9 Life Lessons I’ve Learned From Playing Soccer

| By TMA World

My excitement is building.  It’s time for soccer’s quadrennial World Cup tournament.  After Brazil in 2014, Russia will be the host country for this year’s thirty-two national teams (men) between June 14-July 15.  

When my wife heard I was writing about my life and work lessons from playing soccer, she protested. “Your women readers won’t understand the game.”  Really?  The interest in woman’s soccer is surging.  While I was in the UK a couple of weeks ago, I watched the Football Association’s Women’s Cup Final on TV.  The very boisterous crowd in the stadium was 45,000.  Five years ago, the crowd at the final was 4,998.  The 2015 Women’s World Cup final was the most watched soccer match in US history with nearly 23 million viewers; 750 million viewers were reported to have watched the tournament worldwide.  Note: The next Women’s World Cup final will be held in France, 2019.

The Portuguese phrase “o jogo bonito” – the beautiful game – sums up for me the sport I’ve been playing and watching since I could walk.  Undoubtedly, soccer, or football as it’s known everywhere outside of the U.S., is not always beautiful on or off the pitch.  Greed, ultra-nationalism, tribal passions, and racism can poison the game, and yet I – along with millions of others around the globe – am still a diehard fan.

Back in 1989, a best-selling book was published called “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” by Robert Fulghum.  Not having access to anything like a kindergarten, my school-of-life was football – played on the street with a tennis ball or on a field where we would put school bags or coats on the ground to mark the goals.  

And so, what are some of the life-work lessons that have served me well:

  1. Value your constraints: Even if you don’t have a ball, goal posts, or a field you can still find a way to play the game, e.g. a tin can or a wrapped-up sock can be a ball, and the legs of a table make a fine goal.  Use what you have, can find, or imagine in life and work.  Sometimes the more you are given, the less you try, and the less you try the weaker you become.  Obstacles can be your best friends.
  2. Don’t let a little thing like humiliation get in your way: The first time I played soccer for my school, I was told to be goalkeeper.  We lost 11-0 that day, and I wanted to be swallowed up by the mud pools on the field.  But that was one game, and I soon learned that my strength was speed, better utilized as a goal scorer than goal stopper.  Work on your strengths rather than just try to fix your weaknesses.  
  3. Better teams beat better players: Individuals can have moments of brilliance to win a game, but the team that acts as if it is one player wins over time.  Mutual respect and understanding, trust, anticipation of each other’s needs and wants, and the joy of playing together keeps a team winning. Work for the team and the team will work for you. 
  4. Keep your head when things get rough:  Let’s be real, if you’re good some opponents will want to hurt you, i.e. take you out of the game.  The competition can be fierce, and dirty tricks might be used to gain an advantage.  Don’t retaliate – that will most likely result in you hurting your team by being sent off the field for the remainder of the game.  Play hard, but with your brain fully engaged and your emotions in check.  
  5. Make each moment count for something: There are many times during a game when you don’t have the ball, but those moments are vitally important.  What you do without the ball is as important as what you do with it.  What open space are you creating for yourself and others on your team?  Are you creating opportunities for your team mates to score by drawing opposition players away from those they are meant to be defending against?  Behind every movement you make should be an idea, a thought.
  6. Be predictably unpredictable: You must constantly adapt to what is happening on the field, e.g. a change of tactics by the opposition, players shifting positions, a change in the weather, injuries and substitutions.  Rigidity and predictability make you very easy to ‘read’ and play against.  At the same time, your team members need to know what to expect from you.  They need to be able to anticipate your movements.  
  7. The game finishes when it finishes: In one game, I scored a goal within 7 seconds of the kickoff.  It was great to feel like a record-breaker for a moment, but success is a fickle friend. A game lasts for 90 minutes (more if minutes are added on to account for time lost through injuries).  After my quick strike, my team became somewhat complacent and allowed the opposition to take control of the game.  Stay sharp, pay attention, keep up the momentum.
  8. Remember your goal is scoring goals: I’ve watched some teams and it’s as though they forget the object of the game is to score more goals than their opponents.  They maintain possession of the ball for long periods, but ultimately possession is a meaningless statistic.  The only meaningful statistic is goals scored.  Measure what counts and forget the rest; keep it simple. 
  9. Don’t expect the path to success will be predictable: Yes, your goal is at one end of the field, and your opponents at the other, but that is it as far as linearity goes.  Players must zig and zag and even go backwards for the team to go forward.  Prepared strategies and tactics are useful, but so too is the spontaneity that can radically change the direction of the game.  Take a risk, be bold, and most importantly enjoy! 

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