5 Things I Learned From Taking Up Soccer (As An Adult)
I woke up one day in my early 30s and, for some reason, felt that I really needed to branch out a little, to stop being so predictable, to try new things. One of the new things that somehow found its way onto my list was playing soccer. At this point, I can't remember how or why, but my best guess is that I was trying to trick myself into exercising more, and even though I knew very little about soccer, I did know that it involves running. Or maybe it was because the majority of my humiliation was happening indoors back then, and I wanted to balance that out.
I'm not going to tell you to join or not join a soccer team. That seems like pretty specific, fairly random advice. But I will tell you that if you're considering the sport without knowing anything about it, there are a few things you should be aware of ...
Know Why You're Doing It. Seriously, Why Are You Doing This?!
I mentioned in the intro that I didn't know why I decided to play soccer, but I think it's important to point out that I wasn't just setting up some wacky sitcom type of joke. I was exercising the part of my brain that adults teach you to control when you're a toddler. "Honey, why did you draw pictures of our family on the wall? And why are they on fire? Oh, you just wanted to draw? OK, here's the correct way to do that -- here's some paper. Drawings of family members engulfed in flames always go on paper, not the wall."
Sheets of paper are much easier to hide when DSS pays a visit.
The same thing happened with soccer, only nobody was there to say, "That's great! Here's what soccer is, and here's how to play it." All I knew was that it was something new, it sounded like fun, and dropping everything to go to grad school or joining the Peace Corps seemed a bit too extreme. Maybe it was a sign I was finally maturing, but I realized that there are smaller, less shattering things I could do to make life more interesting. Things like trying online dating, performing stand-up comedy, and attempting to make homemade gummy bears seemed relatively easy. OK, so it wasn't necessarily a sign I was maturing.
Understand, I'm not ignorant about sports. I am an excellent casual spectator, with a solid general knowledge of rules and basic strategies for many mainstream sports that you can watch on TV in the U.S. -- especially if there's a liberal amount of drinking and gambling involved. I was also a bit of an athlete in my youth, boasting the largest butt on the track team and several other accolades. But that was long ago. I had never played soccer for real, and I barely knew the rules, let alone how to play it well. I was pretty solid on the idea of "kick the ball and make it go in that direction," but that was about it.
And sometimes you have to stand in a line and clutch your crotch.
My general approach to life is that I'll agree to almost anything anyone asks me to do, provided it will be several weeks before I actually have to do it. The typical way this manifests itself is that someone will ask me to do something like attend an antique brick expo, or take a two-week seminar on sustainable bricklaying, or anything brick-related, really. I do not want to do that at all, but it doesn't sound so bad if it's not for another month, and saying yes feels good, so ... sure?
As idiotic as I know this is, I realized I could use it to force myself to try new things if I just reversed the flow -- rather than wait to be asked to do something terrible, I volunteered myself for something terrible. I joined a soccer team.
Be Prepared To Answer Basic Questions
This is where the story actually does turn into a wacky sitcom.
After I signed up, the person in charge asked me some questions, which I assumed were pretty straightforward based on the casual way in which he asked. But note that no one bothered to ask whether I'd ever actually played. I just want that to be clear. I never lied, really.
This conversation, my first serious conversation about soccer, was among the first signs that I was perhaps making a mistake, and it was my first real chance to back out. But the idiot inside me didn't read it that way. It felt more like a deepening of the challenge, which in turn strengthened my resolve to press on.
"I can soccer a footgoal as well as the next man. Give me the form!"
So the organizer (coach? captain? There's probably a sporty word I should be using here) asked me right up front, "What position do you play?" At the very least, it was a chance for me to come clean about my level of experience. I knew that the correct response to this question was, "Well, I'm fairly new to the game, so I don't really know. Are there some drills or something we could run that would help us decide where I should play?"
Instead I told him, "Oh, you know, anywhere. Everywhere! I'm flexible." Which was true, technically, because I would be equally ineffective at any position I played. But my phrasing was somewhat misleading, as what I said translated to, "You can put me anywhere and I'll get the job done."
But that response was satisfactory, apparently, because next came a follow-up: "Cool. Do you generally play on the left or right?" At least this one was multiple choice. "Oh, either way," I said. "I'm left-footed," I added quickly, afraid to stop talking, like many bad liars before me. For those wondering how I know I'm left-footed: I went through a pretty serious ninja phase when I was in grade school, and as we all know, the three pillars of a solid ninja foundation are stealth, weaponry, and kicking. I didn't mention this part to the soccer guy. Though in hindsight, it probably wouldn't have hurt.
"You need me to slide nunchaku a dude on the other team, just say it."
He seemed genuinely pleased by my left-footedness, which instilled in me a very temporary and unearned sense of relief and confidence. I'd somehow passed the only qualifying test, and I was officially on the team.
Acquiring The Equipment Is The Scariest Part ...
When it became clear that this was actually happening, the very next thing I did was buy myself a Shock Doctor: crotch protection for the 21st century. It's the cup that a male astronaut would use if his job was deflecting asteroids away from the Earth with his dick. I moved on this purchase fast, as the thought of dozens of swinging legs with spiked shoes awakened a fear in several parts of me that lasted for days.
Bonus: Maybe my new nickname could be "Shock Doctor"?
It was later that I found out soccer players don't wear cups, and if I were somehow discovered using one (maybe by too casually shrugging off a blast to my marbles?) I'd be outed as an impostor, a newbie, and perhaps a huge sissy. Obviously, the only solution was to go wild and free for game time. I firmly believe there are certain purchases that you cannot return in good conscience, even if you wore them only a couple times around the house while purposely running into things to test the carbon-flex technology. So now I have a superior, space-age nut hut that I can't use. Not for soccer, anyway.
At least the Shock Doctor was something I was able to buy online without actually talking to anyone. Cleats were another thing entirely. I reluctantly walked into a sporting goods store the day before our first game (procrastination being a temporary remedy for fearful anticipation). Have you seen soccer cleats these days?
"Uhhh ... I'm more of an autumn?"
Going to a retail sporting establishment to buy equipment I know nothing about is a contender for my handpicked specialty Hell. Double down on that if it's equipment that necessitates an interaction with a salesperson -- equipment like special shoes that come in an array of hues you can't even look directly at, categorized based on densely named variables such as "turf," "hard ground," "multiground," "soft ground," and "firm ground." What? Before we even get to prices and fit, I'm supposed to know what the ground is going to be like on the field? And not only that, I have to imagine a distinction between "firm" and "hard"? At least with the Shock Doctor, my choices were limited to "standard protection" or "bullet deflection."
My primary goal being to not stand out at all, I moved purposefully toward the only plain black pair of cleats on a wall marked SOCCER, and asked a nearby sales guy if he had them in my size. "Those are kids' cleats," he said. "The adult section is this wall," he pointed to a sign marked ADULTS.
"They're arranged by age, not how you feel inside right now."
"Ha ha," I said, seriously. I went to that section, careful to keep my back to the shoe guy in an effort to ward off any follow-up questions. It didn't work. "Are you playing mostly on grass or turf?" he asked. Ah ha! This was a question to which I could immediately and confidently respond.
"I have no idea," I said. "But I do know the difference between those two things." For whatever reason, that worked, and he asked me no further questions. Owing to a lack of knowledgeable assistance (my fault, obviously), I ended up with black turf cleats a half-size too small and a set of shin guards clearly meant for someone with different leg genetics. But I spent less than $50 and got it over with, so that's something.
... Until The Actual Game; Then That's The Scariest Part
Game day. There's a charge in the air, a buzzing that's building steadily just out of audible range. It's mostly a feeling in your bones. The buzzing climaxes as the first whistle blows, turning directly into adrenaline-charged focus and determination as you and your teammates clash with the enemy.
That's how I imagine it feels at kickoff when you know what you're doing. For me, the internal discussion the first whistle prompted was more like, "Oh, looks like we're starting. Wait. Are we? Yes, definitely."
"When's the 'everyone gets ice cream' whistle? Oh, never? Gotcha."
There's a very concrete difference between not knowing how to do something in theory, and not knowing how to do something while you're in the middle of doing it. More specifically: As soon as the game started, panic and regret began battling for control of my emotional center, eventually agreeing to an equal share of the space. This was the first moment I really, sincerely wanted to quit soccer forever and maybe join the Peace Corps, but it was obviously way too late for any of that.
I could see the world ... and wear whatever shoes I wanted.
Because this is about to become important, I should mention: This being a rec league, we'd had no practice at all. I don't know how much it would have helped, of course, but it would have been an opportunity for me to fake an injury or get myself kicked off the team before it really mattered.
So the first game was underway. I'd taken my place in the backfield on defense, which was a basic enough instruction for my sports-aware self. My immediate move was to sort of half-squat with my arms out, moving sideways, back and forth in what felt like an athletic-looking stutter step right in front of our goal. I assumed this made me look poised for action and ready to take on all challengers, rather than scared shitless, wishing my shorts were full of Shock Doctor and that my shoes were the right size.
Our team began with the ball. So for at least those first tense moments, the action was thankfully moving away from me. Oh my god, the ball! I hadn't even thought about that aspect of all this. It might sound insane, but if you're with me to this point, it shouldn't surprise you when I say that I had so much else on my mind leading up to this moment that it just never occurred to me to, you know, touch a soccer ball for the first time since middle school gym class.
"If you find yourself playing decades from now, remember the most important thing is--"
*daydreaming about that ninja life*
The shouting started almost immediately. What portion of it was directed at me, I couldn't say for certain, but the teammates who knew my name certainly liked to use it. It's a helpless feeling when things around you are frantic, people are yelling things you don't understand, and you're too busy trying to parse what they're saying to display the type of urgency that's apparently required. Someone might shout: "CHARLEY! MARK UP! BACKSIDE! THAT'S YOUR GUY!" which might as well be cows mooing. My most common response was to move with speed and purpose toward the ball, shouting something like: "ARE WE GETTING BEERS AFTER THIS OR WHAT?"
"OR DURING? I'M FLEXIBLE."
I don't know if it was my inability to follow what I now know were basic instructions, or my laser-like focus on post-game drinking, but my teammates didn't pass me the ball much that first game, and that was quite possibly the best thing that could have happened. That was the day I learned the importance of ...
Maintaining The Facade
The biggest surprise of all is that it was really fun. Somehow I made it through that game, and somehow no one hated me except my doctor and my own body.
I apologize if you got to this point hoping for a true horror story about the incredible failure that was my attempt to start playing soccer as an adult. For those on that trajectory, I offer this: It's not been a complete success. I've been injured and have definitely humiliated myself several times in predictable ways. But really, the biggest failure of all was that I actually started to have fun playing soccer. My primary goal was to feel good just for going the distance and giving it a try, not to become a guy who seeks out a team sport for recreation. I'd just never considered that, like hard drugs, massages, and having children, I should have avoided team sports because what if I really like it?
I can barely remember a life before losing feeling in my fingertips.
Over time, I began to not seem so hopeless on the field. And "seem" is a very important word here. It takes a lot of time and, let's face it, youthful vigor to become proficient at a sport -- of which I have neither. But I wanted to keep playing and I didn't want to keep sucking at it, so I went for efficiency and built a facade of not sucking. Here's how:
Shouting Jargon: Around the world, they call soccer "football" or "futbol," and the field is called the "pitch." No way am I going to start using those words for those things, but learning other turns of phrase (mostly by paying attention to your teammates shouting at you) can be a very helpful tactic to the beginning player.
There's a chance you might learn what stuff means and subsequently become better, but if you're like me, you'll find that the most useful aspect of the new terminology is its ability to make it seem like you know what you're doing. A well-timed "Mark up!" or "Man on!" is often all it takes to prove to teammates and observers that you're in command of your sports performance. But be sure you're comfortable with the types of situations that are appropriate for specific jargon, because shouting "Man on!" at the bar later isn't going to do you any good.
Depending on the bar, of course.
Staying Covered: If you've done a good job of shouting jargon, your teammates may have little idea that you don't know what you're doing, and may even intentionally pass you the ball. This is a terrible development, but there's a simple solution. It's very difficult for you to receive a pass, accidental or otherwise, if you're never open.
The trick to staying covered is to anticipate where the defender is going to anticipate you're going to be. This can be accomplished by telegraphing every move, even going so far as to whisper your intentions to your opponent. "Going left now," you might say. If a teammate decides to try to pass you the ball while you're covered and it gets intercepted, whose fault is that? (It's your fault, but you will have made it look like it's your teammate's fault, which is the point.)
The buck stops where the ball does ... way over there.
Apologizing Smartly: You might as well develop a strategy for saying you're sorry, because if you're a bad player you'll have plenty of opportunities to do so (but less if you master staying covered).
The key to a good on-field mea culpa is to take the blame in a manner that suggests incredulity, as if you never make these kinds of mistakes and you just don't know what's with you today. Practice looking simultaneously guilty and surprised, with lots of head-shaking and pacing while staring at the ground in deep concentration. Throw in a laugh that says, "Can you believe that boneheaded thing we all saw me do that none of us true soccer players would ever do? Who even am I today?"
"Sorry about mule-kicking our goalie. My bad. Guess I didn't stretch enough before the game."
When In Doubt, Fall Down: If an opposing player was within three feet of you when you fell, grab your shin and cry out in pain, looking up in horror as if to say, "I can't believe you just did that!" You may end up as a hero for "taking one for the team," even though you've literally done nothing. That's right, I discovered the real reason soccer players flop.
If no opposing players are around to take the blame, just check your shoes, like it was their fault.
"I glanced down at my cleats and MY EYES, AHHH! MY EYES!"
Charley Daniels (no relation) is the chief copy editor for Cracked, a largely honorary position. He hasn't always been employed. Google him on Google or Bing.
Soccer is tough when you're an adult. Soccer gets tougher when a lightning storm hits. See why Thor is trying to ruin soccer in 6 Bizarre Incidents That Prove God Hates Sports. And while it's a given that playing soccer might get you hurt, sometimes staying in the stands can be just as dangerous. Check out the craziest fans in all of sports in Drugs, Violence, And Soccer: 6 Realities Of Hooliganism.
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