Far Post Footy

Grounded by Gravel

“I trained 3-4 hours a week at Ajax when I was little but played 3-4 hours everyday on the street. So where do you think I learnt football?”

-Johan Cruyff

Consider reliability and resilience as skills. At first, these don’t seem like skills and fully understanding and appreciating them as skills takes some work, reflection, and humility.

Early in my soccer education, I learned what resilience meant in the larger scheme of things. That education wasn’t pretty. In fact, it was a bit brutal and a lot gritty, so what I’m about to share with you is merely my experience — not one that I wish upon anyone else (or their child). You may even find that we share similar experiences.

I can’t pinpoint the moment when I viewed resiliency as a skill, I just know it took a fair number of embarrassing moments, beatings (both metaphorically and literally), and a great deal of reflection over the years. Getting cut from teams, left off travel rosters, denied scholarship money, playing paltry minutes, dismissed and blackballed by clubs and backstabbers posing as friends — this is life and it is indiscriminate.

I grew in San Jose, California during the dot-com boom and I attended a Catholic school in nearby Sunnyvale.

Our teachers were nuns. They didn’t give a damn about our feelings, and I don’t say that to tick the boxes of the ‘mean nun’ narrative — it was just the reality. One episode involved our teacher refusing to let any of us (in the First Grade) use the restroom. The result was horrifying. After a few weeks of watching kids literally piss themselves in class, I checked my emotions at the door and made sure to use the restroom beforehand.

Another episode involved a kid making a hilarious yet inappropriate gesture with an animal cracker during a class birthday party. The nun caught him and made him repeat the gesture, while standing on a desk in front of the class 100 times. As tears poured down his face, the class looked on — laughing at first until his embarrassment became ours, too. The mental warfare waged on us on this level was incredibly effective. It became a mental mortgage many of us would invariable carry well beyond those classroom walls.

These aren’t traumas, but they are episodes I hope aren’t present today. To that end, we learned some valuable lessons through these odd experiences, which would go on to help in other aspects of life.

Each day, I dealt with the difficulty not because I wanted to, but because I had to. My mother and father are compassionate people. I didn’t grow up lacking a thing. I had clean clothes, food, shelter, love, all the good things in life. They listened to every gripe and cry we brought home. However, they didn’t bail myself or my siblings out of difficult situations.

“Simple, not easy.”

I love this phrase. It describes childhood well: simple times but not always easy. Hell, it’s apropos to life at any age.

As a kid I played soccer or some other sport daily. I played on a club team at the weekend. During the week, I played pickup or street soccer with the local kids, most of whom were Latino. They didn’t like me and I didn’t like them, but kids tend to be fickle and once a game started we set aside our differences and just played. Winning a pickup game meant dealing with insults, lash outs, and inevitable grass match scuffles.

There’s really nothing like street ball. Pick any sport, the lessons learned and skills gained are strikingly similar. In each place I’ve lived, the street game always kept me grounded.

There were days when I was King of the Court. Dribbling through a paddock of planted feet, dodging errant elbows, ducking doubt and letting the game takeover and put me on autopilot. It all felt euphoric. At recess it was adrenaline-fueled fury.

Think of a player’s mentality like a muscle. Work on it and it becomes stronger. Failure to train it and challenge it leads to atrophy.

The street game trains a player’s mentality and attitude like no other environment. Movements become automatic. Improvisation, technical ability, speed, skill, tenacity, intensity, humility — these all have a place in street games. And what’s more, skills and attributes learned on the street get unleashed in formal settings.

Think about how that works; each day included thousands of touches on the ball, hundreds of micro-failures of this move or that feint. Dozens of shots turning into goals between our soaked jumpers or book bags acting as posts. No fear, just an excess of competitive zeal, furious self-regulation, and an appetite for the creative oozing from every pore. No parents, no real rules, the occasional fist fight — that’s the game.

The only real dictating force was the flickering street light that signaled it was time to turn-in. The street player elevates their game to a new level when they hear: “Next goal wins.”

Those days when I felt on top of my game were plentiful and somewhat frequent; however, for every ‘successful’ day, there were scores more where I was pulverized on the pavement. Literally beaten by players who may or may not have been any better or more talented. They just won and I lost.

I was grounded by gravel.

Street soccer is the great equalizer in so many ways.

Here’s what I mean: playing soccer with and against Latino players as a kid was formative. Losers often went home with damaged pride, ripped clothes, bloodied elbows and knees, and sometimes, without the ball they’d arrived with — such was the cost of losing. Most times, the victors were older players who took it personally that we dared to play against them. To teach us a lesson for putting up some resistance, they’d do what all bullies do and taunt and tempt us. Some would punt our ball over a few fences or an overpass.

The losses were infuriating. The score didn’t really matter most days, the experience was the currency one sought. Back then, I never thought much of playing time with my organized team. Some games, I played the entire time. Others, I rode the bench so others could ‘participate’. I didn’t like that — not the sitting bit, but the ‘participation’ opportunities granted to players who didn’t seem to care as much as I did.

Of course, I was drawn to the game by a more emotional force…one that was a bit more primal. Deep down, I knew if I ever showed up in my neighborhood with an attitude of apathy like some of my teammates did at organized soccer, I’d be completely destroyed or worse, not welcomed back to play street games.

My point is the street game defined who I was as a player. Sometimes I was great. Other times, I was a complete head-case. Many years on, I know why. The game meant so much even though there was nothing more than pride on the line.

But that’s enough isn’t it? 

That earnestness and swagger we admire in players abroad are elements that have become rarities in his country. We see it in our other sports — where players hone their craft through tens of thousands of hours in the shadows, far from the spotlight. Basketball players devising games, exercises, and scenarios. Gridiron football drilled for hours in cup-de-sacs all over the country. Makeshift hockey rinks and baseball diamonds cultivate what’s missing in our soccer.

I think this type of intuitive experience in the game has faded with subsequent generations because players these days have so much given to them. Too much comes easy with players nowadays and at the risk of sounding like more of a curmudgeon, I think it’s true.

We can see it in the absence of a savvy swagger that can only be cultivated over thousands of wins, losses, and hours on the street playing that unglamorous style of soccer that has no trophies, no parents, no orange slices and Capri Suns.

Through habitual over-labeling, over-praising, over-coddling, and far too many bail outs over years, players enter the dogfight looking the part with their label and status, pressed kits, flash boots…but often without the requisite spine to support a frame that lacks the intestinal fortitude to compete and enjoy the pursuit of playing with pride.

To me, that can be fun. We’ve crossed a precipice where ‘having fun’ and ‘being serious’ can’t co-exist. Why not? Athletes who excel and seriously commit to the process and pursuit tend to find the outings enjoyable and fun, even if they’re difficult at times.

I don’t know if there’s any call to action here. I certainly can’t and don’t advocate anyone to instruct their kids to go to the sketchy part of town looking for a gritty version of the game the way my friends and I did.

We just wanted to play. We just wanted better because it wasn’t easy for us — so we sought out new challenges.

My hope is simple. Ween players off the Charmin soft, No Fear Shakespeare version of the material and let them wrestle with the real version for a bit. Let them find the answers on their own, in their own time, even if it means struggling. Grant them the room, license, and opportunity to fall down so they can pick themselves up again.

We need to teach players that their soccer education isn’t just something gained the same way our formal educations are — a pay-to-play system that serves a valuable purpose but not without the supplemental learning.

We don’t get this in singular, structured  environments. I learned all the Spanish slang terms thrown my way. I dished out some colorful language as well — especially when I rejoined my ‘organized’ team at the weekend. Those were my friends, yet they were shocked at how competitive and aggressive me and a few other street players were in games that ended with “Two-Four-Six-Eight who do we appreciate?” *Insert the opposing team’s name* and some Capri Suns and orange slices.

Their version of fun was different and that’s OK. It just wasn’t what I wanted from the game during my competitive formation.

In hindsight it was because most of them played soccer once or twice a week in this structured environment with parents, praise, and treats aplenty. It was an extracurricular, maybe even a chore for many. To me, it was life! Where I went, the ball went as well. Walk to school, why not dribble? Go jogging, take the ball and figure out how to run on pavement with a ball at my foot.

I played the majority of my soccer far from the eyes of parents and coaches. I was fortunate to get opportunities in both settings.

Therein is where I began to learn another lesson: self-management. Fun, for me, meant competing in more ways than just the scoreline. Some games, I was a nightmare. Immature, unabashed, youthfully lost. I couldn’t handle losing a tackle or the ball, let alone a game. I had no skill in dialing it down (yet) because I was so used to the competitive nature of playing against people who were older than me, stronger than me, faster and meaner and more skilled than me…and who just plain didn’t like me…’just because’.

All of this helped me.

I had fun playing, competing, battling. The game was fun when I extracted the fun out of it; not when someone told me to ‘go have fun out there’.

There were many days where I questioned why I continued playing street games. The easy answer is because I was one of those players…it became part of a lifestyle (and it beat sitting inside).

Show up, work on skills, play mini-games, work on that weak foot. If nobody else showed up, it didn’t matter.

The more complex answer is I was ambitiously arrogant. As my skill level increased so did my confidence and resiliency. I enjoyed the tussles; enjoyed proving myself. After a while, the struggles lessened and I became used to adversity.

Over the years, I balanced both settings, organized and pickup soccer. Pickup soccer was fun and formative. No coaches, no rules, no real structure expect for letting ourselves explore our personalities and expressing them through our [free]play. Club soccer had the resources, structure, and organization a player needs to improve within a talent pool.

Some days, games would last hours; other days, games would last until a gang of older kids stabbed our ball or kicked it onto Interstate 280. The only rule (and it was unwritten) was to play in that setting one had to pay the entry fee: one had to be resilient. Telling our parents that the other kids were mean or weren’t playing fair did far more damage than dealing with it through self-reliance.

Most of us walked home feeling a belly full of fire for the next game. It was also normal for every kid to wait until they turned the corner to let a few sobs out before getting it together, wiping the tears, grime, and snot away with a tattered sleeve before walking in the house.

Some call it the School of Hard Knocks — I don’t think it was remotely close to that. It was a cultural cauldron we called childhood.

I realize that much of what I’ve told is lost on today’s audience and that, too, is OK. I don’t wish the struggles and overt prejudices we dealt with where I grew up upon anyone. But I also hope we aren’t firmly lodged in an era where our players young and old are made of glass.

Sports shape our personalities in odd ways. I wouldn’t have survived playing with that ragtag group of miscreants if I buckled every day. Many days, I wanted to buckle. And some days, I buckled.

Part of what makes someone who plays soccer a player or baller or competitor are the failures and tough times. With enough rejection comes resiliency. Most of these tough times are tests that challenge the mind and psyche in ways nothing else can.

As a player, you will likely lose more games than you will win. That’s the pull. Coaches will tell you things you don’t want to hear, but you need to listen. You have two choices: buckle under the pressure or be resilient.

At the simplest level, I’d encourage everyone to get out and play the game away from the conventional setting — that version of the game has an empty slot on the team sheet waiting for your name.

Get out, scuff up your kicks, play until the street lights come on, enjoy those blisters and scrapes — you’ve earned them.

One thought on “Grounded by Gravel”

  1. This is a brilliant article and resonates with me so much. I didn’t have a great experience in organized soccer growing up in Scotland. I was a tiny, skinny kid playing 11-a-side on full pitches from 10 years old. I found it hard to get a kick. I did well enough in training but couldn’t get into the games. Combined with coaches who overcompensated for their lack of actual coaching ability with aggression and insults, it was easy to walk away.

    I didn’t walk away from the game though. I played all the time. Down the park, in local gyms, in the back yard, in the house. Some players were terrible and others were brilliant. Some were in pro youth academies and went onto play pro and semi-pro. Those games taught me everything I knew as a player until I took up coaching at 25 years old.

    I’m now 37 and I started playing again recently after a long time out injured, After my trial, the organizers commented that I had obviously played at a very high level. They seemed amazed that I was basically a pick-up player. There is a culture here in North America that you have to play organized sports to excel. I would argue very strongly that whatever you do in terms of organized sports needs to be matched by unstructured play, preferably street games. This is where you learn to win, this is where you try your tricks or learn how to defend against them. There is something that playing on the street teaches you that just can’t be taught in a structured environment, no matter how hard coaches try to recreate.

    Wonderful work, Jon, as always.

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