“I suck,” said my teenage soccer player after a recent soccer game, even though her team won by five goals.
“No you don’t,” answered her former coach who was also her father. “You just didn’t show up today. You were a ghost out there.”
“Players have bad days,” she volleyed back, her voice starting to crack. “But I feel like I’m losing my skills.”
“You’ve got the skills, Jen,” my husband said, reassuringly. “It’s just that you didn’t tap into them today.”
It’s always been fascinating for me to listen in on the post-game conversations between my husband and youngest daughter. After I got over the fact that my opinion wasn’t valued (because, says Jenny, I’m not “into sports”), I’ve come to see these after-game talks as something she and her dad share together; something which is theirs alone. But also, these after-game analyses contain a good bit of wisdom about life.
A few for instances:
In the early days of her soccer career, Jenny felt that wins and losses rested on her shoulders alone. During those post-game chats, she and her dad talked about being part of a team. That no game was ever won by one member.
Later she discovered that in spite of her best efforts to set up a goal, her teammates will sometimes let her down and that she, too, might let her teammates down. But a player should take pride in the moves that make the difference.
Over the years, she and her dad have talked about everything from what to do about ball hogs, optimizing one’s strengths and that it’s not the number at the neck but the fit of the uniform that’s most important.
Now that she is in high school soccer, they’ve been talking about getting more aggressive. She’s up against tougher competition and she needs to take more chances and more risks.
My husband’s advice has moved into the mental game now. The conversation after her game went something like this:
“You need to show up, Jen. Not be afraid to go for it – to not be tentative,” my husband said. “You’ve got to make more contact with the ball, acting like it’s the last piece of pizza and you want it, bad!”
“I know, I know. I was having an off day. Can’t a player have an off day?”
“Sure,” said my husband, “but today was not about that. It’s about effort. Even if you don’t make the shot, it’s the fact that you hustle. If you are 100 percent there, it can make up for physical mistakes. Your head wasn’t in the game – you were distracted.”
“Yeah. I was. I want to do better next game,” she replied. When we returned home, Jenny headed for the backyard to work on her ball skills.
The playing fields were never really a place where I worked out life lessons. Nor were they a huge part of my older daughter’s life.
But I have found these field notes to be quite useful on my own playing field at work.
For example, the success of a work project isn’t mine alone to bear. With the publication work I do, there are many moving parts. I have to remind myself that it isn’t only the writing that makes a publication good but the editing, design and printing, too. The look and feel of the publication is about more than one contribution. And it doesn’t always turn out like I think it will.
I’ve also learned that there will always be people wanting to take credit for the good work that their colleagues did. It’s just the nature of politics in the workplace – human nature. The desire to be seen.
Perhaps most profoundly, I am seeing how much of real life is in the mental game. Once you develop your skills, it’s all about your attitude. Your approach and how you access these. What you bring with you to the field or your desk.
It won’t be entirely clear what lessons Jenny takes from the field to her life until she gets out into the world. I hope a few will stick to more than her cleats. At least one thing is certain: they weren’t lost on her mother.
This piece was originally published November 2007.