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The Secret to It Is...

by skutterbotched


    It’s tough, being the new guy. Even if I’ve been on the team for eight years, our team hasn’t had a roster change since I joined Darigan Citadel for the second Altador Cup. I’ve heard the hushed whispers, seen the stares. There’s a rumor that we haven’t come close to winning again because of me. That the only reason we won the second ‘Cup was because it was still new, and Darigan Citadel was the first powerhouse of a team.

     Honestly, it can be hard to drown out the whispers, still. We’re still a powerhouse of a team, after all. I am not a bad goalie. My teammates are fantastic, if not slightly terrifying, at what they do. How many times has Tandrak avoided having his face crushed by a ridiculously inexperienced Yuyoo, only to sprain his wrist an hour later, only to keep playing? Or Kep, in her solidness as a player, nearly socked a reporter for asking her what it felt like to be the only girl on the team? She held back. I don’t know that I would have, in her position. Tormo, even, has gotten accused of being less than agile. Tormo! I’ve never seen a more graceful species than a Bruce. They’re sort of known for it, after all.

     And then there’s Layton. Layton is a juggernaut, no matter what ‘expert analysis’ says about him. It’s a load of malarkey. If anything, he’s gotten stronger since the first ‘Cup, when I stood in the stands. Row 83, seat 6. The day that changed my life forever. I watched Mungo fend off round after round of Yooyuballs, and sure, he caught my eye- but I knew at that moment I would give anything to be on the field with my newfound hero, Layton Vickles. Of course, you’d never hear me say that to him. It’s too wishy-washy. He’s still my hero, but for a different reason these days. We’ll get to that in a bit.

     After that? I spent the next weeks playing with my friends. I felt like none of us were particularly good, but we tried hard. I believe my mother said “You look like a bunch of incredibly ill Mallards with the Jitters trying to dance to a Chomby and the Fungusballs number.” We didn’t particularly care. Most of us were having our gap year after high school, and forming our own team just seemed natural to us. And for me? Goalkeeping was as natural as breathing. It was three months after that first ‘Cup that we heard the news.

     Mungo had quit after the first season, totally out of the blue. I knew this was my destiny, what I was going to do for the rest of my life. Probably. I jumped at the chance to play professionally. Our little team had won a few league matches at the Citadel, but it was nothing compared to the glory and adulation that came from competing in the Altador Cup. And, not to mention, the constant time I would spend with my heroes. I was actually a little disappointed at how little we, the potential goalkeepers, saw them.

     I get it, though. After that first ‘Cup, they had become overnight superstars. That they had beaten so many other teams, so aggressively, for the first cup, was incredible to everyone. I mean, it seemed like no one particularly cared that they were ‘only second.’ Just like no one cared that Krawk Island was ‘only third.’ They had reached an unprecedented level of fame. They were the great athletes, the cream of the crop.

     Before we wanna-bes (as the trainers called us) knew it, it was three weeks before the Second Annual Altador Cup. It was made out to be a huge deal, because it was, and all fifty of us waited in silence. It wouldn’t be our future teammates that chose the goalkeeper. It would be the trainers, and it needed to pass a majority vote. They said it would take a few hours.

     They took three days.

     In those three days, I imagined every possible scenario. Reshar Collifey, Darigan Citadel goalkeeper. Reshar Collifey, would-have-been. Reshar Collifey, washout. Failure. Loser. Unathletic. To say that, at the end of those three days, I was a wreck, would be a massive understatement. When the new goalkeeper was announced, most of us were skittish, nervous wrecks; particularly since they chose to excuse anyone that had been disqualified for the position. Because, you know, it’s a good, healthy thing to draw out good or bad news to a bunch of teenagers that utterly lack any confidence. It was to the point that I was confident I wouldn’t be selected just because my name can be hard to pronounce.

     Look. I had just turned eighteen. Any confident eighteen year old is a liar, or really good at faking it. True confidence doesn’t come until you’re an actual adult, and all the adults left early on in the tryouts because of ‘real jobs’ and ‘I just don’t have time to practise like this, Margret.’

     In the end, I was selected because I was the only one out of fifty kids that qualified. It hurt, really, to get the position like that. Their explanation was even worse.

     “Look, you plainly have no idea what you’re doing on the field. One moment, you’re intense, the next, you’re staring off into space. You’re only here for the season. Try not to mess up the game for the real players.”

     I’m man enough to admit that I cried that night. I didn’t get any sleep, didn’t eat. They told me to not bother with practising, because no amount of that was going to help me. I didn’t mope much, though, because I had just been through three months of tryouts and was not going to give into their barbs. I’m a Jetsam. We’re tough. Sure, we have emotions, like every other species, but when told that we’re essentially an expensive benchwarmer, you get mad.

     I stayed mad for the next month and a half. I furiously tended the goal, like if a Yooyu slipped past me it was going to cause Moltara to be discovered three years early. I shouted at every Yooyu, slamming it out of the box like it had personally insulted my mother. (I did later apologise to them, personally, but they were suspicious.) It worked. I was so angry that I helped lead my new team to victory, without actually knowing those I was on the field with.

     But then the whispers started. Kep let slip, at first, that she was a little terrified of me. Her opinion changed when we got to know each other, but other whispers crept into my ears like smoke on the wind.

     Why does he think that much aggression is necessary? That’s a really poor strategy. He doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’s too young. He didn’t actually block that many goals, did he? I’m not sure screaming at the petpets actually counts as goalkeeping. He’s not looking any better in practise, is he? We shouldn’t have kept him on. He’s just a waste of a paycheck.

     Sure, there were lots of good things said about me, but the bad sounded so much louder. I was deafened to praise, so beaten down that even the regular Yooyus had no trouble sailing past me in the third ‘Cup. Seventh place, and so nothing to show for a year’s worth of practise. That seventh place was a huge hit to my confidence. And then the next year, we got seventh place. The only reason I wasn’t kicked off the team was because of a late night conversation I overheard.

     “Look, I know he’s young. But how would you like it if I knocked you down and started kicking you in the spleen a few dozen times a week, and then told you to play?” It was Layton, speaking to Margret, our then-head trainer.

     “That’s not the same thing,” she spat, offended. You know, how dare the star player stand up for the weakest on the team.

     “Yes, it is. You need to look at confidence like an organ, completely independent of any other organ in the body, right? It’s soft. It needs to be coddled. Kick it, like a spleen, and you go to the hospital. That’s why we wear body armour when we play. It’s not just to identify who’s who on the team, right?” His tone was gentle, like he was explaining a very difficult concept to a child.

     “I’m still not seeing where you’re going with this, Layton.” Maybe he WAS explaining a very difficult concept to a child.

     “We can’t wear armour on our confidence, Margret. Every negative word is like a brutal beating. Eventually, you learn to make your own sort of shield, like a guard, to negativity. You can drown it out and let it slide off. The difference is, you can break a bone and it heals in eight weeks, you’re good in a year. Tandrak is proof of that.”

     “He spent all of the training season in casts because he’s a twit.” I could almost hear the realisation dawn on her. “Wait, do I do that a lot?”

     “Act like a total jerk and put everyone down? Yeah. You do. You’re not going to stop, though, because that’s the kind of person you are. You’re too toxic for this team.” I heard him move across the room, only to swing the door open to reveal my hiding spot. “You took an excellent goalkeeper- the best I’ve ever seen or had the privilege of working with- and tore him down so much that he started doubting his abilities.” The look on his face was deadpan, and I was glad neither of them were looking at me to see my face flush red. “And did it to the rest of us, too. You don’t get seventh two years in a row because of one player.”

     “According to the analysis-“

     “That you provided.” His face was deadpan. We both watched as she fumbled for words. “Trainers are just as important as any other factor. Fans, the Yooyus, the players, the weather. The other teammates and I have already discussed it, though Reshar wasn’t there, I think he’ll agree. We’re going trainer-free this year.”

     “You’re going to lose every game you play.” Margret’s voice was bitter, and full of venom.

     “At least we’ll have lost because of a lack of talent, and not a lack of confidence.” Layton’s voice was eerily calm, and enough to send Margret storming out of the room, and the big Hissi let out an enormous breath. I hadn’t noticed he’d been holding it. “That was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” I was shocked. “Let’s not tell anyone I was terrified, eh? Wouldn’t want to ruin my image.” He gave me a wink and slithered off, his serpentine head held high.

     We didn’t bring it up again, because what he said that night was apparently the panacea we needed. I guess you can say the rest was history, because we climbed to third place that year. We stumbled the next year, but after a restructuring of our training, we have fought and stayed in the top five every year since.

     We’re in the last stretch, now, and I had finally brought that conversation back up to Layton last night.

     “Dude, what’s your secret? I’ve been meaning to ask you all these years. You’re always so calm and collected.”

     “I’m not, actually. I’m usually freaking out on the inside. It makes for a lot of nervous energy, and you have to find a way to deal with that, to refocus it into something a bit more productive than hopping from flipper to flipper. Honestly, I thought that’s what you had done for your first ‘Cup.” He lifted an eyebrow, not particularly expecting an honest answer. But I owed him that much.

     “No, I was just really angry. Now that I’m older and more level-headed, it’s a bit harder to get that angry. The confidence is still a bit touch-and-go, though.” It was easy to admit this to Layton. He’s become my best friend. “Then I just get mad that I’m not as confident as I should be, and then the nerves strike. I still feel like I have no idea what I’m doing.” He laughed a silken hiss. “What?”

     “What if I told you that everyone feels like that? That amount of cockiness you see other people on the field exuding? They’re faking it. Well, most of them. I don’t think Elon fakes it. I think he’s actually that sure of himself.” He closed his eyes, now basking in the sun.

     “Elon didn’t have a nightmare trainer from Moltara breathing down his neck.” My friend shifted uncomfortably, and I would have bitten my tongue if it didn’t put me at serious risk of injury.

     “That’s not a fair assumption. The way I heard it, the Maraquan trainers were even worse than ours. Heard they fired theirs this year, too.” He sighed. “But I did ask him, once, what his own secret was. I’m trying very hard to follow it.”

     “What, then?” He showed me a small plaque and grinned.

     The biggest secret to gaining confidence is letting go of the past. You’ve got a bright future ahead of you, and constantly clinging to the darkness will make it hard to see that. Once you do that, you’re golden, kid. Stay strong. Stay amazing.


The End.

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