As soon as the snow disappeared from our backyard this spring, my sons began a daily program of grass aeration by lacing up their soccer cleats and kicking the ball about for hours. I like to think of this as pre-season conditioning, which is the glass-half-full perspective on the fact that they’ve destroyed my lawn. Now that summer leagues and practices have started, it’s time to play in earnest and we’re spending most weeknights in that glorious municipally-sanctioned destruction of the common lawn known as minor soccer.
I’m the coach. In aspirational reference to Louis Van Gaal, I try to get the players to call me the “Iron Tulip.” It hasn’t caught on. In fact, the “Tired Tulip” would probably be more accurate. Where do these kids get their energy? Like an entire side of miniature Dirk Kuyts, they keep going and going and going – but without the focus and discipline. Eduardo Galleano once suggested that the game is “a dance with a ball,” but coaching minor soccer feels rather more like a circus.
Our family watches a lot of soccer too, which is a strange recreational pursuit considering the amount of frustration it entails. I am not exaggerating to say that I still carry the sting of the Canadian men’s humiliating 8-1 defeat at the hands of Honduras in 2012, which cost them a legitimate shot at qualifying for the 2014 World Cup. The 2018 qualification tournament was perhaps equally frustrating, and the current World Cup finals in Russia just aren’t the same with my beloved Dutch passing the ball sideways and backwards more than 5,000 kilometres away back at the Amsterdam Arena.*
On top of all this, I still play the game myself. I’m in the Master’s League, which is reserved exclusively for players aged 35 and older and rather graciously named to imply mastery rather than decline. There’s a good deal of frustration involved in my playing career too: my club was relegated to a lower division from last season and we didn’t fare well in our opener last week, so I’m not optimistic about our prospects for this year. In the words of former England Manager Terry Venables, “if history repeats itself, I should think we can expect the same thing again.”
So if soccer destroys my lawn, exhausts me as a coach, and frustrates me endlessly as a fan and player, why do I keep coming back to it?
There are a lot of ways to answer that question, but I’ll focus on the one that’s most important to me at this stage in my life: the fact that, perhaps paradoxically given everything I’ve just said, soccer gives me silence, focus, mindfulness and peace.
The peace that passes
Like everyone these days, I’m pretty busy. I work in product development and make a lot of decisions for our teams and product lines. This requires a lot of task switching and short bursts of concentrated thinking; I like the pace, but it’s hard to find time to focus on any one particular thing in significant depth. In addition to my day job, I’m currently the board chair at my kids’ school, which consumes a surprising amount of mental space. Then there’s coaching minor soccer, which is pretty much the antithesis of silence and focus. And I haven’t even mentioned the fact that I’m a father to three wonderfully frenetic kids and a husband to an equally busy woman who works full time outside the home and runs a small business on the side.
I’m not saying we’re exceptional or anything; pretty much everyone I know in their late 30s and early 40s is running around like crazy all the time. That’s the stage of life we’re in, and it’s all good – there’s a season for everything. But in this loud and mentally-crowded moment, I do miss what some spiritual traditions would call meditation or mindfulness; being able to empty my mind of thoughts, details, worries, checklists and decisions and just exist.
This is very much a spiritual dilemma. Psalm 46 tells us to “be still and know that I am God,” but the current circumstances of my life make it hard to carve out the mental space necessary for stillness. Even when I sit down to pray or do devotions, it’s almost impossible to keep stray thoughts and distractions at bay. They arrive like unwelcome guests in my mind, and even when I successfully banish them there are always more trying to jump the fence of my focus.
Soccer is the only thing right now that sets me totally free from all the details and distractions in my life. The philosopher Simon Critchley refers to this characteristic of the game as “submitting fully to the present.” Soccer requires so much focus – on the ball, on the next run, on the position of the players, on the shouts from the bench – that there is room for nothing else. There’s something physiological here too, I’m sure, in that when your body is working at or near capacity for 90 minutes there just isn’t any spare energy to think about that project from work or the fact that the car needs an oil change.
For whatever reason, soccer gets me closer than anything in my life right now to “the peace of God, which passes all understanding” (to use the language of the King James Version from Philippians 4:7 for its rhetorical beauty and a bonus soccer pun). In other words, at least for the moment, soccer brings me something resembling shalom. That’s an incredible blessing, and a spiritual balm to my otherwise hectic life. After the final handshakes and a bit of post-game stretching, I get in my car and feel tranquil, calm, exhausted and beautifully empty. I feel ready to pray, even if we lost or the other team were jerks.
* The late legend Johan Cruyff on the problem with modern Dutch soccer: “Holland is world champion [of] passing sideways and back. The buildup is currently the weakest aspect of our game.”
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