Soccer is one of the most frustrating sports, which is why my husband and I hope our kids choose to play someday. You might wonder: why on earth would a prospective parent actively desire that their child experience frustration? My reasoning is simple: frustration is an unavoidable part of life. By being chronically exposed to frustrating situations and learning to persevere through them, you develop grit and perseverance, which will be more beneficial long term than being sheltered from negative experiences.
Additionally, recent research suggests that grit and perseverance are more correlated to lifelong success than traditional measures such as IQ or grade point average.
Of course, all sports help children develop important life skills and require some level of perseverance and frustration tolerance. So, why soccer over other sports or athletic endeavors? Soccer has some unique characteristics which I think make it the perfect sport for developing grit, frustration tolerance and perseverance.
1. Many times, the outcome of the game does not reflect the reality of which team is better. Lesson: Life is not fair. Result: Increased frustration tolerance.
Soccer is a 90 minute game in which the outcome is decided in mere seconds. One team could have possession of the ball for 80 minutes of the game and shoot 20 times without scoring, while the opponent could have one shot on goal which makes it in, leaving them the winners. This is in stark contrast to sports with a high frequency of scoring opportunities such as basketball, where the outcome far more often reflects which team is objectively better.
Looked at in this light, it seems one would have to be insane to put one’s heart or hopes into the outcome of a soccer match, knowing that the result can easily be random or unrelated to which team is objectively better. However, it is precisely this relationship to randomness that makes soccer such a fine preparation for life. By providing chronic exposure to results that feel frustratingly unfair, soccer teaches the player that life outcomes are not always decided by what or who is best overall, but by specific high-impact moments.
Young children (particularly middle children such as myself) often hear the phrase “life’s not fair,” but we all know that experience is the best teacher. There is a particular type of frustration that comes when what should happen (the better team should win) contrasts with what does happen (sometimes, the worse team wins). In our daily lives, most of us tend to be fooled by randomness; we want to believe that outcomes are dictated by what or who is most logically deserving of success, because accepting the role of randomness in our lives is scary and makes us feel out of control.
However, our lives will inevitably present situations where what should and does happen simply don’t match, and we need to learn to persevere through these events rather than crumbling under the unfairness of it all. Learning to accept and move past these unfair situations leads one to develop frustration tolerance, or the ability to proceed with our endeavor despite an unwelcome (and thus frustrating) outcome.
Now, let me be clear: the point isn’t that everything is random in soccer and life. The point is that soccer seems to hit that same sweet spot that life does, where the outcome usually but not always reflects who is most deserving of a win.
This may be depressing to some, who prefer sports such as swimming and track and field where outcomes are clearly more objective and the “best person wins.” However, I believe that this lack of predictability is where the magic of soccer (and life) truly lies. When two teams line up at the beginning of that 90 minute match, they both know that no matter what their past record, no matter how many star players each team has, anything can happen. The team with the losing record knows that if they play their cards just right and have luck (randomness?) on their side, they can eek out a win, and the team with the winning record knows that their past performance provides no certain assurance of a win today. Learning to dig your heels in and conceive of the possibility of a win, no matter how remote, is another crucial life skill (along with frustration tolerance) that I hope my children develop!
2) There will be forces completely out of your control (such as the referee’s decisions), and it is useless to expend energy fighting them. Lesson: control the controllable and accept the rest.
I’ve prepared a handy list of things you can and can’t control on the soccer field, and their correlates in “real life.”
|What you can control:||Your response to the referee and their decisions||Your response to your boss, DMV employees, and anyone who has concrete power over you|
|Your response to the other team||Your response to your “enemies,” competitors, etc|
|Your preparation prior to the game||Your own efforts to best position yourself to obtain your desired outcome|
|Your conduct on the field||How you conduct yourself in life.|
|What you can’t control:||Referee and their decisions||Boss, DMV employee, and other people in power’s decisions*|
|Behavior of the other team||Behavior of your “enemies” or competitors|
|The preparation of your teammates*||The efforts of those around you to position your team/group to obtain the best outcome|
|Your teammates’ conduct on the field*||Behavior of those you must work with in life (spouse, coworkers, etc)|
*These are partial gray areas, but you get the point.
I will admit that this lesson is also learned in other team sports. However, taken in the context of section 1, I hope the reader can see that actions by those in power such as the referee have an enormous impact on the game, as every scoring opportunity has the crucial potential to directly affect the outcome (again, unlike basketball, where one foul likely will not determine the end result).
Knowing what you can and can’t control has been crucial for my mental health. Just as I learned through soccer that I will never convince a referee to rescind a call that I feel is wrong, I have learned to differentiate between when I can and cannot have an impact on my circumstances. By knowing when I cannot change an outcome, I avoid expending my precious energy on futile endeavors. Furthermore, I learned that the best response to a “bad call” was to immediately refocus my attention and energy to the reality of the moment and determine what I could do to make the situation better.
An old coach once told me that that when he evaluates players during try-outs, he doesn’t look just at how many mistakes they make, he looks at their first reaction after a misstep. When you fall, is your first reaction to wallow or hit the ground in frustration, or is it to jump back up and do whatever you can do remedy the situation? Training yourself to dig your heels in and refocus your attention the task at hand despite an unfair or frustrating situation is a crucial element of grit and has benefits far beyond the soccer field.
To make things complicated, there are gray areas which I’ve marked with an asterisk above. For example, I may not like an institutional decision or a particular government program. Is this controllable or not? Of course, there are times when you can exert some power to influence or change decisions that in the past have caused frustration. In soccer, one can talk with the coach and perhaps help change his or her mind as to the starting line-up, or in life one can advocate for a change in a government policy. The trick is to learn when you have some wiggle room to exert influence and when you simply don’t, and I think sports like soccer are a great vehicle for learning this distinction.
3) Soccer can help one develop intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. Lesson: my happiness can lie not in the outcome of the game but in my evaluation of my own effort and performance.
Basically, since the outcome of the game (in terms of who “won”) doesn’t always reflect who actually played better, the soccer player over time learns to evaluate their performance based not just on whether they won but by also on how well they played (individually and as a team). Thus through time, the soccer player learns to be motivated not just by “wins” but also by evaluating their effort and performance.
Through soccer, I learned to be satisfied at the end of a 90 minute match by reflecting on great plays that I made, regardless of whether or not my team won the match. I’ve found myself approaching other tasks in my life in a similar way. For example, I may not receive the grade I was aiming for in an exam, but I can be proud of answering a tough problem or conquering a difficult concept along the way.
On a somewhat related note, recent research in the area of self-perceived intelligence and praise has provided support for focusing on effort versus intrinsic ability. Just as kids who are praised for effort tend to exhibit more task persistence than those who are praised for innate intelligence, I believe that kids who learn to focus on evaluating their own effort during a soccer game rather than the outcome will similarly experience increased task persistence.
Interesting anecdote: I recently asked one of my students to write out their strengths and areas for improvement and to provide examples or reasons for each. I asked the child why they listed a particular subject as a strength, and they answered “because I get the highest grades in it.” I attempted many follow-up questions to prompt them to consider why they receive better grades in this subject (is it because they work hard? Does it come easily to them? Do they persist when things get difficult?) but they were unable to correlate their performance with any action they had taken. They were only able to evaluate their strength based on external ratings (grades).
I know that children go through a cognitive evolution from thinking very concretely to being able to think more abstractly/flexibly, which might explain this child’s lack of insight at the moment. However, my hunch is that sports such as soccer help kids develop a more nuanced ability to evaluate their performance by forcing them to separate effort from outcomes. The soccer player knows in their heart when they had a win that they didn’t deserve, versus one they truly earned. They learn that the win-loss record doesn’t tell the whole story, which I think is a very useful skill for mental health and insight later on.
Many factors influence whether one will develop grit, perseverance and frustration tolerance over the course of one’s life, and soccer of course is just one of many possible vehicles for developing these vital life skills.
As I’ve prepared for our baby to come over the last 7 1/2 months, I’ve read countless parenting books and memoirs. Pamela Druckerman’s “Bringing up Bebe” emerged quickly as one of my favorites. In exploring the difference between French and American parenting styles, Druckerman explains: “French parents don’t worry that they’re going to damage their kids by frustrating them. To the contrary, they think their kids will be damaged if they can’t cope with frustration. They also treat coping with frustration as a core life skill. Their kids simply have to learn it. The parents would be remiss if they didn’t teach it.”
I know it will be unintuitive for me to allow our child to be frustrated when I might have a solution, but I hope I can remember my experiences with soccer and hold back so that our child learns to persevere despite inevitable frustrating setbacks.
I’d love to hear from readers about what life experiences have helped shape their ability to persevere through frustration and develop grit – let me know in the comments section!