Thursday, August 16, 2007

Life lessons from football.

Soccer to you, probably.

I was driving around this morning, coming home from an appointment, and I saw the first sure sign that fall is coming (in spite of the oppressive heat and humidity today in these parts): the soccer trainers are out on the fields with the kids already, with their cones and their flags and their practice vests and their very shiny new boots (cleats to you). I coached youth and school soccer for fifteen years, and even though I "retired" from coaching four years ago, I still miss it... sometimes. I still love the game, though, and still follow it as best I can without a satellite dish (a-hem).

One of the best soccer related stories of late was the victory of Iraq's national team over Saudi Arabia in the recently concluded Asian Cup competition, a cause for rejoicing that, sadly, was spoiled when terrorists (or militants or insurgents or whatever we're supposed to call them) attacked some of the spontaneous celebrations this victory caused and killed a whole lot of innocent people.

Today's Philadelphia Inquirer featured a column by César Chelala about this victory, which featured these fascinating and insightful observations:

... Jorvan Vieira, the Brazilian coach hired by the Iraqi team shortly before
the final game, has spoken - in an interview published by Clarín, an Argentine newspaper - about animosity among the Iraqi players, especially between Sunnis and Shiites. The team was in total disarray on his arrival. Many players didn't even talk to one another, and, for the first two weeks, coaching was extremely difficult for him.

When asked how he managed to encourage civility among the Sunni, Shiite, Kurdish and Christian players enough for the team to pull together, Vieira replied: "What I did was talk with them every day and tell them that unless they decided to work together, they wouldn't get anywhere and that they would leave the Iraqi people without any happiness. Every time two players had a problem, I took them into a room and didn't leave that room until the problem was overcome."

After the victory in the semifinal match against South Korea, hundreds of
thousands of Iraqis took to the streets to celebrate - interrupted by two
suicide car bombings that killed 50 people and wounded 135. A cause for
celebration had become a cause for mourning.

"The day afterward was very difficult for us," Vieira said. "We all cried
on watching the TV images of the tragedy, and we thought if it really was
worthwhile to win, since if we won, people died, and if we lost, people also

According to Vieira, it was despair that gave the team the strength needed to play and win the final game. The players had learned that a mother who lost her son during the celebrations had spoken of the happiness of her boy's final moments, thanks to their team's victory. It made them think, "We have to win this final at any price and offer this triumph to that mother."

For a few moments the Iraqi people were able to forget they were living
in a country ravaged by war and senseless killing. Their team's victory gave them hope, an example of the possibilities ahead if only they worked together, just as the team had done in order to triumph...

The rest of the piece is here, and it's the title that gave me the idea for this post. I love that part about how the coach brought these factions together to forge a winning side (man, and I thought I had problem players!). I enjoy learning how coaches deal with difficult situations, and this had to be one of the most challenging ever faced by a coach. And it made me think about what coaching and being around soccer has taught me about life, the universe, and everything. It comes down to these six basic "rules," the things the game taught and reinforced in me:

1.) Life, like soccer, has very few, and very simple, rules. There are only seventeen laws (rules) for soccer. It's a pretty simple game, actually. Like life. Basically, as in soccer, you can get by day-to-day with a few simple rules for living. Love your neighbor as yourself. Or at least like her or him. Be honest: don't cheat or lie or steal. Keep your hands to yourself (unless invited to do otherwise). Don't touch what isn't yours. Be respectful. Value your life, and the lives of other living things. If you can't help someone, at least don't hurt them. Show up ready to do what needs to be done. Simple things like that. Play the game the way you want the rest of the world to play it, because how they play effects you, too.

2.) Not everything is that simple. The offside law in soccer seems relatively simple, and yet it can be so subjective and so subtle as to be maddening. Over the years, I saw more arguments and ejections over the calling (or not) of offside than I did for anything else besides rough play. That's because it's called based on a) what an official sees, and b) what she or he knows about the law. It's not really open for interpretation (if you really understand it), but people do see it that way. In other words, it's not always black and white. They are grey areas, open for debate and discussion, based on knowledge, interpretation, experience, and bias. Like... life.

3.) Everyone can - and should - have a place on the team. One of the great things about soccer is that you don't have to have some sort of genetic enhancement or glandular abnormality to play. Tall and short, slim and stocky, all kinds of folks can play. My older son, who I had the honor of coaching for many of those fifteen years, is somewhat short, not real muscular, wasn't gifted with great speed or a big leg, but he could see the field well, understood the game and played smart, was a good leader on the pitch, and was an absolutely fearless goalkeeper. As a coach, I had all kinds of players to work with. I always had a system for my teams, but I tailored it to their strengths (and weaknesses). And within that system, there was always room for each kid to shine. It was like a very together jazz quartet: everyone knew the basic tune we were playing, but everyone also got his chance to solo. In life, there's a spot for everyone. At least there should be. Everyone brings something to the table. We all do better when we use our collective talents together, and when we don't dismiss or overlook those with skills and abilities that might seem "different." And besides that, there is the fact that we can rarely do it all on our own. Players usually score because someone else on the team made an equally good play before they did. Trying to go through life alone - especially the hard parts - means you may not have as good a life as you could have.

4.) Everyone deserves a second chance. When you make a mistake in soccer, the ref shows you the yellow card, which means that you're on notice: do that again, and you're out of the match (which means you get a dreaded red card). Unless you do something really dangerous or disrespectful of the "laws," you can get a second chance and can continue playing. If a soccer ref can do this for players, we should do this for our fellow everyday humans, too. And it also means giving yourself a second chance, too.

5.) Decisions have consequences. If you decide to play the ball at exactly the right moment, you can set up a goal. Wait a second too long, and the play falls apart. No big deal: you learn from that and play on. However, if, for example, you commit a dangerous foul, or go rudely bananas over a ref's call, you've decided to break the few rules we have, for which you can be dismissed from a match. Because you made a bad choice. You now have forced your team to finish with only ten players. Ask Zinedine Zidane of France whether he regrets his blockheaded decision to head-butt that Italian defender in the final match of the last World Cup, a game France could (and should) have won but for his bad decision. His glorious career will be remembered for nothing else but that one incredibly bad choice. He has to live with that. The difference between being a little kid and being a grown-up means finally recognizing that when you make a bad choice, you gotta deal. Sadly, some people haven't seem to have learned this yet, or maybe they never will.

6.) You will work a lot harder, and suffer a lot more, than you will exalt in your successes. Americans who don't get soccer often wonder why soccer players do such crazy dances and celebrations after they score a goal. It's because scoring a goal in soccer is hard to do, and rare. The field is huge, the games are long, and - take it from me - making everything come together to make a scoring strike happen is a difficult, complicated physical and mental process, usually involving lots of people other than the lucky player who finally slots the ball into the back of the old onion bag. Just like life. I don't entirely suscribe to the Buddhist notion that all of life is about suffering, but, let's face it, life can be a... difficult, complicated physical and mental process. After a while, most of us recognize that this is a given fact. So when good things do happen, it's okay to do the happy dance. In fact, there should be more happy dancing in the world. On a daily basis, preferably.

Here's hoping that someday, the people of Iraq can dance in the streets - together - and celebrate - together - for real. Without fear. Maybe this coach is on something as to how to get them all there. Together.


No comments: