I was standing next to another soccer coach watching our high school team do sprints on a windy and cold October afternoon. This often happens when we’ve run out of stuff to do: Make them run!
While they were off, the other coach leaned towards me and said, “I think part of our job is to teach kids pain: what is real pain and what is just being uncomfortable? I don’t think a lot of them know the difference.”
Almost without knowing it, athletes learn to be physically and emotionally tougher. They are then able to perform at a higher level and thrive through challenges that would daunt most non-athletes.
Being tough is a requirement for being a competitive athlete. A 16-year-old soccer player reminded me of this a few years ago. Halfway through a game, he came off the field after being kicked in the nose. His nose was split open and his face was covered in blood. He had a laceration from the bridge of his nose to the tip. I thought, “well, he’s done for a couple weeks.” Our trainer took him aside and used butterfly bandages to close the laceration.
Five minutes later, he was standing by me. Swollen nose, still a little bloody, covered with bandages. “I’m ready to go!”
I said, “No you’re not, you’re done!”
He replied, “I’m fine coach, please let me play!”
So I did. He went back in, played the rest of the game, scored two goals.
Life isn’t so different from soccer
I’ve thought about that moment and its message a lot. On one hand, we naturally want to protect kids. On the other hand, one of the most important lessons that comes from the playing field is that you have to be tough; you need the ability to endure pain, suffer setbacks and not fall apart when things don’t go your way.
Why is this important? Because life, even our first-world comfortable life, requires the same thing: We need to be tough.
It only takes year or so on the Fire Department to see this is true. Dealing with the sudden cardiac arrest of your husband, a cancer diagnosis of a loved one or watching your house burn to the ground. These can be shattering moments.
But here is the irony. In these moments, we don’t have a lot of choice other than to be tough. We can fall on the ground, wail to gods or the universe, complain and point fingers. But none of that will help. Ultimately we have to get up and deal with the problem. We need to be tough.