I have played soccer for thirty-three years. During this time, several old timers like myself have tried to encourage a non-competitive game by asking players who must keep score to keep it to themselves and to make the game as fun as possible with no overeager competitiveness. We encourage new players to pass the ball rather than try to dribble around opponents, which often ends up with their being dispossessed of the ball, to the frustration of the rest of the team. We also try to avoid blasting the ball at the goalkeepers and instead use skill to get the ball into the small goals that we have. These may seem like minor points, even trivial, but let us take a closer look. The culture here in the US with its motif of ‘the American dream’ emphasizes the individual. Nowhere is this more evident than in sports where individuals, not teams, are given huge incentives. It follows the model of corporate America where the CEOs are rewarded with huge salaries and bonuses if the firm is succeeding, and even if not.
I love playing soccer, especially when there is a working together as a team and when just, sometimes, there is a sense of what is called ‘being in the zone’, where there is a movement— maybe a series of passes—that has a flow or beauty that makes the rest of the game worthwhile. The end result of the movement may or may not result in a goal being scored. For me, the feeling of life moving through me and giving myself up to it is enough to keep this tired old frame returning twice a week. It reminds us, in a satisfying way, that we are all connected and, if we can work as a team, learning is that much more effective. For clarity here I must emphasize that it is not ‘me’ that is learning, since, at the most receptive times, ‘I’ is not present; being in the zone is actually ‘not being’, and therefore not getting in the way of the movement of life’s energy. Insight comes through the absence, not the presence, of ‘me’. Sadly, I see mostly the influence of the ‘me culture’ where it is so hard for players to pass the ball, especially the younger ones and those who have learned dribbling skills, often at the expense of their passing skills.
Giving the ball to another player is very difficult if you think that you are losing something you have, and are also losing the future possibility for the ultimate prize and status of scoring. You may have more confidence in yourself than in the other players, and do not want to risk losing the ball by passing, and this will be your rationale. Such persons—often with natural talent— can ruin the fun if they are not team players and don’t want to include others whom they see as below them. This can also create an atmosphere of fear, with the less gifted making even more errors due to the subtle and not so subtle pressure, like comments about whom not to pass to. Anyone who has taught soccer will know the phenomenon where the ‘good’ players will pass more frequently to the other ‘good’ players, ensuring that the weaker players will learn slower or not at all, due to lack of experience. Trying to change this culture is a formidable task indeed. We can try to mitigate the non-inclusion by offering, for example, games where a certain number of players in the team have to touch the ball before a goal can be made, even though this will be frustrating for the more skilled players. Hopefully, we can talk about that at the end of the period. However, this will not reverse the much deeper on-going conditioning permeating the ‘me’ culture.
In the classroom this would be akin to a teacher calling upon all the students to either read or to respond to questions, regardless of their academic levels. It is frustrating to hear weak readers, or those who stumble over their words, if you have the idea that there is an object to the lesson and that you are somehow losing out if you allow for ‘weakness’. This is just like the frustration in a game when a player makes lots of mistakes, when your goal is to win the game. Having myself been taught in the traditional mode, it is hard for me too, at times, to pass to a player who is not as skilled as some others. However, something in me is also cognizant of the fact that this player has worked hard to create the space that allows her to receive the ball, and I notice that I respect that by passing. Year after year I also notice that the ‘most improved player’ will not be one of the so-called ‘good’ players but rather one who has struggled to improve despite limitations. I feel some satisfaction in having possibly helped that growth by my extra attention and encouragement to him or her. I find it curious that one or two of the more competitive older players will rarely pass to players perceived as weaker, and year after year they play the same game even though they constantly make mistakes themselves. Since these are adults, they often take umbrage at actual conversations about how to improve the game by including everyone and working as a team. Though my weekly refrain of “pass the ball for god’s sake!” seems to go unheard, it also seems that I can only be the change that I want to see, for no other reason than it feels right. I could go on about the inner game of soccer, but let us just take this analogy and see how it might apply more generally in our lives.
You probably do not play soccer; however, the psychology as seen on the soccer field will most certainly be affecting your life, no matter what field you are in. Even in the protected ‘ivory towers’ of our schools, it may be no different from elsewhere. We are not so far from the madding crowd as we might think. The point is, can we approach our educational experiment as a team, each one equally responsible (taking now a boating metaphor) not only for rowing but also, far more importantly, for setting the course and navigating? Some questions that we could be asking ourselves are these: Are we gradually being sucked into the mainstream? Are we out to win the game, and what cost are we willing to pay for that? Is the game less fun? Will we appoint team leaders for their perceived successes? Do players have to constantly ‘perform’? Will learning suffer in an atmosphere of fear where the playing field is not level?
Can we have ‘state of the union’ meetings regularly with all the players involved, to ensure that all voices are heard and everyone gets to have the ball—or talking stick—occasionally, so that they feel part of the team and see that their contribution matters? It is easy to talk about classroom management or teaching techniques, but teachers also unwittingly teach much more by their actions. It is therefore incumbent upon them to discuss and address all things that affect them and the classrooms, whether these be uncomfortable or not. Do teachers feel free enough to express both what they would love to teach and what they might like to change, without thinking that they may be told they cannot play the game anymore?
There are a few young players who have played with us for years and who exhibit generous, gentle, skilled, intelligent behaviour on the field. Of course, it really has nothing to do with them; life lives through them in this way and has shown them that in the long run if we share, we win—not this particular game maybe, but the larger game of life. It is just wisdom. I am really addressing the human condition here, which is a reflection of the mistaken idea that we are all separate and need to fight others to survive. We can only hope that the younger players can display the wisdom to influence the rest of us so that there is more connection and, of course, more fun for all in the game.