Lessons From a 5-Year-Old Soccer Player


Life is a game of inches.

I was five years old when my parents put me in the youth soccer league in the small town I grew up in. I don’t think I had any idea what was going on, but I did enjoy the idea of kicking a ball around a field.

Once I was old enough to realize there was a purpose to the game—put the ball in the goal—I decided I should be the one to do that, and I should do it every time possible. And every time possible became every time I had the ball. This is how all the kids my age operated.

The rule went something like this: If, somehow by the blessings of the soccer gods, the ball ended up in front of you while you were staring at the sky or picking your nose, kick it as hard as you can in the general direction of the goal. Don’t try to dribble it down the field. Someone could steal it. And don’t pass it to any of your teammates. If you do, they’lljust kick it at the goal, and that’s what you want to do. Don’t think. Just kick!

Not a lot of goals were scored.

Later on, I learned the art of teamwork and how passing the ball could actually be a good thing. We’d set up plays and sometimes even pass the ball backwards. Yes, backwards! We’d really changed our strategy a lot from “kick as hard and fast as possible.”

This is when my team—the same kids I’d grown up with—started actually scoring goals and winning games.

You’ll find the same happens in any sport. Watch a youth basketball game and an NBA match. A pee wee football game vs. and NFL game.

The kids know what to do—put the ball in the goal—but lack the patience necessary to successfully maneuver around obstacles to do it. Professional athletes have developed their skills over time and learned how to exercise patience, formulate a plan, and accept setbacks (moving the ball backwards) to achieve the result of scoring a point.

I thought of this comparison as I sat in a coffee shop the other day and overheard a conversation between two gentlemen comparing notes on their youth basketball teams. One said to the other, “they just don’t understand yet that life is a game of inches.” They laughed, compared stats, and chatted about how much better the kids were going to be as they learned the art of patience and how to “pass the damn ball.”

While the two coaches geeked out on youth basketball, I started to geek out about what one of them said: “Life is a game of inches.”

This is something you learn as you grow up, but how quickly it’s forgotten when you want something that’s out of reach. The ball’s right in front of you, but the goal is far away. You could kick it as hard and fast as you can, but the chance you’ll hit your target is slim.

Instead, the best option is to survey the field and make small but meaningful strides towards the end. Sometimes, you’ll run into roadblocks and have to turn around. Other times, you’ll need to rely on others and pass the ball so you can put yourself in an even better position.

It takes longer, but eventually—if you stay focused—you find yourself in the right place at the right time with the ball in front of you. And that’s when you can go back to being a 5-year-old on the soccer field, kicking the ball as hard and fast as you can.

Only this time, you’ll actually score.

This post originally appeared at riskology.co

Photo:  stevendepolo/Flickr

About Tyler Tervooren

Tyler Tervooren explores social psychology and shares original research and insights about winning at life, work, and adventure by taking smarter risks. For more, join his Smart Riskologist Newsletter.

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