Though it may come as a surprise to many who know me, I am an amazingly average athlete. I appreciate sports as metaphor as much as anything else, which is probably why I am such a big baseball fan: there is lots of room for stories in between pitches. Growing up in Africa, however, I first thought of a pitch as the place where we played football—soccer. I still love watching game played well, which means I have loved watching the US Women’s National Team over the last few weeks.
One of the soccer stories I carry with me has nothing to do with the game being played well. It goes back to the days when my nephews lived in Memphis. They played soccer as little boys, which means, of course, they played “herd ball”—all of the little guys moving up and down the field with the ball in the middle. My youngest nephew, Scott, was on a team that won their league because the coach taught them to do one thing: “Run to the open space,” he said, “and let the ball find you.” The words stuck with me: run to the open space. Look up. Look out. Create options for you and those around you. Don’t feel like you have to have the ball; be the one who gives options the one with the ball, who creates the chance to work together.
My nephew is in his mid-twenties now. A week ago, he became a father not long before the US Women’s Team began to hit their stride in the World Cup. The Final on Sunday gave me another soccer story to remember. (I should say here I watched the highlights; we were at a Durham Bulls game during the first half of the match.) Carli Lloyd and her teammates were amazing. I never imagined four goals in sixteen minutes, but that’s not what I remember most. The moment that has stayed with me was Lloyd’s third goal—you know, the long one. She was running with the ball right at midfield, pressed by a couple of defenders, when she shot just as she crossed the midfield line and the ball blew by the goaltender, who was playing too far up. GOOOOOOAAAAAAALLLLL! It was beautiful, unexpected, and packed with metaphor.
The more I thought about the goal, the more I realized it was no accident. In the midst of everything happening at mid-field, Carli Lloyd had the wherewithal to look down field, even if for a split second, and see that the goalie was out of position. And she took the shot into the open space.
The danger of any metaphor is the temptation to take it to far. I could keep adding layers, but I think I’ll let it rest here. When life presses in it’s easy to keep looking at our feet and to overcome by all that surrounds us. The challenge of those moments is to look up, look out, and see what lies beyond our present circumstance, what shot we have to take, what waits in the open space.
NOTE: My friend Jeff said some things in a comment below that are worth adding here:
Let me add another layer (or just a dash of seasoning), something I told my players: you won’t always have the ball, and you don’t need to; you don’t have to run every second, but you do need to think all the time — think about being in the right place at the right time, and be ready when the moment to contribute arrives.