The virtues of practice and the World Cup

Nearly every afternoon we walked over to one of the local parks, rolled out a ball and played a pick up soccer game. And by “played” I mean we ran around, unorganized, chasing the ball and trying to score goals. We had little clue to what we were doing other than having fun (although I may or may not have intentionally flipped a girl over because she was starting to annoy me.)

The month I spent in Oxford, England with a group of students from St. Bonaventure coincided with the 1998 World Cup and served as my proper introduction into the world of soccer.

From there, I got caught up in the 1999 Women’s World Cup hype. And I may or may not have gone out and purchased a Ricky Martin CD the day of the final between the U.S. and China in order to listen to the song “The Cup of Life” before the game. (Long time followers of my athletic journey will recall that a sign that I’m bonking is when I start signing Ricky Martin songs. If I attempt to sing The Cup of Life in Spanish, which I don’t speak, get me an IV of electrolytes immediately.)

My soccer knowledge is pretty basic but outweighed by my appreciation for the game and the culture of the sport. This, incidentally, puts me in a unique group of sports reporters, most of whom detest the sport and groan at the mention of soccer, which I always found curious. Soccer should be a reporter-on-deadline’s dream what with running time and the ability to play in any type of weather. Injured player? Just roll him or her off to the sideline. Game on.

Ah, but I digress.

Yesterday I caught an article in the New York Times Magazine on “How a Soccer Star is Made.” Written by Michael Sokolove, the piece examines the youth academy of the famed Dutch soccer club Ajax and how it continuously turns out some of the best soccer players in the word. It also reflects on the system of cultivating talent in the United States and how, well, it doesn’t always seem to work so well.

The main difference revolves around emphasis. In the Dutch system, the emphasis seems to be on individual development and practice. They play few games, especially when they’re young, and do more drills. Winning? They really don’t care so much. Not at the youth level.

In the U.S., we favor games over practice. We favor the team concept over individual development. And above all, we favor winning. Even when we say we don’t, well, it’s hard to get away from winning. We are, after all, often caught up in measuring success — wins, goals, speed, etc.

I thought about this on the way to my long brick workout. It was going to be hard and I had certain paces I was hoping to hit, but frankly was scared I would miss.

I thought about the Dutch system — the one that favors learning and skill over outcome. Certainly, there are advantages to learning teamwork, particularly in a team sport, but there is something about the ethic of practice, of learning, of staying healthy that perhaps we could all use more of in our life plans.

My brick was challenging. It was supposed to be. I rode 20 miles at a moderate pace then went off for a seven mile run. The first two miles were easy paced and I felt pretty good. The next four were at tempo pace, and it was hard. It was humid. The sun started to come out. And I was getting tired. My pace slipped, but I stopped judging and just picked up my cadence. I pushed through the four miles and stopped, walking for the first tenth of my cooldown mile.

In the end, I was pretty darn close to that tempo pace.

And not once did a Ricky Martin tune pass through my head.

Bring on World Cup 2010.

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