- Deborah Degraffenreid
The games would go something like this, the intrinsic narrative of youth soccer: An undifferentiated scrum of 20 children would chase the ball around the field with occasional breakaways by the star six-year-olds, who would basically dribble the ball into the goal past the terrified goalie, too stunned to move, with the sudden commotion of screaming parents as the horde of children stampeded toward the penalty box like the bison rumbling across the plains in Dances with Wolves. Tatanka! Tatanka!
I was the terrified goalie who saw the ball dribble past. The coach, my father, had stuck me in goal the first game and I just never left. Most of the time, being in goal was quite peaceful. We played under the Throg's Neck Bridge and I could daydream, watching the waves splash against the massive concrete supports of the bridge onramps. And the sudden terror of the scrum. Once, a goal was scored against me with my back turned to the field as I watched a gull out on Long Island Sound.
That year, the local newspaper wrote a story on the fledgling soccer league that my mom and dad had founded with some other local parents. When asked about the Bomber's dismal record, my father told the reporter, "Winning is an added bonus." I had no way of knowing this at the time, but my father, clever man, had turned Vince Lombardi's hard-boiled coaching maxim—"Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing"—on its head. But it just sounded off-kilter to me at the time. As shitty a goalkeeper as I was, I knew the point of the game was to win. (And to eat a load of quartered oranges at half-time and make orange rind smiles with my teammates.) What was the point of schlepping out here in all kinds of weather if not to win? It certainly felt better when we won, with all the high-fiving and jumping up and down and the dejected looks on the faces of the other team.
Four years later, we won the championship. I had become a better goalie through determination and practice, but that's not why we won. Pat Cooley was the reason. As big as a high schooler in fifth grade, he dribbled like a monster truck over opposing defenders. After Pat scored the winning goal in the championship, the goalie on the other team—also the son of the coach—punched the goalpost so hard he broke his hand. The other goalie went to the hospital and my father, pleased with our victory and possibly surprised, threw us a pizza party.
I continued to compete in athletics through college and beyond, eventually making it to the national championship of another sport, Ultimate Frisbee, a number of times in my 30s. After retiring from competition a couple years ago, I was invited by some young players to coach their college Ultimate Frisbee team at my alma mater. Flattered, I accepted and jumped in head first. I wrote a 30-page playbook and drilled the team on the plays in practice three days a week between scrimmages and wind sprints.
While the SUNY New Paltz Gunx may have had fancy uniforms with numbers on the back, and everyone wore cleats, we might as well have been called the Bombers. We didn't win a single game that season. After the last game, I had nothing left to say to the team. I was disappointed and angry—mostly with myself. I shook everyone's hand, got in my car, and drove home. If winning was an added bonus, what was it in addition to? My father never told me.
For some, like myself, competition can be form of focused anger, a way sublimating our grievances with the world on the playing field. You don't need to be a student of Freud to suspect that anger won't always be contained in the competitive arena. What happens when it spills over?
Enter meditation teacher Sharon Salzburg and Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman. Their new book, Love Your Enemies: How to Break the Anger Habit and Be a Whole Lot Happier, offers some innovative ideas about anger management, one of the most interesting being that anger is an energy that can be used creatively—if we remain joyous. The lack of joy has caused us no end of problems, Thurman tells Wendy Kagan ("Overcoming Anger"). "We can't have in this century another violent revolution where the revolutionaries just take over the levers of power then turn out to be worse than the previous people. We have to have a joyful revolution, person by person."
I think back on that kid under the bridge, who watched the gulls sail on the wind as the scrum pinballed across the field like a Roomba. I didn't understand what could possibly be greater than winning. My father knew what it was—let's call it joy for short—because when the game is over, the winners and losers are left where they started. It could be joy, it could be sorrow. I'm choosing joy.
Viva la revolution!