Friday, October 21, 2011

An Athletic Education

                Watching Game 2 of the World Series last night, I had one of those moments that reminded me why I love sports and their educational value.
                I think it was in the fifth inning. I say think because, despite the tension of the game, I was dozing off a bit. Suddenly there was the Rangers shortstop, Elvis Andrus, lunging full length at a sharp grounder straight up the field. He snared the ball, managed to prop himself up on his other elbow, and flipped the ball out of his glove towards second base. Second baseman Ian Kinsler arrived just in time—he had been shaded towards first base and thus had extra far to go—to catch the flip right before the runner arrived. Crisis averted. Without this play, the Rangers probably don’t win. (Amazingly, the defensive duo had pulled off a pretty sweet play to end the previous inning as well; it just wasn’t as spectacular.) I snapped wide awake.
                Let’s think about what qualities were captured in this play. There was pure athleticism on display. Both Andrus and Kinsler made great individual efforts. They reacted instinctively, and Andrus was amazingly innovative. At the same time, they had to collaborate in perfect sync. In those couple of seconds, we saw the result of thousands of hours of practice. Interestingly, in the past both players have been criticized at times for making too many errors, so they certainly have shown resilience. Andrus also put aside individual ego for the team. After game, when asked about the play, he said, “I always say when you're not hitting good, you better do something good defensively.” And he did get a key hit in the ninth inning rally.
                Certainly my experience playing soccer drilled into me the importance of these qualities. In fact, I think about the reasons I was drawn to the sport. First, I simply found it fun because it challenged me in ways no other sport did. Second, soccer provides ample room for tremendous individual creativity and flair within a strong team concept. One of my favorite players was Vladislav Bogicevic, a Yugoslavian who played for the New York Cosmos in their glory days. Bogie had magical skills and amazing vision. Rather than look to score, he continually tried to make the unexpected killer pass. He derived pleasure from untangling the knot and from making others look good. I found myself trying to play that way (admittedly, sometimes to my coaches’ consternation, when I would not take certain shots). Today, I frequently say most of the qualities that serve me well emerged during my soccer career.
                This notion calls to mind the story I once read about an upper-level math teacher’s response to the inevitable question, “When are we ever going to use this?” He told the students that they might have to, but they very well may not. Then he compared it to lifting weights as part of training for a sport or for better health. They weren’t, he explained, doing math for the sake of doing math. They really were pumping intellectual iron to strengthen themselves. The analogy works better than the response I’ve often given to that question: “You may, or you may not. But you want to be ready because you never know what life may throw at you.”
                All schools actually teach two curricula: the explicit and the implicit. The explicit is what you normally think of—the objectives, standards, content, skills, et cetera. The implicit curricula encompass all the other lessons that occur along the way, such as self-discipline and perseverance. Both certainly matter; and, structured well and intentionally, they feed each other in a virtuous circle. It can happen anywhere. I know people who talk about their theater experiences, for example, in the same way I talk about soccer. In fact, the implicit curricula is learned in very powerful, often longer-lasting ways than the explicit. I don’t recall much calculus, but I do remember the logical precision that Dr. Haytock required. And while my touch on the ball is now rather pathetic, I draw on other skills every day.

No comments: