The Unlikely Athlete

The story of how my son taught me that “Grit,” – Determination, Discipline, Hard Work and Passion – can overcome a lack of raw talent.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Is There Anything Grit Can’t Do?”  reminded me of this piece I started to write and then stopped half way through about a year ago, and inspired me to finish it. It strays a bit from the regular topics I write about but I thought it an interesting anecdote worth sharing:

If you had told me six years ago that in a few short years my son would be playing soccer at the top levels available to his age-group, and traveling around the country to participate in huge national tournaments, I would have thought you were crazy. “First of all,” I would have said, “I am not going to be one of those crazy soccer-dads who spend thousands of dollars every year to live vicariously through their poor kids. And secondly, my son is not naturally athletic anyway. His talents are in Music, Art and Math, not sports.” I would have thought that you were crazy to claim that my wonderful, smart, funny, clumsy, skinny, uncoordinated little guy without an athletic bone in his body, would one day prefer playing soccer to almost any other activity imaginable.

My response would have been pure projection. I was not an athlete. I, like him, was clumsy, skinny, and uncoordinated as a kid. I was terrible at playing as part of a team. The only sports I ever tried with any success were solo sports like cross country, or skiing. I never lasted more than a single season in any team sport I tried. I focused on art, on academics, and later, on role playing games. As a kid, I was a nerd, and I grew to viscerally dislike “Jocks” who in my estimation had athletic talent and little else. To me, they were mostly just dumb and mean. Sports and athletics was just useless caveman bullshit.

I projected all of this, my own childhood experience, on my son. I assumed he was like me. I assumed this because he seemed so much like me at that age. I was wrong. Physically he was very much like me. But from his mother he had inherited an unwavering single minded tenacity that I didn’t have at that age.

After we first moved to Japan in 2011, my wife wanted to get the kids into some activities so that they could make friends in the neighborhood. As it happened, there was a soccer club that practiced just up the hill from my in-law’s place, so she enrolled him in the club. He was in first grade and he’d never really touched a ball before then. The coaches placed him with the kindergarten age group.

During practice, rather than practice with his team, he would run off to the playground and play by himself. This went on for weeks, until as he recounted to me recently, “One day I was on the slide and I saw this kid dribbling the ball through a bunch of other kids, weaving around them with the ball at his feet, and then he shoots and scores, and I thought, ‘Wow! that was cool. I wanna do that.'”

At the next practice he didn’t go to the playground, but he soon discovered that dribbling and scoring like that was not so easy. I remember that time because we’d walk home every night after practice and he’d be crying, frustrated at his lack of ability. I remember repeatedly telling him three things:

  1. He didn’t have to play soccer if he didn’t want to.
  2. If he wanted to get better he’d have to practice a lot on his own because…
  3. The other boys had been playing for two years already, so he was starting behind.
Liam O'Doherty 1stG

Practicing Juggling for hours on end (1st grade)

I remember he asked me one evening how much practice it would take him to become “a pro” at soccer by the age of 18. It was the first time he’d mentioned wanting to be a pro soccer player. I thought it was pretty cute, and reminded me of when I wanted to be an astronaut or a rock star. So I told him (he was 6 years old, but very mathematically minded) about Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hour rule” popularized by his book, Outliers: The Story of SuccessI told him to figure out, based on that rule, how many hours a week he needed to train in order to become a pro. I don’t know if the 10,000 hour rule has any merit or not but I knew that giving my son a concrete rule like that would either motivate him or give him a dose of reality (or both as it turned out).

That night he told me that in no uncertain terms, he HAD to practice or play soccer at least 2-3 hours every day, seven days a week, in order to become a pro. And to my complete astonishment, that is exactly what he did.

For the first two years he continued to struggle with his chosen passion, with a lot of tears, scrapes and bruises, and worse; the constant frustration of being so far behind his peers in ability, and athleticism that he had to play with kids a year younger than him. But his persistence, passion and perseverance were little by little paying off. He was getting better.

His passion extended to soccer knowledge, and he absorbed magazines, books and televised games at every opportunity. He quickly latched on to his all-time hero Neymar Jr. as the type of soccer player he wanted to be; creative, technical, hard to predict, and beautiful to watch. But his knowledge about soccer players in general, their strengths and weaknesses and play styles became encyclopedic, whether they played in Europe, Japan, or America he knew them all.

In the end of second grade, he was finally put on the roster with his own age group. He wasn’t a starter, but the coaches saw his passion for the sport and his work ethic. More importantly, he could see himself getting better, and that motivated him to keep going. In a soccer tournament in Third grade he received a tiny MVP trophy from the tournament organizers. It was the first time he’d ever received any kind of soccer related award. To this day, it’s his most prized trophy. Later that year he won another prize for lasting the longest in a juggling contest. Little by little his hard work and determination were paying off.

In 2014 we moved back to the pacific northwest and he had to find a new soccer club to play with. To our surprise, coaches were eager to have him join their teams. In Japan, soccer training focuses strongly on the technical fundamentals, and the kids there, even at a young age, have practice 5 days a week to focus on learning fine ball control skills. It’s repetitive and “not fun” and so not a very popular coaching style for young kids in the US (which tend to focus more on just having fun in the early years). The result was that he had a much higher degree of technical skill, but was not as “physical” as his American peers. At tryouts and practices the technical skills “showed” well, but in a game, he ended up just getting knocked around. Physically he was still my son, skinny and light for his age.

Like his hero, Neymar Jr. he loves to dribble and weave through other players and try to surprise them with fancy tricks; Marodonas, Cruyffs, Rabonas, Elasticos, Scissors, even

Liam O'Doherty 5thG

A travel tournament in California     (5th grade U11)

Neymar’s Rainbow Flick, you name it he’d try it… in a game… with the coaches yelling “Keep it simple!” He started to get a reputation as the kid who’d lose the ball trying fancy moves, instead of playing the game with his team. My son soon found himself sitting on the bench more and more. But even so he never got discouraged. “They just don’t understand,” he told me once, “I have to challenge myself and learn these technical skills now, when winning games doesn’t matter.” But it did matter, especially to the coaches, and so eventually he had to force himself to keep it simple.

In the end it was a valuable lesson for him. Most of ones life is lived playing by someone else’s rules. Even when you think you know better, sometimes it’s best to listen to the person in a leadership role, give them the benefit of the doubt and be a team player. As he got older that “10,000 hour rule” ceased to become a rule to obey and started to become a tool to achieve his goals. He became an incredibly focused and self-disciplined kid, getting up early in the morning to train before school and still managing to keep excellent grades, despite training 15 to 20 hours a week.

As his 5th grade school year came to a close, he asked me if he could home-school for 6th grade. “There’s too much time wasted in class,” he said. “That’s time I could use to train.” I accepted his desire to home-school on the condition that my curriculum for him would be more challenging than the regular school curriculum. Of course he accepted the challenge. The flexible home-school schedule not only allowed him more training time, but more free time as well, and he got to take on projects as varied as “How to Train a Puppy” to units on Ancient History and Greek Philosophy. He completed the Saxon Math 7-8 course, and for his self selected capstone project; a 5000 word paper on the legends of Ragnar Lodbrok and his sons, using translations of the original Norse sagas as source material.

Meanwhile, he’s never let up on his training. Even while injured, he just switches to yoga, or stretching, or PT exercises until he’s cleared to play again. It’s an attitude toward goal achievement that I never had as a kid, although my wife did. And I wonder was it something he was born with? Was it something his mother imparted on him from early childhood? When I ask him what makes him tick he just shrugs his shoulders in his now typical pre-teen way. “I just know what I wanna do dad.”

This spring marked the end of another season, and next year many of the boys from his former team are moving on to the the local MLS Academy team. When I asked my son if he wanted to try out for the MLS Academy like most of his team mates were he said, “No, not yet. When I get good enough, they will scout me. Until then I’ll stick with the DA” (US Soccer Development Academy). It was an incredibly mature answer that I was totally not expecting. I understood that what he was really saying was, ‘I know I am not ready to play at that level now, I know I need to keep working harder until I am ready, and when and if I am truly ready and demonstrate it in the DA, they will invite me.’

I don’t know if my son will ever play soccer at a professional or semi-professional level. But I do know that he has the “Grit” that Angela Lee Duckworth talks about in her TED talks and in the article, and that it will serve him well no matter what he ultimately chooses to pursue in life. Until we know for sure I will continue to support my son and be “that crazy soccer dad” for him as long as he needs me.

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