Soccer Hacks & Life Hacks

My daughters play soccer. I used to hate the sport until I saw what it teaches about life.

My girls aren’t big or fast but they are super tricky with the ball. A coach once watched them play and asked me, “Where are they from? They don’t play like Americans.” He knew by their style of play that they were playing at a deeper level. When I told him that my wife was Ecuadorian he said, “Ah, that explains it. The Latino players know how to feel the game.”

That coach was from Spain. He told me it is always easy for him to spot these types of players. His theory is that Americans know the game and can play the game well. They are just too mechanical. To the contrary, Latin players play with spirit and tend to look for the angles and tricks to make the game easier. “Soccer is not a game only of mechanics but of spirit as well.” The same way any musician can play a melody yet a song only takes on true power once the spirit is involved.

My girls play with spirit.

The spirit is what invokes joy of the game and an understanding of where the ball is going. Having been around athletics all my life, I have come to realize how two players in a sport with equal ability and talent can learn the game; yet one person “will get the game” while the other won’t. The issue is not one of merely skill but of being open to allowing the spirit to flow. Being open requires both suffering and expression but along with them comes understanding.

My daughters have a move called the nutmeg where you pass the ball through the other person’s legs. It requires astuteness and an understanding of how the opposing player moves and defends. Most advanced players know the nutmeg but few use it. My daughters use that move at least once a game. For the opposing player, it is quite embarrassing to have a ball pass through their legs. However, once it is successfully done, the player who has watched that ball travel right through their legs knows she has been outclassed and will tend play more timidly. It takes a lot of time to learn the nutmeg but, once mastered, it is devastating because it goes represents a sublime comprehension of the game.

In my own life, I have witnessed the phenomena of studying something and never getting it. When I first started training in Aikido, there was a brown belt who had trained and studied for years but never advanced.  Ten years later, I was awarded my black belt before he reached the same level. Why? He understood all the techniques and could execute them proficiently but, at its core, he never truly understood Aikido.  Aikido is really about blending your energy with your attacker’s energy and redirecting that it all. In Aikido, if you are too severe with your techniques, you become immovable. If too soft the moves don’t work. So Aikido is learned “between the space” of hard and soft. You have to go into that space to learn it.

Here’s an example. I trained with a man named Andy. His techniques were so hard that he was essentially immovable. When I trained with him it was like being in a wrestling match to the death! One particular day, we trained together with a very senior student who broke Andy’s wrist and arm when Andy tried to out-muscle him. The senior student broke Andy’s arm  because Andy left him no other alternative. Andy’s Aikido was so rigid and strong that in the end he broke his own bones.  Had he been lighter and more flexible…more willing to blend with his opponent… he would not have suffered such devastating injuries. He got hurt because he was unable to become soft and vulnerable.

Most the activities that I have tried to become proficient in have involved learning the mechanics of the trade but also understanding the spirit of the endeavor. I’ve begun writing regularly. The only real traction I get is when I write something that stems from some type of deep insight. Yet to write anything that evokes insight takes years of reading and studying to understand the depth of realization. In the book ” One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s  the author conveys that writing is mystical and sublime in nature. The book revolves around a family in Latin America and its multiple generations.  Marquez is able to capture and explain the magical realism of Latin life in a way that seems true to life. Having spent many summers in Ecuador, I can assure you that belief in the mystical is quite real in South America.

The book is able to explain and connect with readers in ways that few books can. Had Marquez been too timid to write about the spirit and mysticism that many Latinos feel, his words would have had the profound and vast impact that it has. Many Westerners mock and laugh at this way of looking at life. While I am sure Marquez knew this he pressed on anyway risking scorn and ridicule.

All of life requires risk whether it be personal, recreational or professional. Many people spend the time to master the task while only a select few take the great leap of surrender, vulnerability and trust and to become great. A simple turtle can live its entire life in its shell but in order to move, walk, eat and procreate it needs to literally “risk it’s neck” to survive and prosper. We humans are no less obligated.

Failure as a Guide

In 1992 I first entered into an Aikido dojo and took my 1st class,at the time I was in the best physical shape in my life. In my first class of doing Aikido I was horrendous, I couldn’t even do the most basic of movements. I had always considered myself athletic, I had been an athlete in high school and in college- playing football, wrestling and doing a variety of marital arts  so for me to go into an Aikido class and fail stupendously caught my attention.


The hardest part of Aikido is that it is unnatural, when you move to the right it is done by first shifting your weight on the left. In Aikido the 1st motion is to defend and not to strike, to move back instead of forward and this is unlike other sports where moving fast, forward and with power is required. In my 1st year alone I must have taken over 300 classes and was only marginally better after the year. When I looked around the mat,  I always noticed how gracefully all the senior students moved. It was only on further inspection that the majority had been training for over 10 years. It was the time, work and consistency of practice that made them good. And as such, I emulated their regimes and after 10 years I finally became a black belt.

If I had known starting out that it would have taken over 10 years to master Aikdio I probably would never have started. It would have seemed too long, too time consuming to master, but after 10 years in training I became a black belt. The joke in Aikido is that once you obtain your black belt it is only then your education really begins. For me getting my black belt in Aikido only left me with the feeling how inadequate I was in the sport, and that was the paradox of the sport. It is analogous to reading a book on a subject you think you really know only to realize how little you do know.

To get good at any technique in Aikdio is a long arduous process as at 1st you really can’t do anything; but it is the process that really helped me understand success. In that in order to get good at something I first had to risk to be really bad at something. Most people never master Aikido because they don’t want to look foolish but it is this vulnerability in any new endeavor that makes us grow and become better versions of ourselves.

We see this all the time in business where the media loves to portray people as overnight successes but when the veil is uncovered we usually find out that person had  put in lots of time and effort to become a success. Success takes time. In the realm of business, owners find out right away what works and what does not and are punished for the mistakes they make. It is the process that makes them become good at their craft. In a sense it is rewarding to get that instant feedback if your efforts are being fruitful or not.

Contrast this to politics where failure and continued failure is rewarded.We all seem to understand that success in business takes skill and mastery but when applied to the field of politics we all seem to throw out our common sense. Take the latest government foray into health care otherwise known as ObamaCare. Crafted by Barack Obama who is not a Dr and never worked in health care or for that matter the private sector. If he tried to implement this plan in the private sector he would have been laughed out of the room for one reason— he had no experience and thus no way to gauge if his plan would work. But yet in politics, people can fail miserably time and time again and be rewarded for their failures. Why else would he have been re-elected? His signature piece of legislature was a failure. Our collective political biases allows us to  hope and believe in a certain political party will enact  plans that work. But believing in political fantasies can have disastrous results.

Detroit has been governed by the 1960’s by radical leftists and have not elected a Republican candidate in over 50 years. Detroit use to be one of the most prosperous cities in the US but it is now considered the worst. Houses that use to fetch thousands of dollars now can be bought for less than a used car. Entire areas of Detroit are now being destroyed and being given back to nature because no one wants to live there.  One would think a change in party might bring a different result but that is not to be as people would rather believe the political fantasy that Democrats are for the people.

Better to bet on people who failed, lost and then succeeded as they all give us guide posts on how things can work.

Steven Clark