Maybe it’s because I took two full-power shots to the back of the head from close range while we were playing soccer, or maybe it’s because I’ve got World Cup Fever like a bad case of herpes (sidenote: is there any such thing as a “good” case of herpes? Like, a doctor says, “Well we thought you’d need a liver transplant, but it turns out that the herpes killed all the bacteria, so now you’re fine. What a good case of herpes!”), but today I was compelled to write about European fūtbol, AKA soccer. Or as it’s known in America, “that show that comes on before coverage of baseball/tennis/golf starts.”
As any of you who have the misfortune of following me on twitter already know, I play in a pickup soccer league Friday nights with some friends of mine, and it is awesome. We usually play for about two-and-a-half hours or until I collapse into the fetal position and beg our sub-group to leave. It is awesome. Just under half of the players are international – a cool group of guys that I can only racistly assume are from African and South American countries based on their accents, demeanor, and exceedingly superior soccer abilities – so it’s a rad way to feel sort of Euro and eclectic, which I enjoy because one of my hobbies is being pretentious. It is awesome. The only slight downside is that there are a couple little bastard suburban-America high school kids who play, and – aside from being way better than me – are also little bastards. They don’t play the beautiful game, they play a very Americanized version of the sport wherein cheating, needless arrogance, disgraceful lack of sportsmanship, and being a pair of little bastards are all they focus upon. But we put them in their place and in general they detract very little from the group’s enjoyment. It is awesome.
All of that is merely the mise en scène of the action I found myself amidst a couple of weeks back, foot on ball, roughly six yards out from the opponents’ goal. This was an oddity in and of itself, as I usually play midfielder or fullback/defensemen, and am rarely a forward/striker or in scoring position. I had just settled a pretty good ball in from a teammate and I had a very small amount of space and time to work with, but it was enough. And then I froze. It was only for the smallest of split seconds, but it felt like an eternity as my brain analyzed every possible option and tried desperately to figure out which choice was best for the given set of circumstances.
I just finished reading “How We Decide” as my book du jour (I don’t really read an entire book each day, but I don’t know how to say “month” in French), and as you may have gathered from the title, it is entirely devoted to explaining and then sharpening the processes that take place in our brains when we make decisions. The chemistry and biology of the deciding mind is stunning, and I’ll leave it to the book’s tremendously capable author (Jonah Lehrer) to explain the intricacies in understandable terms, but a summation is that the best possible decisions are made when our emotional brain has a wealth of previous experience to draw from in a given situation, and when our rational brain is presented with only a small handful of the most relevant facts about this same situation. However, when the emotional brain is presented with a situation of which it has little-to-no experience, then the rational brain is unsure which facts are most relevant, and the decision-making process screeches to a halt.
This is where soccer differs from the other sports I play poorly. In a pickup game of basketball I pretty much know what to do in any given situation, and I’m only limited by my physical inability to execute the kinds of moves/plays/shots that my brain suggests. I’ve been playing organized basketball since sixth grade, and watching college/pro ball consistently since around then, so my brain has converted hundreds of hours of watching and years of playing into usable data for when the ball is passed to me on the wing (whereupon my lack of dribbling skill usually results in a quick turnover or a rushed, off-target shot). Similarly in football, I’ve been watching and playing in some form or another since I was six years old, so when we’re playing the annual Thanksgiving Eve Turkey Bowl on the turf field outside of the OSU stadium, I know the best route to run to lose my defender…I just usually run out of speed before that happens. But in soccer, I haven’t played regularly since grade school, and I’ve only been watching consistently since 2006 (aside from the randomly-attended Columbus Crew match to see Brian McBride play in the ‘90s), so I have very little experience to draw upon when I get a good ball six yards in front of the goal. As I mentioned earlier, this results in a decision process where my brain is literally evaluating every single one of my options, one-by-one. I could take a shot, but I don’t have a great shot to begin with and their keeper’s been pretty good so far. I could ground pass to Player X, but a couple defenders have a decent angle on that pass, and I don’t want to give up a turnover — especially one that could result in a quick counter-attack and goal on the other end. I could send a through-ball to a teammate who’s coming up on my back right, but I’m not sure if I could reposition myself and get it there before the defender who’s coming up on me would challenge. All of this took place in a fraction of a second, during which my body was a secondary participant as my mind whipped through its decision-making rubrics for which there was no established situational precedent.
I ended up taking a shot, and I put it right on goal — a pretty solid achievement for me, as a player — and the goalie easily swooped it up, sending the attack the other direction as I switched from offense to defense (a formation I find a lot easier to play since it primarily involves reacting to strikers and protecting certain areas/passing lanes, rather than having to make all those offensive decisions). Even though I didn’t score, I still put a decent shot on goal, I didn’t freeze to the point of total ineffectiveness, and (maybe most importantly) I added to the experience bank that Future-Dustin can draw upon (indeed, later in that same game I was in a similar situation where the evaluation process sped by much quicker and I was able to send a shot…just wide of the net). In the end, it’s not really important whether or not I decided to take that initial shot, or make the pass — all that really matters it that I choose to do SOMEthing, rather than just stay frozen, stuck in my mental quicksand until the attack collapsed around me. Even if my decision was the wrong one, the mere act of making that decision makes the whole process a success; the only way to fail is to do nothing at all.
As the more astute of you may have already guessed, there is more meaning in this story than a simple game of pickup fūtbol. In 2009, I was met with my first real set of failures. Some of my own creation, some a product of circumstances I had no knowledge of or control over. As a result, I’ve spent most of the past year in that “mental evaluation limbo” where I’m thrust into a scenario that I have no previous experience dealing with and forced to make major and minor life decisions based on nothing more than my ability to make educated guesses. This isn’t meant to imply that I’ve never failed at anything before — quite the contrary, anyone who’s spent more than a handful of minutes with me has probably heard stories of my many failures, if not witnessed one firsthand. But the key difference is that on some level, I was prepared for the previous failures, and they were usually smaller crises that were easier to remedy. Lehrer addresses the issue of failure repeatedly in his book, and one of his most fascinating discoveries is that there is far more mental value in failure than in success or undeserved praise. Self-help shysters have been preaching the exact opposite for decades — and indeed the very foundation of the modern-day American education system seems to be that “failure is not an option.” But what Lehrer finds, experiment after experiment, is that the strongest sort of intelligence comes from failure — the brain learns infinitely more from making mistakes than it does from getting things right on the first try. Yet our society fosters just the opposite: we are taught early on to fear failure rather than develop a healthy appreciation for the value our mistakes contain.
This brings us back to what we (and by “we” I mean “I”) can learn about recovering from unexpected life failures by applying the lesson of the aforementioned soccer match. I can spend all my time evaluating every single option available to me, and analyzing every previously-made choice that brought me to where I am, but ultimately the only “right” decision is to make any decision. Maybe the goalkeeper of life will swat it away pretty easily, or maybe it will result in a much-needed goal for my side, but the only true disservice I can do for myself is to do nothing at all. If I freeze in place (proverbially speaking) and let my circumstances collapse around me, then I invite in the very sort of irreversible failure that is much harder to recover from.
And so I press on. Who knows if it will be the right decision or if it will result in an even bigger failure down the line, but even if it is, I’ll be better equipped to deal with it, learn from it, and proceed on to my next Great Failure.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go fail at swimming for an hour or so.
P.S. I became disenfranchised with soccer growing up because I noticed a lot of people who played soccer were also major douchebags (although I wouldn’t learn that term till later on in life, looking back it’s clear that it’s the appropriate definition), and so I came to associate American soccer players with douchebagginess. And they never really televised/publicized international fūtbol or MLS games, so I didn’t have much else to compare it to (aside from the awesomeness of Brian McBride, but I only saw him every once in a great while). Well in hindsight I’ve realized that while I did indeed know a lot of soccer-playing douchebags, it’s just because upper-middle class white America produces a particularly large percentage of douches, and the fact that they played soccer was more coincidental than it was causal. Those same guys would’ve been D-bags in any facet of life. I knew some D-bags who played football, but I also saw what a good guy dudes like Joe Montana, Barry Sanders, etc. were. I knew some douches that played basketball, but I also saw the classiness that Jordan represented when he was playing the game. I knew some douchebags who also played baseball…but baseball is like the worst sport ever anyway, so who cares if those guys were D-bags? But with no pro role models to offset the example, soccer went by the wayside of my mind with an undeserved false rap. So now I know that (just like any real sport) soccer is full of rad dudes, some of whom are D-bags, but mostly people who aren’t. All in all I’m happy to be a late convert to fūtbol at a time where it’s more accessible than it’s ever been in America, and I can worry about deporting USA’s douchebags without losing the beautiful game in the process.