I started out writing this to discuss leadership, coaching, and mentoring. But, as usual, I started spewing words from my fingertips and ended up saying much more than I’d intended. So this is installment #1 on a little series that will eventually look at leadership through the lens of coaching soccer. This installment itself really has no redeeming qualities. It is not (at least intentionally) an allegory of anything in Christianity; it doesn’t possess insights as to how one should be obedient to Christ or interpret scripture; and it doesn’t end with bullet points on what I’ve learned about life. Nor is it necessary for understanding future posts in this series. It’s just a story about my relationship with soccer — and background to some ideas on leadership and coaching. That’s all:
I’ve played soccer most of my life — pretty sure I started when I was six-years old. I loved the game from the very beginning. Maybe because running is involved the entire match, leaving little time for boredom. Probably, though, it was because I was quite possibly the worst baseball player ever known to man, and I didn’t embarrass myself quite so much on a soccer pitch. I’m not sure, but I knew from the beginning that soccer was my sport.
I remember the night I scored my first goal. It was my mom’s birthday, and I was so happy to “give her” that goal as a birthday present. It was probably the only successful thing I’d ever done in organized athletics up to that point. Even starting to score a few goals, I wasn’t a great player. I was just good enough to make the All-Star Team most years, but not good enough to start — or even to get much playing time — on those All-Star Teams. This seemed to become a theme for me: being just good enough to make a team and not play. I was just barely good enough to make my high school team — which was a fairly competitive endeavor, as we didn’t have a JV or Freshmen team. But I rarely started, and didn’t see the pitch much at all during matches. I think I probably made the team only because the coach 1) saw that I worked really hard to improve and 2) recognized that I could run forever without getting tired. So I was the guy put into the game when others weren’t hustling or when we were up by 4 goals or so. And I was the guy that started on “Senior Day” as a senior, but was embarrassed by it, because I knew I really didn’t deserve to be out there. Still, I enjoyed being on the team — and practices were fun.
Our team was successful, with a record of something like 56-5-2 my last two years of high school. We were competitive in every game we played, and well over half our matches ended in shut-outs in which we scored 4 or more goals. But I always felt like I was a little on the outside of things… during matches in general, especially in the starting line-up, and even in the celebrations. But I learned a lot:
- I learned about the game itself: ball movement, playing into and creating space, player movement off the ball, set pieces, team play.
- I learned about hard work and discipline; I learned this mostly because both were required of me to even make the roster. I’m sure some of the really talented guys didn’t learn discipline, because it wasn’t necessary for them. But I was forced to.
- I learned something about the psychology of the game. I learned what benefit there is in confidence, and how, at the same time, it can work against you. I learned about intimidation and fear, questioning refs’ decisions and anger, what a team can do to build unity, and what a team can do to ensure that every single player goes to the principal’s office the day after a home game.
- I learned what talented and athletic guys could do with their bodies; I myself was late in reaching puberty, becoming coordinated, growing taller, and especially in adding muscle. I was a boney stick of a guy out there, and all I had going for me was an ability to run without stopping. But I watched what these other guys could do… and memorized their actions and their skills. I don’t know if, at the time, I realized I would one day be able to do some of those very things, or if I only hoped it… or if I just envied them, and so, watched with unwavering interest.
One of the most important things I learned, I learned out of pity for other teams. We were a big public high school, and our players were strong and fast, as well as skilled. Because there were few soccer teams in south Alabama at the time, we would often travel 1 1/2 hours to play a single match — and even then we might play against a much smaller private school. I noticed often that these schools played good soccer, but never won — not a single one of those matches against us. Their players were usually a little smaller, a little more skilled, a little wealthier, and a lot prettier. Whereas our team might warm up to Nirvana (Kurt Cobain died my junior year), Offspring, Alice in Chains, or the Rocky soundtrack, these prep school teams would warm up to Dave Matthews Band. [For those of you who are younger, that was the equivalent of getting psyched up for the big game with John Mayer or Jason Mraz.] Whereas our team would in many ways thrive on a little contact between players in matches, these prettier boys would try at all costs to avoid contact and then cry about it, were there any. I always felt a little sorry for the smaller private schools who seemed to have great skill and knowledge, but couldn’t win big matches. That’s when I realized the faster and stronger team might not always win; but even in games of finesse, that’s who you’d better put your money on. And that holds true most of the time — at least until the college level. If a smaller school with less athletic players is going to win matches, they’ll have to do so with more than slightly better skills and greater knowledge of the game.
I went to college and played a lot of intramural soccer and local tournaments. During that time I switched to goalkeeper. I had kind of been a back-up goalkeeper in high school, but never saw the field at all in that position. One of my best friends in high school was the top keeper in the state, so, while I stayed out of goal (and off the field), I was able to learn a lot from him. I think it was actually as much my lack of coordination, and not just my friend, Kevin, that kept me from playing keeper in high school. And Kevin is probably the reason I found some success as a goalkeeper later in life.
By the time I moved to China in 2001, I’d been playing goalkeeper consistently for five years. I’d also become more coordinated, put on 60 pounds since starting college, and coached a high school team for a year. I felt myself drawn to the only soccer pitch with grass in the town of Wuhan — at least it was the only one I’d seen at that point. The university team, whose field it was, invited me to practice with them (a perk of being on the small side of the 80,000:1 ratio of Chinese to whites), and offered me a position at goalkeeper. Yep, it never changes; from elementary school on, keeper is the spot no one wants, so the new guy always gets (or someone’s little brother). I played well that day, and the coaches invited me to join them. I became the goalkeepers coach for a pretty decent university team in China.
In addition to coaching in China, I started playing whenever I got the chance, often just hanging out in the afternoons at local fields until I was invited to play. Really, for the first time in my life could say I was successful as a soccer player. I received the award for best goalkeeper at the university where I was teaching (they encouraged teachers to take part in intramural sports), I started at keeper for a semi-pro team in town, and I even earned a try-out for our province’s only professional team. I only went as far as meeting with the coaches and team, though. When they told me what a year’s schedule looked like, I decided it wasn’t for me. It would have meant oddly timed return visits to the states, but even more it would have required that I not serve as a missionary in the same way I currently was. I thought about trying out anyway, just so I might be able to say that I made a professional soccer team — but integrity prevented me from doing so.
A few years later I found myself back in the states and coaching a high school team.
(To be continued…)