Kick the Ball


The way we typically think about learning is by memorizing and recognizing. Our entire public school system is based on this model. Here are the facts, memorize them, and then we'll have a test next week to see how well you did.

True learning, however, happens beyond those modes of cognition, where we hardly recognize anything at all. At the limits of knowledge is where learning occurs, out on those wonderful and wild frontiers.

In an autobiographical mood, I was reflecting upon my personal background. How I made it through school, what I learned along the way, what insights I had to share with others today, etc. I'm sure we've all had similar lines of thoughts.

What I came to realize was that my views on learning crystallized around a singular childhood experience. Ironically, it didn't happen in a classroom. It happened outside of school, on a soccer field.

Growing up in San Francisco in the early eighties was entirely different than growing up today. What you'll read below could probably never be executed in our current climate, especially amidst our social networks and compulsion to share. Parents, no doubt, would complain about the unsavory instructional tactics my soccer coach employed, and the children, well, they'd probably never knowingly partake. I'm fairly certain it'd somehow all end up on a video that would go viral.

I was proficient in school. I'd even say I was excited to go every day. But, something was calling me to play soccer. Something I couldn't quite pinpoint. I asked my mom if I could join the team that I'd seen practicing in the park. She said she'd look into it. In the meantime, however, she said, "You better start practicing". I was five years old or maybe even six.

I worked on my skills on the side of the house. If I hit the garbage can just right I knew that I'd found a teammate blazing down the sideline with a forward pass. If I dented the garage consistently in that one spot, I realized I'd zipped a powerful shot by the goalie to win the game. You know, the usual backyard fantasies.

Day by day, I was gaining confidence in my abilities.

A few weeks later, my mom asked me if I was ready. She said she heard there were tryouts at the park.  "We should go," I said ambitiously. Of course, I had my reservations.

I was worried about my technique, nervous to meet the coach, anxious to play with the other boys, and a bit doubtful that I'd even make the team. Was I fast enough? Is this how everyone's left foot works? How many taps could I make before I let the ball drop to the ground?

After a short practice session, which went better than I thought, the coach gathered everyone around.

"Get in closer," he said.

As we cooled down from our warm up, I remember forming an ad hoc circle with other similarly-aged and eager young boys.  

My mother told me that the coach had just returned from Europe. As I'd later come to witness, he had an aura of confidence that seeped over the sidelines. We could tell he was a pro. I think his name was Gus, but we only ever called him Coach.

Coach had a speech that seemed like he'd thought it up on the fly. In reality, he'd probably been reciting it his entire life. It went something like this:

skills are important, and you can work on those; getting along with your teammates is also important, and we can work to improve this too; but, perhaps more than anything, you have to have the courage to be a soccer player.

"Do you have the courage!?" he shouted.

Everyone cheered and exchanged high-fives.

I asked myself, "Courage?"

As the cheers died down, the Coach went on to describe how grit and determination and persistence and hard work, terms we readily identify with today, were the intangibles of any good player and any great team.

A successful team had these traits: skills, collaboration and the intangibles.

Of course, these are the same qualities researchers extol today about the virtues of excellent students, students who know how to persist and overcome challenges, students with resolve and optimism and a sense of purposefulness.

More on that in a moment.

"Skills are important," our Coach acknowledged, "and camaraderie is critical, but if you don't have these other factors, none of these will matter." Then, he paused, as if reciting a phrase he'd always known to be true but had just remembered, "These are things that I can't teach you, but these are things you can learn."

I actually think he taught us in that moment.

Coach went on to explain that there were too many of us and that he'd never be able to select a team based on skills alone. We also didn't have time to ascertain who would be a good teammate. There was only one way to narrow down the field, to find the team he wanted, and that was by kicking the ball as high in the air as he could, and seeing who would go in for a header.

I took a deep breath.

"Be sure to keep your tongue in your mouth," he exclaimed.

One by one, and this is the bit that I don't believe any parent of a five-year-old would find acceptable today, he kicked the ball in the air, way up high, and each of us had to take a turn at making contact with our heads. If you made contact, you were on the team. If you missed or were too afraid, well, this wasn't the team for you. You might have the skills, and you might be a good teammate, but do you have those intangibles?

"Courage," I said, gritting my teeth and making sure my tongue was nowhere in site of this extraterrestrial soccer ball.

In my memory, the ball went to Mars or maybe even a little further. One thing was certain, you could see it floating for a moment amidst those beautiful kites in the California sky, and then slowly, now more quickly, it started to make its way back to earth, like a fireball of fear. My peers looked on with unabated compassion. There was no escaping the challenge.

What gets me now, all these years later, is that these qualities aren't fostered in our current educational system. Skills are endorsed, of course, and collaborations are rewarded, almost secondarily, but qualities of persistence and grit, well, they don't exist in the system. The system wasn't designed for intangibles. Yet, they're somehow identified as necessary or essential to any gifted student.

We hear about this all the time and read about it in the latest popular literature or research: grit is the key to success; if you have persistence, you'll be successful; no, the new study says, the linchpin to any productive life is actually determination.  

What does persistence look like in our traditional educational system? After all, the system was created to memorize facts and recite them on a test. Where are the wild and wonderful frontiers at the limits of knowledge?

This autobiographical excursion isn't to lament the tactics of the coach, or even to commend them. It's simply to highlight the fact that these types of qualities, these intangibles that my soccer coach shared with us, aren't fostered in our current educational system.  Small measures are being taken, but when are we going to kick the ball in the air?

Bobby George