-athletes.

As an international student, I had to constantly move during my childhood. I was born in the Philippines and lived there for four years before moving to Switzerland. Two years later, we eventually moved to London, where I spent the next seven years of my life. England is the birthplace of soccer. Everywhere you go, you see people playing soccer in the park, a soccer game on TV or fans wearing their favorite team’s jersey. The more I adapted to life in England, the more soccer became a part of my own life.

I was an introvert as a kid. The thought of meeting new people terrified me. Moving to a new school was hard enough, but adjusting to a different country felt impossible. Let’s just say that I didn’t make a lot of close friends at the beginning. After a year at my first school in England, I moved to a new school. I dreaded the first day of classes. “Nora, Joao, Brian, Diana. How am I supposed to remember everyone’s names?” I thought. My expectations of enjoying my time there stayed extremely low.

Then we had our first recess. All of the students rushed out of the building in a flurry of excitement and joy as friend groups started to form and each group found a space to play its favorite game. Some were playing tag, some made a court for playing dodgeball and others just chatted on the side. I stood in the middle of the playground feeling overwhelmed not knowing where to go. Then I saw a group from my class playing soccer, so I decided that I would just watch them. Not knowing how to play at all, I was asked by one of my classmates to join in. It seemed simple enough: run around, kick the ball in the opposition’s goal and defend any shots towards my goal. Struggling to even toe poke the ball, I fell in love with soccer the moment I started playing .

Since the first day, I would play every day with my new friends during recess and even joined the club team so I could play after school. Soccer meant not just playing, but being part of a team and making friends. And that’s how I came out of my shell. I felt connected with my teammates, forming relationships that transcended the field into both the classroom and out-of-school friendships. Even though I was still shy, my self-esteem and confidence grew. I ended up moving schools in London one last time, and soccer was again the gateway that helped me make new friends. The hard work we put into every practice and game created a bond nothing else could replicate.

And then I had to start all over again. When I turned 13, I moved to the place I now call home: Japan. Just as I had managed to settle in and find my group of friends, I had to start a new life in a new country with new challenges. It sucked. I felt as though my entire time at the new school would be determined by the first impression I made there. But I remember the first week of soccer tryouts as one of the best experiences during my time there. Every single player, despite the pressure of tryouts, took the time to get to know me and make me feel welcome. I felt like I belonged again—that I wasn’t some new kid joining the team, but a real part of it. Soccer is truly “more than a game”.

I know, this piece sounds like some coming of age story of an adolescent boy rather than a Why We Play article. Acclimating to new environments exposed me to opportunities that I would never have had if I stayed in one place. But soccer ties all my experiences together. The life-long friends I made and the teams I bonded with are things I couldn’t attain from doing anything else. Because of these factors, as I made my college decision, I knew I had to continue playing. I then spent my four years on the Vassar men’s soccer team gaining teamwork and leadership skills, but most importantly I discovered my new best friends. So I know that no matter where I end up in life, I’ll find my place, and my best friends, where I always have—on the field.

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