So, a few months ago I turned 24. 24 is not particularly culturally remarkable, as far as this country is concerned. And I don't mind that. It's nice to have some attention and hoopla surround a 16th, 18th, and 21st birthday, but not every year needs to be a celebration. And this is not written to call attention to the fact that I've managed to avoid death for 24 terrestrial circlings of the sun, but to lay out a bit of how I think about my own aging.
People choose many ways of quantifying or comparing their progress in life. I have, perhaps unwisely, based much of my evaluation of age on professional soccer. This will not surprise many people. It also means that my understanding of time revolves around the schedule of soccer and how professional soccer players age.
Time in Soccer
When I talk about time in soccer, I mean the entire experience of playing and watching soccer. I am one of the many hundreds of millions of people in the world who engages with the sport in several different ways multiple times a day. Fans plan work, family, and hobbies around the annual calendar of their favorite sport, so it's not far off to suggest that people use sports as a longer conceptual calendar as well.
In a soccer fan's mind, there are two parts of the year: the season and the offseason. The season for most of the biggest and most popular leagues in the world runs from late August to mid-May. During this period a fan who supports a team is thinking in time chunks of a week; that is, game to game. Most leagues now also have games during the week, and there are cup matches and continental competitions as well, so fans can expect at least one game a week. The week lead-up to a game will be filled with online forum discussions of formations, newspaper articles about the fitness of the star players, and banter (friendly or antagonistic) between the players of both clubs. All excitement and tension is building toward those 90 minutes a week.
The off-season, in soccer as in many sports, is the time when the joys and agonies of the concluded season slowly dull, and the mind perks with excitement for the next season. The off-season is when hope builds and resignations of "Maybe next year" become actionable. Teams begin their preseason training with new training routines, different tactics, and oftentimes a new coach.
For an amateur player, the off-season is the time to remember all the games in the previous summer that you weren't fit enough, weren't skilled enough, weren't intelligent enough, and how those memories will spur you to train and do the work to get better. Most of us can't be bothered to put in the work necessary to get better, but the off-season is still a hopeful time. The potential improvement hangs in the air, waiting for us to grab it by doing fitness and recovery drills. Which we are very excited to start doing. Tomorrow. After work.
I should mention that here in Minnesota, the professional and amateur seasons do not line up. The pro season is fall and winter, and the afficionado's season is summer, right in the middle of the professional off-season. It is perfectly normal for the soccer fan/player to be thinking in both time scales at the same time.
Being 24 in Pro Soccer
Really, being 24 years old in professional soccer is pretty unremarkable too. The oldest age group of a national team that isn't the full senior team (the adults) is 23 and under, and that's really only used for the mens' Olympic soccer tournament (all members of a country's male Olympic team must be 23 or younger, with three exceptions; the womans' tournament has no age restriction). It's a few years past the age of a player deemed a promising young talent, 20-22, and well past the age of a phenomenon, 17-20. A player who hasn't yet made a splash by the time they reach 24 usually will at best become a solid but undistinguished member of their club team. Their time to make good on their potential is by no means over, but they are no longer regarded as a prospect anymore.
The player is in a stage, over the next few years, where their hard work from a young age will either pay off and they will grow into their position, or they will be marked as another of the untold millions that didn't quite make it, without anything in particular that they did wrong.
How This Applies
Obviously as someone that has been told that I am special and wonderful and talented in my own way (white, male, American) this idea that I am not a particular standout is sometimes difficult to reconcile. I'm not saying you should cry for me; coming to terms with mediocrity is something some manage without thrashing about. The passage of time continues whether I accept it or not, and older I must get.
I see myself as someone stagnating, letting opportunity pass me by. And unlike soccer, in the outside world there are no landmarks of success save the ones you set for yourself. I haven't set myself any goals, achievable or otherwise. Perhaps this is one reason I stay so attached to soccer as a mental calendar: it gives structure.
This is not to lose sight of the immense privilege and luck I have and have had at being born two feet from the team sheet. I try and use this to help push me towards a more productive use of my talents (whatever they may be). Other people have worked their fingers to the bone their entire life, and here I am whining that I am rudderless at age 24. Well, it is a personal blog I suppose.
This mental construction of time is not all bad. Every fan, of any sport, has had a moment where they thought, "Next game/week/year we'll be better." The cyclical nature of the calendar gives me feelings of renewal and hope before each turn. A new season is a clean slate, another match is a chance to fix mistakes committed in previous ones, even while making new ones. I even feel giddy with anticipation before a big game or a new season, filled with potential and possibility. Occasionally I experience this in my other pursuits, but I'd like to bring it more into other parts of my life. Several studies on long-term happiness pinpoint finding small moments of joy as key, so will this in mind I will look for more small giddy moments in the next 9 or so months until my next birthday. Hopefully plenty of those moments are soccer.