In 2006, Nike ran a series of ads called “Joga Bonito” leading up to the soccer world cup in Germany. It means “play beautifully.”
The clips showed world-class players like Ronaldo, Thierry Henry, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic performing soccer tricks, goofing off, and just enjoying the game. The ads were a smash hit, and my best friend and I spent hours watching them. We started downloading and collecting freestyle videos of all kinds, and, soon enough, we went outside and began to practice.
“How does Henry do this trick?” “What’s an ‘Around-the-World?’” Before long, we had a sizable repertoire of cool moves. Unlike my friend, I wasn’t on an actual soccer team, so instead of focusing mainly on that, I just kept practicing tricks. I trained outside for hours. I did sessions in our basement in the winter.
I also got more friends addicted to the fun, and, together, we discovered we weren’t the only ones. We hung out in forums. We started a local German freestyle group. We even had our own competitions. Everyone would film some footage, edit their best clips, add music, and, voilà, the trick-off was on!
By 2008, the movement had gained enough momentum to warrant its own world championship called Red Bull Street Style, which my then-practice buddy took part in. We also auditioned for Germany’s Got Talent, but neither of us made it to the show.
In 2009, I was gearing up for my A-levels and started having knee problems. That year, I shot my last clips. After graduation, I still dabbled with the ball on occasion, but when I went to college, I decided: That’s it. I quit. No more football freestyle. Today, all that’s left is grainy videos and a ball in my room.
In retrospect, this may sound like an obvious choice; the classic “giving up a hobby for something bigger.” Back then, it was a very painful decision.
Initially, there were less than 100 serious freestylers in Germany. I had peers from all over the world who respected my work. By being both early and dedicated, I had been, for a brief moment in time, one of the best football freestylers in the world. That’s hard to walk away from.
Ultimately, however, quitting was necessary. I wasn’t meant to be an athlete. I’m very happy with the job I have now — writing — and wouldn’t trade it for the world.
But how do you make these decisions? How do you know when to quit? Here are some of the factors I considered.
1. How Much Talent Do You Really Have?
When Ronaldinho juggles a ball, it looks like he’s dancing. His moves just flow, and everything looks effortless. I didn’t have a sleek natural style. I had to work hard on it for every move, even long after I had mastered it.
I also had a knack for juggling moves but none of the others, like upper body or dribbling. The more people came into the space, the more all-around talents I saw. Meanwhile, more and more people smoked me in air moves too. I had painted myself into a corner, and more effort would not get me out of it.
Sometimes, you’re early enough to win on effort alone. In the long run, however, you want to play a game where you have a natural advantage — because eventually, your time advantage always runs out.
Don’t be afraid to quit if you can’t play to your strengths.
2. Can You Last?
I have knock knees. If you look straight at my legs, they’ll look somewhat X-shaped. My kneecaps are displaced. They can’t distribute whatever weight I put on them properly.
Some of these are the result of orthopedic neglect, others that of genetics. Regardless, I should not spend a lot of time hopping from leg to leg. That’s a physical limit I must accept.
Sometimes, your body will close certain doors for you. Sometimes, it’s the work’s psychological demands. Life is a long game, and you must manage your resources. Be honest about what you have and don’t have in you.
It’s a signal of strength, not weakness, to accept your limitations.
3. Does It Pay?
To this day, few people in freestyle live a glamorous lifestyle. Soccer is a huge market, but to most people, tricks are just a fun little distraction.
I recently checked what the world’s best from back in the day are up to. Most of them have normal jobs or quit altogether. One makes specialized freestyle gear. That’s smart. Another went into soccer education and built a big Instagram and Youtube. But those are the rare exceptions.
Even back then, I realized most of the little money that was available was in live performances, something I was both terrible at and had no desire to do.
Money matters. Everything can be a job, but most things shouldn’t be. It’s okay to demand a certain standard of living and growth potential in your career. Don’t feel bad for quitting what’s too small to make it big.
4. How Important Is It To You?
I wanted to be a great football freestyler, but there were several things I wanted even more: A career that would stretch my mind to its limits, a quiet, unscheduled life, and the option to start a family.
Of course, the lack of perspective in terms of health, money, and talent made freestyle less important to me, but even if those had looked better, I would have faced some serious tradeoffs.
Nothing will make your life simpler than having your priorities in the right order. When you know your true north, it’s a lot easier to make hard but important sacrifices.
I know I’m not explaining rocket science here. These are basic questions. But I also know how difficult it can be to face them when you most need to. It’s easy to postpone axing something you love — especially if it loves you back.
In the moment, these decisions feel incredibly hard. Years later, we look back at them and wonder: Why didn’t I pull the plug sooner? We didn’t quit sooner because back then, it wasn’t an obvious plug to pull.
When you start feeling uneasy about the perspective of something you spend a lot of time on, dare ask yourself some tough questions. How good are you really? Is it taking a toll on your health? Can it truly be a lifelong career?
Life is a one-time chance to do everything you’ll ever do. Probe how important each project is to you. Does it deserve the top rung on your ladder of concerns? Be honest with yourself, and don’t forget the big picture.
Sometimes, when you can’t play beautifully anymore, the best thing you can do is quit.