When Kristen (Cole) Ibsen (19) started her soccer career at the age of five she wasn’t sure if she’d continue to play through college, but she knew she wanted to stay connected to the sport for as long as possible.

During her high school years, Ibsen saw a lot of her club and high school teammates committing to colleges, and decided she wanted to follow suit. 

“The recruitment process starts really early for women’s soccer players — usually sophomore year,” said Ibsen, “So as I started seeing my teammates committing, I moved up to the A team to play at a higher level and get myself ready.”

Club soccer teams, like most high school teams, have multiple levels within an age group. When college coaches are looking at women for recruiting, they almost exclusively consider the players on the highest level team. 

Ibsen (fifth from the right) with her 2022 San Francisco Nighthawks team.

“I loved the [A team] girls and the team culture, but that’s also when the anxiety started kicking in,” said Ibsen, “Mental health wasn’t discussed, so in a higher pressure environment I was developing a lot more anxiety.”

“I actually went to the doctor for asthma, because I would start playing in a game situation and I wouldn’t be able to breathe,” said Ibsen. “In hindsight, I realize now that those were panic attacks.”

Nevertheless, Ibsen continued to play, enduring the impact of her performance anxiety for the rest of her high school season. She was recruited and committed to play soccer under former head women’s soccer coach Tim Hall. 

Ibsen arrived in San Diego as a walk-on recruit in 2015. The PLNU women’s soccer team had just come off a nearly perfect conference run, going 11-0-1 on the season. Returning players were very serious about taking on the next season, and incoming recruits were expected to fall in line with the competitive atmosphere.

“The policy in place was that if you didn’t pass your fitness test, you wouldn’t dress for games,” said Ibsen. 

Passing a fitness test coming into season every year is a common practice at the highest levels of college soccer. Coaches often require incoming and returning players to pass certain fitness tests as a way of judging their physical capabilities at the start of training camp. The policy for PLNU women’s soccer at the time was that a player who failed their fitness test would continue to run it until they passed.

“I probably ran that test at least 20 times in three months,” said Ibsen, who struggled to run it successfully due to her anxiety.

The season continued with Ibsen trying and failing to pass her fitness test, meanwhile pursuing a degree in business administration and living the life of a full-time student-athlete. At the end of the first season, Ibsen went home for winter break, where she had some time to recover physically and mentally. 

“I started to get back in shape for the spring season and I realized this is the last thing I want to do right now,” said Ibsen. “Previously I had been stoked to get on the field, and now I felt like I didn’t want to do it at all.”

When Ibsen returned, she and Hall sat down to talk about how she was feeling, and Ibsen ultimately decided to stop playing college soccer. 

Ibsen and her husband, John.

“I quite fully checked out of soccer after that,” said Ibsen. “I changed my major from business to psychology, made a ton of new friends outside of sports, and focused on making my time in college fun.”

After college, Ibsen married fellow PLNU graduate John Ibsen (19) and the two settled in San Diego. Ibsen described that she began to dream about soccer near the end of 2021. 

After a few weeks of recurring dreams about playing soccer again, Ibsen decided to reach out to former teammate and fellow PLNU alumna Cori Deason (16). 

“I started to have dreams about playing soccer, and it was good again,” Ibsen said. “I would wake up and tell my husband that I was playing in my dreams and having fun and succeeding.”

“I saw Cori posting about how she was playing, so I reached out to her and asked her how she was still playing and how I could join,” said Ibsen. 

At the time, Deason was playing for a semi-professional women’s team in San Diego called the San Diego Strikers. She invited Ibsen to try out.

“I was wildly anxious but I told myself to go out there and have fun and not to put too much pressure on the experience,” said Ibsen. 

After a week practicing, Ibsen got a call from the coach informing her that she had a spot on the team if she wanted it. 

“It was like those birthday candles that you blow out, but they relight themselves,” said Ibsen. “My love for the game was gone in college but post-grad it came back to life.”

“It was like those birthday candles that you blow out, but they relight themselves,” said Ibsen. “My love for the game was gone in college but post-grad it came back to life.”

Ibsen spent the next few years in the semi-pro world playing for a variety of teams in both San Diego and the Bay Area. Although she changed teams and locations, she consistently struggled with performance anxiety.

After a few months of playing in the Bay Area, Ibsen was still consistently experiencing the symptoms of performance anxiety. She felt like she wasn’t able to make any progress with the techniques she was aware of to combat anxiety and decided to seek more professional counsel.

“I was at the point where I knew [my anxiety] wasn’t sustainable,” said Ibsen. “I tried everything — breathing techniques, changing my diet, even mind-tapping — but nothing was working.”

As a result, Ibsen started searching for local therapists. She found one specifically trained in EMDR and started making progress with her anxiety.

EMDR or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing is a more intense form of therapy. According to the EMDR institute, this type of psychotherapy was specifically designed to “alleviate distress associated with traumatic memories.” This type of treatment helps an individual rewire, so to speak, any traumatic pathways their brain has adopted as a result of previous traumatic experiences. 

Therapists trained in EMDR work specifically to help their patients reassociate traumatic memories with adaptive memories and information, per the EMDR Institute. Ibsen, like many former college athletes, was working through some of the trauma associated with playing at a high level, quitting, and then returning to the sport at a high level again.

“I made a lot of progress mentally playing with my team, and I’ve finally been able to name and conceptualize mental injury and mental illness,” said Ibsen. “When I do EMDR sessions I really get to the root of things and start to reconceptualize these negative self-beliefs.”

It was around this time in 2022 that Ibsen realized she still had eligibility left. 

Every NCAA athlete enters collegiate sports with a certain number of years of what is termed eligibility. This is the number of seasons they are allotted to play a single sport as a student-athlete. Sometimes a student-athlete will sustain a career-ending injury or quit a team effectively pausing their eligibility “clock” at the time of their removal from the roster. The seasons they’ve played will count against their total, but they may have seasons remaining at the time of their departure from the team. Ibsen’s decision to stop playing soccer for PLNU early left her with about two years of eligibility in the sport of women’s soccer. These years of eligibility were still valid during summer 2022.

“I remember driving home from practice across the Golden Gate bridge and wondering if I could play competitively in college again,” said Ibsen. “I was seeing a lot of my teammates get signed for international professional teams and it had never occurred to me until then that I could dream bigger like them.” 

Ibsen got on the phone with a trusted coach and trainer and started talking through the process of going back to play collegiate soccer. Her coach encouraged her to look into the option immediately, and within the week, Ibsen was researching college programs.

“I talked with a bunch of coaches and schools and I was very blunt about what I wanted,” said Ibsen. “The recruiting process as a 26-year-old adult is very different from when you’re an 18-year-old kid. I knew I wanted to choose a program on my own terms.”

“I talked with a bunch of coaches and schools and I was very blunt about what I wanted,” said Ibsen. “The recruiting process as a 26-year-old adult is very different from when you’re an 18-year-old kid. I knew I wanted to choose a program on my own terms.”

Ibsen’s decision to return to college sports as an older athlete represents an emerging class of returning student-athletes. While the NCAA does not have an age limit for student-athletes, it has always had strict eligibility standards, making it difficult for any non-traditional, older student-athletes to play. However, in recent years, especially in light of COVID-19, the NCAA student-athlete landscape has started to look more varied.

Many players are reconsidering college athletics as an option — young players signed to play professionally out of high school who don’t find the big-league success they wanted, or former student-athletes who have had to leave teams for personal or family reasons. While there are many rules to consider before an older student-athlete can be considered eligible to play again, it is still a viable option for many individuals.

Approaching its first decade in NCAA Division II sports, PLNU has had more than one athlete exercise this option. Former Baltimore Orioles draft pick Mike Planeta (17) graduated from PLNU with a degree in exercise and sport science and a master’s in sport management. He became a men’s basketball student-athlete after playing with the Orioles organization for five seasons. 

While time playing professionally precluded him from playing baseball in college, Planeta still had full eligibility in all other collegiate sports. He would go on to become a starting player for the men’s basketball team as an older athlete and, perhaps his biggest claim to fame, as a contestant on season 17 of the Bachelorette. 

Ibsen, Planeta and many other older student-athletes find that they have unfinished business in the world of college athletics. Coming back at a later age is often more exciting and enjoyable for them. 

“I approach soccer very differently now,” said Ibsen. “And I know this program is mental health-forward and mental health-aware. ”

Ibsen’s new program will start in the fall of 2023. She is training four to five times per week and continuing to work with her EMDR therapist to forge new mental pathways as she prepares to jump back into college soccer. 

“When I’m playing now and my anxiety acts up, I don’t try to force it down,” said Ibsen. “I acknowledge it because it’s a part of me that’s very real.” 

“It’s just like a physical injury,” said Ibsen. “When you have a sprained ankle you don’t just ignore it or force it to work. You take the time to slowly get back into things and help it heal.”

Kendall Patton is a 2016 graduate of PLNU and a former student-athlete. She graduated with a degree in journalism and is a freelance writer for the Viewpoint.