Sports And Travel: A Breakaway Past The Language Barrier
When I was in grade school I played soccer for a year or two. I was wasn't very good, and I disliked the experience. These memories weighed on me heavily for many, many years.
Even now, I clearly remember the pain of finally having possession of the ball right in front of the other team's goal. It was an easy shot, but in my nervousness I kicked the ball directly into the goalie's feet. The ball bounced off his shins and rolled right back out to me. Again, I kicked it ... directly into his feet. Then... the half-time whistle blew.
The kid who wasn't very good at soccer had a chance, but he screwed it up twice in front of all his family and friends. I'm now 21, but that memory still hurts when I think too hard about how I felt in that moment.
I disliked soccer (and sports in general) for years after my experience in grade school. Even as an adult, I avoided pickup games and tournaments.
Needless to say, I was not a big fan of soccer...
About six months ago, however, I had a conversation with my past roommate Alex Lawton, that changed my (overly negative) perception of sports.
I was telling Alex that I didn't really get the hype around sports. With all the other skills to learn in the world (business, new languages, etc.) that provided more clear-cut benefits, why would you spend so much time kicking a ball into a goal?
His answer was one I had never considered before.
He said that playing soccer was more than just 'getting better' at soccer. It was about human connection.
He told me how two people from different countries, who couldn't speak the same language, could still play soccer and share an experience together. He referenced his experience in Costa Rica where he was able to connect with the Spanish speaking locals through sport.
He hold me about how soccer and rugby had helped reunite a torn South Africa after Apartheid, and about how sport had played a similar role in many other suffering areas throughout the world.
I understood his story, but I didn't take it to heart until this weekend.
I'm not in Costa Rica, and I'm not in South Africa. I'm in Vietnam.
My story, however, emphasized his description of the effects of sport.
Soccer is as popular in Asia as it is everywhere else in the world, and I was invited to join a match with some locals on my second week in Hanoi.
Except for one or two exceptions, I had not played soccer for nearly 10 years, but as a practice in my new 'be fearless' mentality, I accepted. Thankfully I wasn't scared off by my silly (only in retrospect!) childhood experiences.
I got a ride to the fields from one of the players, purchased a $5 pair of cleats on arrival, and for the first time in a long time took a step onto the turf.
Other players were lounging by the goal, taking shots one by one as they sat and smoked cigarettes. Stepping forward to take a shot, I maneuvered the ball with a pair of feet that hadn't been to practice in years.
"Pass with the inside of your foot, shoot with the laces" was about all I could remember from my grade school coach.
Actually, there were precisely two other things in my mind at the time.
- My embarrassing double shot on goal before half time.
- Another particularly embarrassing kick I made over 10 years ago that popped straight up and soared over the goal posts even though I was just 10 feet from the target.
It's funny what your brain summons up at just the right time......
I took a somewhat awkward shot on goal, realized that I had forgotten everything I had ever learned about ball control, and got ready to play the game.
The match was fun, even though I spent a good deal of time just awkwardly getting passes off to a teammate and sprinting to 'get into position' where there probably... was no position. Heck, I even got lucky and blocked a shot (aimed directly at my 'delicates') as interim goalie!
I wasn't very good, but I enjoyed hustling up and down the field. I had fun, and I realized that soccer didn't need to be painful. I laughed with the other players and genuinely had a good time.
I felt more relaxed around the two teams I had played with after the match than before. It's as if running up and down the field with your mind focused on the goal somehow drops the barriers between you and the other players.
After the game, I was invited to dinner with the team.
I would have never known to order quail eggs, but with the locals I was able to try something really new and... crazy! I didn't know it until I cracked open the tiny shell, but there actually was a baby quail inside!
These were fertilized eggs, probably 2 weeks away from hatching! Needless to say, I wouldn't have had this experience on my own... though I will say the baby birds (generously dipped in my own mental imagery) made a definite 2nd choice on my next trip to the restaurant.
The two words each of these locals did seem to know in English were 'Bottoms up!'
This phrase (repeated ad nauseam, and combined with the ceaseless supply of beer glasses set in front of me) nearly lead to the catastrophic late-night crescendo that I remembered all too well from the dorm rooms and frat houses of university life.
Thankfully... I held my own. The Vietnamese curfew drew our night to an early close, and I waved to the other players as my motorcycle sped off into the night. (I wasn't driving, but I was holding on for dear life!)
Sport and Travel:
I disliked soccer, basketball, and lacrosse for years. I never appreciated them for the connection they can foster between individuals. I didn't know just how much fun they could be once you got over yourself and stopped worrying about how you looked in front of everybody.
When it came to connecting with Vietnamese people I didn't know, and who's language I didn't speak, Alex was right all along.
Soccer is a language spoken all over the world. A tournament can mend a broken nation, but even a simple pick up game provides a means for conversation when words are the inappropriate tools.