Soccer lessons

In the middle of my first semester of grad school, a little sign popped up in an out-of-the-way message board for intramural indoor soccer. We could form teams ourselves or sign up individually and get placed on someone else’s team. I hadn’t played soccer in over a decade and thought it would be fun to have regularly scheduled weekly exercise and an excuse to band together some classmates to share in sweat, pain and glory. There’s something about that combination that really brings people closer like no other. Katelyn had sent out an exploratory “anybody interested?” email to our cohort to little reply so she dropped the subject, but we agreed to put each other’s names on our individual signups and hope they’d place us on the same team. On the very last day for signups we gathered at the board to fill out our forms. One by one classmates dropped by to see what we were doing, and one by one we talked them into joining us, until, spontaneously, we had enough for a team.

The unfortunate detail I forgot to mention to everybody present was that I suck at soccer. I do. In elementary school we’d had a ragtag team – our school’s only team sport available – that won maybe one game in the entire four seasons I played for them. We had a couple parent coaches with no particular soccer experience, and did nothing but scrimmage on an open field for practice. The field sloped slightly downwards so that whoever won the coin toss and chose their side of the field generally won the scrimmage. I knew very little about dribbling, passing, strategy, where to run and when to do it. All I did know was defense, where two defenders and myself would prowl the perimeter of our territory and attempt to eject any stray balls or opposing players that ventured into our territory.

Enter indoor soccer. A dozen years later I found myself facing the very first sport I’d ever played, the one that really should have turned me off of sports as a meaningful form of exercise but instead, it’s really the form of exercise that I enjoy most. But indoor soccer is a beast of an entirely different nature from soccer. Halve the team size and transport the game to a basketball court, where walls are “in” and so is the area behind the goal. Indoor soccer is like watching a movie on fast forward. The montage cuts out all the nonessential filler and puts the action in a small arena. There is no hiding in indoor soccer, no room for superfluity. Every person counts.

Our first game was at 6PM on a cool November evening. Some of us hadn’t played in over a decade, others had competed on high school teams and such. The referee blew his whistle, and the blur of bodies and ball began. I discovered within seconds that when there’s only five of you on court there’s just not a lot of room to hide. Two people on offense versus three is a 50% increase; it means the difference between one person to pass to or two. And when there are only four people on each side, well, there is a large difference between stranding your teammate in an offensive strike and running up to help out, if only to spread out the defense.

Even if their professed skill level was roughly equivalent to mine, they threw themselves in without abandon – chasing the ball, running back and forth between goals, dribbling, taking aim, giving it a shot. They put themselves out there, experienced or not, and as their reward, they were actually part of the team: laughing, high fiving one another, whereas I, I was still timid, still shy, wanting to be a part of it but not quit sure how to venture in, unwilling to take the plunge on the off chance that I might fail quite gracelessly by dint of trying.

There’s nothing like a rousing game of sports to throw you back to your most primitive state of being. At my very core and youngest version of myself, I am shy, timid, risk-averse and conservative, unsure of myself and unable to put myself out there, and how that all came out in that first game. I froze at the thought of venturing up to offense, a place where I have no skills, no experience, no sense of strategy or field vision, nothing to offer.

Why can’t you be like them, I’d whisper to myself. Just get out there and try. Surprise yourself. It’s the only way to improve. You would have so much more fun, they would have so much more fun.

To make a clean breast of it, for several months now I’ve been meaning to work on this fear of failure that stymies any attempts towards even trying. Sometimes you can hide behind the excuse of exhausting work schedules and over commitment that prevent you from really tackling what you want to do, but out on the court pretense is stripped down in a matter of seconds, and stares you in the face for one long, painful hour.

I’ve grown up in many ways from that shy, timid version of my most primitive being, but in this one area I still haven’t made nearly as much progress as I’d like. More than anything, that is what this year is about: putting myself out there, learning to embrace failure, even seeking it out to force failure upon myself in order to become a better person.

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