The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.

We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.

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Potential and Youth

Babies in squirrel costumes

Youth is a wonderful thing. What a crime to waste it on children.
—George Bernard Shaw

I often wonder about human potential. We know that young people learn fast both cognitively and viscerally. It’s as if everything has been juiced for children’s easy consumption while we grownups have to eat things raw. Which begs the question: if I had started to play football earlier, what could I have achieved? I know I’m not the first habitué of football to wonder such a thing. This concept doesn’t apply simply to sport, either. My mom was a piano teacher and when I was growing up she saw me as nothing more than her little, American Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, destined to transform music forever. In retrospect it would have been nice, although I would have preferred to be her little, American Paolo Maldini. Maybe I could have realized her dream had I not rebelled against the idea of legacy at such a young age.

Having waited to play football until my late teenage years, I’ve developed a unique skill set. Some aspects of the game I’ve been able to figure out (defensive positioning, off the ball movement, and shielding the ball, for instance), but other aspects, like technique, are less teachable. In essence I know what I should be doing when I have the ball but I have difficulty doing it. I lack the tools. This is all in sharp contrast to my tennis game. I played tennis for many years as a youth before taking a decade-long break. Today I can still hit the ball with precision. It’s innate; it’s not a conscious understanding. I don’t know how not to.

These two types of learning—understanding and doing—don’t always coincide, and there’s a point at which we stop learning certain things in certain ways with such ease: the learning curve. So all we have to do is know the variables, like quality of coaching and facilities, time spent practicing, experience on the field, and age, and we can predict the future, maybe… But such structuralism is depressing. By this logic, assuming that our ability to learn technical, physical skills becomes labored as we age, we can count out Eddie Johnson, who seems to lack the technique, and now the youth, to achieve his potential. Some would argue that Theo Walcott runs the same risk, although time is on his side. Conversely, a player like Shaun Wright-Phillips, often criticized as a poor decision-maker, still has time to become a savvier player, assuming he is resourceful.

Not everyone would agree with this train of thought. I had an art teacher in college who didn’t start to draw until he was a college student himself. I found this to be a late start. I asked him if he wished he had begun to draw earlier—if he thought youth could have made him a better artist? “No,” he said, “I think I’m still improving.”

“Yeah, but technically, then, if not creatively?” I asked.

He told me the story of a famous Japanese artist. “He was interviewed at 60,” he said. “The interviewer asked him if he thought he could keep going, unable to believe that the artist could do anything better than the works he had just finished. The artist replied that he was only 60, and had just begun to express emotion. That at 70 he hoped to convey a piece of the complexity that he feels inside and that he hoped by 80 he would have the skill to express himself in full.”

Art is not a perfect metaphor for professional sport—artists, in a sense, are able to make up their own game while athletes are held to a standard; athletes peak early in skill and fitness while artists can crest much later. I doubt Eddie Johnson will find his touch and make an impact in an elite league. I find my professor’s story inspirational at the amateur level. I certainly hope that I’ll one day be able to express myself fully on the soccer pitch. Even if I have to wait until I’m 80.

I don’t mean to suggest that Walcott and Johnson are the same caliber of player, simply that they both have been criticized for poor technique: Walcott for his passing and Johnson for poor touch in general.

Brian Blickenstaff is a graduate student in Mississippi.

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Potential and Youth

by Brian Blickenstaff · May 11, 2010

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