Life Lessons from a Pick-Up Soccer Game

user Darren Gold
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Sometimes the most important lessons in life come when you least expect them, and in the most unlikely of places. I had one such lesson recently in my regular weekend pick-up soccer game. Every Sunday morning, I meet with a group of men to play soccer for ninety minutes. We have been playing together for years. The composition of this group has evolved over time as players move, get injured, or get to the age when their bodies no longer cooperate with the intense physical demands of a sport that favors the young. The current group ranges in age from mid-twenties to mid-fifties, from weekend hacks to once-competitive players. I grew up playing soccer, and in my early twenties played in a predominantly Latino semi-professional soccer league in LA, getting paid from time to time—forty dollars here, twenty dollars there. I treasure this weekend game. Now, well past my prime, I am able to play a sport I love and get a great workout with a bunch of good-natured men who are all seeking the same thing.  

I was playing on a recent Sunday, enjoying perfect Bay Area weather—sunny, mid-sixties, barely a breeze. About midway through the game, I raced towards a player on the opposing team who had just received a pass. I timed the tackle perfectly, stripped the ball away and raced toward the opposing goal in a great position to score.  

Like almost all pick-up games, in virtually every sport, we self-officiate. Every group has a code of conduct. It is unwritten, but well understood. It gets shaped through years of playing together and encountering almost every possible situation. Run afoul of this code too regularly, and you will quickly fall out of favor with the group. It is a great example of how any culture gets formed and reinforced.  

With this particular group, we have a code that allows any player to call a foul at any time, provided that the foul is clear. The threshold for what constitutes a clear foul is pretty high. If you respect that threshold, your call will be honored. Opposing players might complain and get frustrated, but you get the call and possession of the ball.  

Our code was put to the test on this Sunday with my tackle. Almost immediately after I had stripped the ball, the player called a foul, claiming that I had made contact with his foot before cleanly taking the ball away. I couldn’t believe it. I immediately got angry. To me, it seemed completely antithetical to our rules. Not only was it not a clear foul, it wasn’t even close. I let the other player know about my frustration, and, in an act that you would expect of a teenage boy not a middle-aged man, I kicked the ball to the other end of the field in frustration and disgust. I gave the ball to the other side not out of agreement or even good sportsmanship but as a display of martyrdom and contempt. It was not my proudest moment to say the least.  

An argument ensued between some of the other players on my team. Almost everyone, including the opposing players, agreed that this was not a foul. In fact, the ball was given back to our team. It didn’t matter. I didn’t feel good, and I regretted my actions. Rather than beat myself up, I asked myself what I could learn from this experience. I have come to appreciate that the questions I ask myself determine the quality of my life. “What can I learn?” is almost always a high-quality question.  

Almost immediately I began to realize that as certain as I was about my own experience, it was possible (and probably likely) that the other player felt equally certain about his experience. We were two wellintended people drawing totally different conclusions about the same situation – and both insisting that we were right. No wonder, I thought, that our society is so polarized. One of my favorite sayings is, “Most people would rather be right, than be happy.” Here I was, so sure about my own experience and so insistent on my rightness, that I was sacrificing enjoyment of the sport that I love and probably denying the other player the same.  

We finished the game about a half hour later, most of us having forgotten that the incident took place. I didn’t. I walked over to the other player and extended my hand. I apologized for my reaction. With a smile, I told him about my realization that two grown men could have completely different experiences with the exact same event. He smiled back. “It is no wonder our society is so divided,” I said. If we can’t reach common ground during a low-stakes, meaningless pick-up soccer game, Lord help us.” I walked away a tad wiser, appreciating the power of human beings to reflect, to learn, and to grow, and an even deeper love for the game of my childhood.  

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