On leadership, grit – and football

There are times when your feelings swell your heart up like a balloon until it feels like your ribcage can barely contain the love that strains against its very confines.

The occupational challenge this presents for someone who tells stories for a living is that these feelings by their very nature make utter mockery of the inner wordsmith’s attempt to fashion some manner of bone and flesh out of their uncapturable spirit.

Yet it is -precisely- this, their unbearable, empirical beauty, that leads creator after creator to attempt the expression of them anyway. Because their call will not be denied.

These feelings pull at my soul with an otherworldly power, a stirring as ancient, elemental, and irresistible as the waves I watched this week in Sicily.

It isn’t even just these two.

Or how much they’ve grown, how thrillingly, stupendously, in a matter of weeks.

The start of football season – as you may remember – was only round the corner.

My conversation with Blake – for it is a particular form of subtle torture, to be the mum of a child who’s decided to play goalie, with all the terrible responsibility, visibility, and pressure that comes with that territory; and by the end of yesterday’s fixtures, I was slightly dumbfounded to find myself now the mum of *two* goalies, my midfielder having somehow been reassigned during the second half and ending up doing such a super job of it that his coach’s first words to me at match end were, ominously, “Well I think we’ve found our goalie!” 😳😳 – in the car on the way to dropoff on Monday was on the five goals he let in during their 5-1 loss last week.

I remembered what I’d read from Grit. I’ve just finished the chapter on “Parenting for grit”. Nurturing growth mindset. Somehow, manifesting a nuanced balance between support and challenge. In this case – how exactly do I behave with my boy right at this point, so he doesn’t feel rubbish about having let in 5 goals, with that negative impact on his team, and feels motivated about doing better, yet not taking it so lightly on the other hand that the sting and the responsibility to the team fail to land?

I’ll tell you what I’m finding out.

I’m finding out that, with the right foundations laid plus the right environment to germinate, at this turning-point age of 11 one needs a surprisingly light touch – for they can and should already be starting to figure things out on their own.

And – when I got the call on Friday afternoon, on the plane as we were about to start our pushback to takeoff: “Are you coming to the match tomorrow Mama?” and I knew there was only one possible answer, “Yes I’ll be there” – I’m finding out again and again that what our children truly need from us is our presence.

Our witnessing.

Our showing up.

As a coach I hold space. That’s what I do. That’s what makes it so powerful.

As a mother I too hold space. It is the same quality. It is also undoubtedly sporadic in nature. I have many demands on my time and attention. But my children know I know, and I care.

How do they know? Because I, like with my clients, listen carefully, remember the storylines, and keep threading the new pearls onto the same necklace.

I keep their story. It’s mutual. I forget sometimes and then it is its own little bliss to be patched up by these three who keep story right along with me.

Blake knew this when he saw me turn up at his pitch. I knew he knew. He knew I knew. His previous match was in that collective memory between us, as well as what I wrote him in my letter, “It all boils down to one simple question to ask yourself, Blake, of *anything* you do: Was that my best?”

He also knew I was there simply because he’d called me and asked me to come, so I did. And I brought along Muffy, whom I had obliged him to leave behind at home on purpose as painful lesson, for not getting his act together in packing his stuff in time before dropoff. And I brought along Ryan, whom Blake adores, as a surprise; as well as Seraphine and Vera.

Why do people want other people to watch them? Because being watched by someone who cares for you and is cheering you on is what brings the *very best* out of anyone.

No man is an island.

Being goalie is generally a thankless, creditless job. No one is watching you for much of the game. You’re not out there, displaying your fancy skills, being in the thick of the action, feeling fully involved.

Then, all of a sudden, the attention is fully, brutally on you. And nobody ever, ever, keeps score of how many you save. All people remember is the handful that you let in.

I’ll tell you what being there yesterday made possible. It let me witness how many saves he made.

I watched for two-thirds of the match, before I had to swop over with Ryan who was watching Conrad on the other pitch (Blake had asked where Ryan was, while Conrad had asked where Mama was). During that period he saved at least six balls. One resulted in him getting kicked in the face by an opponent who was trying to dislodge the ball from his grasp to get it into goal. It ended up rolling gently past the goal line. From a distance I watched. He lifted up his glasses to wipe his eyes with his sleeve. He was crying. Because he thought he had conceded the ball after all.

I watched him struggle with his emotions, and get over the pain of the knock. The coach had gone over to check on him, and he was evidently okay. He pulled himself back together.

Referee made a decision. Ball didn’t count as goal. But by then for Blake it was merely a bonus; he had already prepared himself to look ahead, and play on. When he got back to position after getting up we looked into each other’s eyes. He knew I understood. I smiled and gave him two thumbs up. He smiled back.

They ended up winning 5-0.

I was brimming with emotion just before starting to write this. Because Blake told me on the phone just now, when I’d asked him what his teammates thought of his goalkeeping, “Mama I was apparently the man of the match.” I don’t know how true this is. But what is true is that my son took this performance to heart; he now knows something of the taste of grit; and that he played his heart out because we were there.

That tide only swelled when I logged onto the Cothill website to read the match reports. I’d never read one before, and I was startled to find how passionately detailed they are.

So my feelings doubled, not only from reading this:

“With a clear lead in the game, Cothill almost conceded a cheap goal if it were not for some brave goalkeeping by Mosimann who jumped into a 50:50 ball, picking up a knock in the process, but he would have done anything to ensure he was not going to concede a goal. As Ludgrove kept attacking the Cothill goal, Mosimann caught the ball and quickly fired it up to field to Coventry’s feet where he neatly finished past the keeper making it 4-0. The game resulted in a 5-0 victory (goal scorers: Yang, Curtis, Magomedov, and Coventry x2).”

But also from my gratitude and wonder that my children are in a place where they are cared for and witnessed so – tenderly.

Conrad. Oh, Conrad.

Ryan told me in passing when I dashed over to catch the last few mins of their match, “Conrad’s been brilliant! He scored an amazing goal, the first one, and now he’s goalie and he’s made a few saves!”

These under-9s look like adorable pint-sized cartoons running around, compared to the older boys I’d been watching. What a stunning difference to the same team I’d watched three weeks ago, where three boys from the same team were typically bunched around the ball and no one quite knew who was to kick.

I’ll let the match report speak for itself:

“Conrad was man of the match. Tireless and fearless in midfield, he too went to ‘3 touch’, then a spell in goal in the second half, making four terrific saves from long range shots.”

I also know the heart of my second son. Part of him is attracted to goalie because the big brother he adores has elected to be goalie. Love is a powerful attractor. Perhaps the greatest there is.

Yes, I love this school. I love what it’s doing to my boys. I love the ardour and attention with which the match reports are written. (If you fancy reading them they’re here: https://sites.google.com/cothill.net/matchreports/football. Conrad’s Under-9 A. Blake’s 6th XI.) I love how evidently well they come to know each and every child in their care. You cannot produce reports like these unless you love your charges.

Ultimately, this is a story about the infectiousness of leadership. The Germans say, “Der Fisch stinkt immer von Kopf” – the fish always starts to stink from the head. And as anyone who’s been taught by their mum in the wet market how to spot a fresh fish knows, look then for telltale signs in the head too; are the eyes bright and clear?

I watched the headmaster’s wife running around the pitches, camera in hand, taking pictures, witnessing their play and capturing moments to share with the parents who could not come in person. It is very much a double act at Cothill; she is as amazing, dedicated, and hardworking as her other half, whom was on the pitch himself, personally refereeing one match, running around all the other pitches during half-time to check on how they were doing, and hosting the crowd of home and visiting parents for post-match tea while she strode around the boys hungrily tucking in – they always mix up the boys with their competitors at each table – with tray and tongs, personally overseeing service.

One scene touched me deeply as we made to leave. Most of the others had already departed; we were the stragglers, Seraphine having wanted to collect conkers. My attention was drawn to three boys rebounding a tennis ball with their rackets off the central courtyard wall. There was one adult with them.

It was the head. After a long and busy day, when everyone has gone and he wasn’t on “official duty” any more, instead of putting his feet up and enjoying the rest of his Sat evening in peace – he was not only mucking around with the boys, he was playing rebound with them hitting the balls back with only his hand.

I can’t tell you why this detail made feelings rise up in my throat. But it did.

I’ve always believed you can tell so much about a person by how they behave when they think no one’s watching. And watching this pedestrian little scene helped me to better understand where the magic that fires this crucible comes from. Yes, it’s love.

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