Note: The following account is a personal anecdote. It contains language, experiences, and lessons many will deem extreme. The purpose of this post is merely to share the experience. It contains no advice. If you are easily-offended then this entry is not for you.
I will never forget the day I really grew up in soccer. Having moved from the Bay Area in Northern California to Chicagoland changed many things. I had no friends, finding my way in a new place with a different identity was challenging, and for the first time since I was four years old, I found myself playing on a local team of players who approached soccer recreationally, not that there was anything wrong with that approach, it just wasn’t for me.
The first few weeks playing with them was rough. These were baseball and basketball players participating in soccer — not soccer players. Such is the reality of American youth sports and although I played ice hockey, tennis, and ran track, soccer was my passion. I was spoiled in California. I played year round outside in great competitive environments. Here, I had to find these environments.
Anyway, I’d been a competitive player for many years, but this baptism in blood, mud, sweat, and tears came at 13-years old. I remember the day my father pulled me out of training with the local team composed of players my age and proceeded to drive me a few towns over to another club. I was still in my training kit — muddy boots, matted hair, wretched-smelling training bib on — when he told me I needed to play with a better group. We had discussed finding a new team, and we’d both had enough of the bullshit approach with the current team. No coaching quality, no playing identity, players dipping out of practice early to play other sports yet demanding playing time come the weekend. I think my father saw me regress in both my ability and my enthusiasm with the latter being more of the concern.
We had a rule: play or participate in whatever activity or sport you want, but be committed and honest with the effort put forth. For those that don’t know, this message was from my father who himself was an elite triathlete and even more elite swimmer who narrowly missed out on the qualifying swimming trials for 1972 Olympic Games due to a car accident where he and his family were hit by a drunk driver at a stoplight. In any event, he had a unique approach to parenting and for a high-level and highly-knowledgeable former athlete of truly elite status, he didn’t waste time lecturing or yelling. But he also knew when his kids weren’t happy.
He’d obviously planned this extraction exercise for some time. I thought about what team I’d be going to and if I would get to know any of the players and who knows, make a friend or two. What I didn’t know was by ‘better’ he meant play with a group that was older, meaner, tougher, and then better. We showed up as these players — all of whom looked like men (because they were) filed out of their vehicles carrying only a pair of boots in their hands. The players my age brought patch-laden soccer bags and water bottles with their names in permanent ink written in their mother’s handwriting with them to training. These guys only carried their boots and car keys.
Blown away by the fact they could drive themselves, I wondered if they were coaches. Suddenly, a man whose calves were the size of cantaloupes walked up and shook my father’s hand. He wore six-stud Puma King boots with the laces undone and tucked up into his socks, which were rolled down to his ankles — he’d just finished playing with the previous group.
“This your son?” he asked while studying me.
“Go warm-up, he said. “Grab that bag of balls and take it to the field.”
No introduction, no acknowledgement, no handshake. Just an air of indifference that shot out of his steel-blue eyes. Once at the field, each of the players walked over and ignored me as they grabbed a ball and started passing and dribbling. Some did keep-ups. Others just laced up and took to running.
Again, no introductions — the man with the giant calves walked over to me and said, “What the fuck are you doing just standing there? Get on a ball and start passing.”
In a state of moronic shyness, I jogged over to each group of players showing for the ball nonverbally. No passes came my way. So, I meandered to the next group — again, no passes came my way. Suddenly, I was planted face-first onto the turf. My ears ringing, my head buzzing, and my face stinging. One of the players had pinged a ball at me when I wasn’t looking and connected.
No apologies. Just laughs before they carried on warming-up. The training session was a series of intense 1v1, 2v2, 5v5+2 drills before small-sided games to four goals. I was put on various teams and got run over, pushed down, and embarrassed. My father watched from the sideline with a stoic look. He and the coach conversed. Eventually, I broke.
There’s a certain threshold of embarrassment a young player (and person) reaches before the mind goes blank and the body follows. I bit my lower lip, which was quivering as I felt the tears coming. I jogged up and down the pitch during the scrimmage trying to get involved when one of the players intentionally trod on my right toe. I felt the nail snap as my foot throbbed in synchronization with my heartbeat and blood leaked in my boot’s toe box.
It was at this moment when I felt what commentators call “a rush of blood” and what they describe as “losing his head”. I stole the ball from a teammate, dribbled through a few players and hit a shot with venom well off target. A teammate started to yell at me to which I said, “Fuck you! Get another ball in play!”
“What did you fucking say to me?” he replied.
“Fuck. You.” I said, standing my ground.
Suddenly passes came my way. Tackles flew in and I returned the favor. I went from asking for the ball to demanding the ball. I played a step ahead of what I was used to and learned that competing was less about surviving and more about performing a step ahead and ‘putting out your fires’ when you made a mistake. When training ended everyone shook hands. The older guys tussled my hair, told me good job, and to collect the balls — especially the one I shanked into the next county.
Just as I started to take my boots off to examine my shattered right foot, a guy named Reece whistled and said, “Keep those on. We’re not done.”
Reece was a giant of a striker. Built like a rugby fly-half with a crewcut, Reece was dominant. That day and every training session thereafter, he ask me stay after training and serve him crosses of all types for at least an hour. Some days, he drove me home. Others, my father just waited in the car until we finished — a sacrifice he made after a long day at the office.
As a striker, Reece would attempt bicycle and overhead kicks, diving headers, side volleys, and the like from different angles, speeds, and service types. It was perfect. I improved serving the ball on-the-run and from stationary positions. He got to work on the extravagant. But it wasn’t a chinwag and fun-time. It was actual work. He laid into me when I miss-hit a cross. I let him know about it when he didn’t execute well on a good cross.
If we weren’t crossing we worked on shooting exercises. I’d play a ball in to his feet, chest, or blast it at his throat and he’d control it, turn and fire on goal. Other times, we’d pass back and forth before I’d play a ball in and immediately turn from provider to pursuer trying to tackle him. Like all good players, he switched the roles so I could get some reps, too. After the first week or so, others stayed after when Reece — the clear leader — set-up extra training exercises. I felt compelled to stay and others elected to as well. But most days my father and my coach talked while Reece and I got in a mini-session.
We worked on shielding, tackling, crossing, passing, rondos (if numbers permitted), everything — training was competitive and it was purely supplemental. I was lucky. Not all teams have players who take younger ones under their wing.
He was tough on me but for the right reasons. At first, I thought he would make me collect his errant shots and mindlessly tee him up for sitters. But after each set of services and shots he’d collect the balls with me and say things like, “If you serve a moving ball, you can whip it in easier. Try that for the next few,” or, “Gotta hit a few of these fucking overheads here because that’s what it takes.”
After only a few team training sessions in the crucible I developed a different mindset. I couldn’t really out-muscle these guys, but I could play quicker, get better technically, and think proactively instead of reactively — I had no choice, really. Failure to elevate and own this aspect of my game would lead to marginalizing myself and decreasing chances to play. Eventually, I earned playing time on the wing and in the middle of the park — both presented unique challenges. I got to start some games, got yanked in others, and usually subbed on.
In an environment playing with older and better players vying for opportunities to play at the next level meant there was no time for sensitivity towards a 13-year old mucking it up or not competing. Most of the time I was reminded I was in the way.
The coach told me early-on, “Worry less about the other team and more about letting your own team down.”
On some level that stuck with me. At first, I wanted to improve because I needed to. Then I wanted to get better because I wanted to be accepted. But ultimately, I wanted to improve to contribute and help the team. Perhaps the point where this became most clear was during a game against a men’s team. I subbed on late in the game and got absolutely clattered. Three of the guys who’d given me the most shit during training stood up for me. These same players also pushed me on when I did something well.
Soccer, like all team games, is ruthlessly tribal at the higher levels. I think this is why I stuck with playing up several years — partly of out necessity and partly out of intrigue to see how I could evolve as a person and as a player.
This stuck with me and in these moments of madness at training or in games, I realized that the learning opportunities were plentiful. The worst game performances left me feeling inadequate. The best ones made me more eager to continue to improve. The older players managed their diet and fitness outside of formal training; so, I learned to do the same.
Reece wasn’t there to be my buddy. Sure, he was mentoring me but he was a pure savage. On my second visit to Europe to play — this time as a 13-year old on a U-18 team — Reece was lighting up goalkeepers in Holland, Germany, and England. In Nijmegen, he dislocated a goalkeeper’s shoulder on a shot he hit with such ferocity into the top corner that the keeper attempted to knuckle over the bar. In Cologne, he was my roommate and he did 100 burpees and 100 push-ups before breakfast every day.
But it was in Göteborg where Reece connected with a whipped-in service from our left winger with perfect timing to score the type of overhead kick he’d trained relentlessly to execute and master every day after training.
The best moment, however, was when Reece ran over to me, not the left winger who served the ball in, and celebrated — grabbing me in a headlock and yelling, “Hell yeah! We did it!
It was then and there I realized that Reece had used me and I used him to improve. Again, he wanted to be the best he could be. That required a certain degree of buy-in from me. The entry fee was extra hours after training and thousands of failed attempts. He knew I needed more work. I just assumed he needed a practice dummy.
What was interesting about Reece — and players like him — is they take ownership in the audacious. They aren’t doing heel-flicks and circus tricks because they look fancy. They are, however, taking hundreds of attempts at the audacious overhead kick or side volley because there’s a chance it could happen in a meaningful game. These players explore the limits of their ability and push themselves to level-up their skill-set because they could, not because they should.
Reece stayed over in Europe to try and play the game we loved. I know he made his way into the lower divisions in Germany and played some semi-professional games in England. It’s wild to think about how well he could have done today with increased exposure, access, visibility, and resources. But, that’s a fool’s game to play in hindsight.
Years later, I reflect daily on how the game has changed for better and for worse. There aren’t many players like Reece that I’ve seen. Nor is there a culture incentivizing players to embrace the challenges of the game on their own. I can’t believe how angry I was at times that I was thrust into the lion’s den. But I was also grateful because I improved so much faster than I ever would have in an unchallenging environment.
I am not saying the path I took was the best way nor would I recommend it as times and standards have changed and improved. What I am saying is this path worked for me. I improved as a competitor, I matured as a person, and learned more than I ever thought I would — and that made the struggle worthwhile.