Playing soccer for the last 30 years and coaching for the last 10 has taught me several lessons about life. In fact, every time I step on the field to coach or play, I learn a thing or two about human behavior, psychology, and differences between achieving excellence and coming short on the day.
From the Wikipedia: "Over 24 million Americans play soccer as of 2006. There are 4.2 million players (2.5 million men and 1.7 million women) registered with U.S. Soccer. Thirty percent of American households contain someone playing soccer, a figure second only to baseball."
How many of them are going to play in the World Cup, professionally, or even college? Not a large percentage. Yet many of those millions of kids spend hours (in addition to their parents) upon hours traveling to practices and games, thinking about the game, and watching the game. Sometimes I wonder whether all of that energy spent on soccer is worth it. Then I turn the mirror on my own life and ask myself whether soccer has been worth it to me? Undeniably, the answer is yes. Here is why...
One thing I find myself telling players and something I heard myself as a player is not to get too high, or too low, depending on success or a poor result or performance. In other words, keep the mentality in the grey area and that will lead to more consistency. The same applies to my thinking about soccer and the role it has in one's life. There have been many moments when my obsessiveness about the game leads to anguish if things don't go my way.
As good as winning championships, scoring goals and playing well feels, the lows including not making a certain team, playing like shit, losing as a coach, or getting hurt and sitting on the sidelines seems to suck super hard to the point where I know I don't think I am the only who questions whether immersion in the game of soccer is even worth it. My performance as a soccer player has defined me as a person and how much joy I can extract out of life. If I played well my smile is wider, my laugh is harder, and even my ability to listen to other people improves. Seeking validation from others via soccer success and deriving self-esteem from soccer is not why we should play the game. However, it is so common and easy to fall into that trap. Like eating fast food or junk, it feels good for a little while but it ends up biting us in the ass.
Dependence on soccer success for overall well-being cannot be healthy. But what is the solution? To care less? I propose a different approach.
Like a lot of sports, with the high level of fitness needed to play the game the right way, the physical challenges, and even team disputes, sports offer plenty of opportunities to exhibit mental and physical toughness. I like to call it "the hardening process".
My proposal is that we should play and coach soccer BECAUSE it is hard, and shift our focus to that. The running and training is hard. Getting subbed out and not throwing a fit or butt-facing the coach is hard. The ref making a bad call and dealing with it is hard. Making mistakes and keeping it together is hard. Losing is hard. The video below really sums up what I am talking about. Basically, it is turning everything that does't work out the way we wanted it to into a positive.
It is because of the hard aspects of the game we grow as players, coaches, and people. Embracing the tougher aspects of soccer and leveraging them to grow as human beings is what it can start to be about. Less about outcomes, and more about the overall process. I think with that shift in perspective we can also enjoy each moment more instead of just wishing for things to go well. And when they do go well, we can smile without the desperation and with real appreciation knowing that either way, we would have been alright.