Saturday, April 23, 2011

There Is "No Need to Fail when Success is Offered Every Day"

I've been thinking a lot lately about the nature of sport -- why it still exists, why it has such an important place in some of our lives, and whether it should.

Not so much another boring history of sport or even a review of it -- the supposed links to warriors or skills that translate to prowess on the hunt or in the field. Not why people started competing. But why they still do.

Why does sport play such a vital role in our lives? Why does it seem more and more important to many at a time when, realistically, physical prowess is less and less important to survival as an individual and collectively to a people? Why do others ignore or barely tolerate or just plain don't "get" athletics and competition? And, finally, when all is said and done, could our time and energy be better spent on other pursuits than another practice or game?

This all started when I attended, to the bemusement of some of my friends, the Mountaineer Athletic Club dinner in Charleston this past week. The MAC raises money for scholarships for athletes in all of WVU's varsity sports. I was impressed by the coaches and athletes who spoke, not just because they were articulate in thanking the donors for the contributions that made their teams and their opportunities to compete possible, but because of the palpable impact that sports, and in particular the opportunity to be a member of a team, had made in their lives. But the skeptical part of me couldn't help but wonder if all that was money could be better spent on research projects, new classrooms, or visiting professorships than on athletics.

Later in the week a gentleman I met at the dinner introduced me, via email, to Jeff Usher. The similarities between Jeff's life and mine are eerily (and, truth be told, a little disappointingly) similar: Jeff is an employment lawyer, soccer coach, and author (well, he's really an author; so far my writing is confined to this blog and some articles, not an entire book). I hope to have the opportunity to talk to Jeff and exchange ideas with him about his approach to coaching and seeing how sport fits into his life.

The dinner and then reading about Jeff made me think more about why sport is still essential to our lives: that it connects us in a common purpose at a time when it is so easy to be a loner among friends, whether  it's pursuing personal goals (attending college, getting a promotion, buying a house, starting a family) or just simply living our day-to-day lives conversing with clients or customers we never meet or touching base with friends and colleagues through one less-than-personal method or the other. But, at the same time, it can also be divisive and even dangerous, particularly when it comes to fans (after all, the word is short for "fanatic").

My epiphany came when, by chance, I saw a piece on ESPN about Jim Tracy, a high school girls' cross-country coach in California. Both Tracy and his team (ironically enough, another University High School, this one in San Francisco) have faced and continue to face substantial, and ultimately insurmountable, challenges, but overcame them at least temporarily in some extraordinary ways.

The piece that ran on ESPN's Outside the Lines is below and remarkably well done, as well as being visually stunning.

Tracy and his team exemplify why competition is still so vital to our development individually and collectively and how sport can help us meet -- head on -- the challenges we will all face. The bond between teammates, and between coach and team, is something that cannot be taught in a classroom. It has to be experienced. While winning is obviously important to Tracy and his team (and they are very adept at it) competition, teamwork, and mutual support are lessons that he knows his players will take away from his program that will better allow both him and them to face the obstacles that they will encounter in life. It is truly the means, not the end, that is most important.

"I'm a person who sees no need to fail when success is offered everyday" Tracy says near the beginning of the story. We can take that comment quite literally: that Tracy, with his multiple state championships, tells his girls every year that they have the opportunity to win another and should expect to.

I suspect, however, that Tracy is referring to something much bigger than just a cross-country meet or even a state championship. Each of us has within us the means to accomplish great things and everyday has the opportunity to do exactly that. Sport still has the unique ability to teach us to discover that talent within ourselves, and then reveal the will to push it to its absolute limit. That is a lesson that is learned only by preparing to compete, and then by competing.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Support Your Local Soccer Team

Because the vast majority of U.S. soccer fans of my generation didn't grow up playing soccer, they chose the sport rather than the sport choosing them.

This is not always a good thing.

Much as the former two-pack-a-dayer becomes the most strident anti-smoking advocate, so too many converted American soccer fans become soccer snobs, insisting on only following the best of European or South American soccer and deriding the level of play in MLS, let alone that of the lower division leagues in the U.S., the United Soccer Leagues (USL) and Professional Development League (PDL).

No, the MLS is not the Premier League. But neither is the Scottish Premier League, or the Ukrainian Premier League, or even Ligue 1 (France's highest professional league).

At the end of every Mountain Stage, Larry Groce tells the audience to go out and listen to some live local music. He's not saying it will be as good as what you just heard on the show, but that's not important. What is important is the idea of local music, of supporting its existence and the people who are probably not even eking out a living performing it, but are doing it just the same and could use a little support while pursuing their dream.

The same goes for local soccer. Whether it's the Columbus Crew or the Portland Timbers or even D.C. United, MLS has to play an important part in the development and vitality of the game in America. U.S. soccer fans need to support MLS, through attendance or even just watching games on t.v., to increase the presence of the game in our national psyche, and especially its attractiveness as a marketing tool to potential advertisers.

Even more desperate for a little support are local soccer clubs. While the level of play isn't always great, the atmosphere and support of your team (even if it's your club only for that evening) is. Perhaps the two most enjoyable times I have ever spent at soccer matches were in York, England watching a pre-season match of what was then Third Division York City F.C. against Middlesborough and an overweight and fast deteriorating Paul Gascoigne, and in Charleston South Carolina watching the USL's Battery play at its wonderful Blackbaud Stadium.

Here in West-by-God Virginia's Charleston we have a PDL team, the Chaos. The PDL is, as its name indicates, a developmental league. Most of the players are local college players, looking for extra playing time in the summer and perhaps that "break" to move to the next level. The play is at the level of a good Division II college program.

No, you're not going to see Lionel Messi on the Schoenbaum Stadium pitch -- probably not the next Lionel Messi either. But there are few ways to spend more a pleasant evening than sitting in the stands, watching some local boys try to make good while the sun slides down the horizon behind the Appalachian Mountains leaving the sky streaked purple and pink.

So next time you find yourself at home on a Saturday or Sunday with nothing particular to do, go find a local game, drop a few bucks, and, as Larry Groce might say, watch some live local soccer wherever you may be.