Kicking and Screaming

Introduction: Kingsley in Cleats

Some instincts die hard

Listen | Time: 3:30 · Format: mp3

A few weeks ago, I found myself running around the soccer field with players on average 40 years old (6 years older than me). My days as a serious player ended around 11 years ago, when I took up coaching. But something keeps bringing me back. Every 6 months or so, I take the field as an ageless wonder (when I play people much older than me), or as a solid player, who on a good day, can be a lot of fun to watch and play with; on a bad day…well, we’ll leave that for another therapy session.

I spend my days now as a youth development soccer coach. As our daily training sessions end, adults take the field to play the game I used to play so carefree. Yet, now I watch and am amazed that I would’ve ever stepped on the field with those people. Something changed 11 years ago, that made me care more about the kids I coach than the game I could win.

Coaching is about relating, playing is about ego. I won’t deny that I have an ego on the field, just not big enough to match players that want to believe they’re still 21. Once the whistle blows, these adults (upwards of 50 years old) morph into their former selves, running through walls to score that game-winning goal, or to just run through a wall.

Yet, as much as I want to mock and denigrate this over-the-hill gang, I lurk for the same fix. I coach 6 days a week, try to work out a few days a week, yet still dupe myself into thinking that the best way to get in shape would be to run around with this group every few months. Of course, it’s rarely a jolly running around, where I’m just happy to once again be playing the game that I’ve lived for so many years. Instead, it’s intense focus, trying to relive the glory years of my youth.

There’s a delicate balance in our lives – to find that invigorating feeling we once had in our younger years, while understanding how grounded and sensible we need to be.

This internal conflict may be best explained by one of the all-time classic sports movies, Searching for Bobby Fischer. It pits good versus evil (if you can call an 8-year old boy not named Damien evil), and grand master chess coach versus park hustler.

There’s a great scene in this movie where Ben Kingsley, who plays the grand master teacher, is in a dark alley playing speed chess, a game that he forbids young Josh, the prodigy, to play because of the supposed harm it could do to his game. Speed chess is a rush in the moment, a game of ego for over-the-hill players.

Though I am no grand-master, I’ve started to recognize the power of the game, whether chess, soccer, or even table tennis. It’s not that I need to play on a daily or weekly basis, it’s that every time I play it’s invigorating. That’s why Vinnie the speed chess pro from the park boldly attacks early with his queen, and that’s what Ben Kingsley needed to feel again in the dark alley.

In the end, the teacher had helped Josh balance his own chess worlds to defeat his 8 year-old arch-rival. And by doing so, Kingsley succeeded in balancing his own urges against his role as teacher. For me to succeed with this balance, I’m starting to understand that from time to time, I can still run with the old-dogs (big or little) yet 6 days a week, and twice on Sunday, I can step-back and translate my knowledge of the game to the youth.

By playing I remember what it’s like to be on the field, and what I did best. By coaching, I can take the good and bad of my playing, as well as all the other knowledge I’ve gained, and teach kids to enjoy the game that so many people play beyond their glory years.