Saturday, October 18, 2008

Falling Down

If I ask myself how playing soccer has changed me, I'd have to say that I fall a lot more than I used to.

Coaches say "stay on your feet" before a game. They need to say this because falling is such a big part of soccer. Who says "stay on your feet" before a baseball game? Nigerian Faith Ikidi is pictured here surprising North Korea's Ri Kum Suk with a reverse kick. I have no idea if she stayed on her feet as she did so - but clearly she's not playing like that's her only aim.

Falling was not a part of my life until I started playing about five years ago. Tripping, sure. But falling? Flying through the air falling? These were bodily events to be avoided at all costs.

Falling was not a part of my life until I tried tackling Sojin.

This was at the start of my new formation as a soccer nut. I was one of those dangerous new adult players with no sense of her own physicality or how playing the game actually works. I was running full-on at Sojin, who had the ball. I had no plan, and I wasn't wearing cleats.

I don't remember what happened, but I ended up launched into the air like Superman, except of course I can't fly. I landed flat on my stomach - a very weird crash landing that knocked the breath out of me.

The experience was extremely bizarre for me. Totally mystifying. What had happened? Why did I fly through the air like that? What had I done? Was it my fault? Was it Sojin's? (I had a terrible tendency to want to blame whoever else was near me for whatever happened to me on the field.) Being a congenital theorist, I made everybody stop playing to process the experience with me. (I am amazed these folks put up with me during that first year!)

Sojin, a far more experienced athlete and certainly a better soccer player, was bemused by my confusion, and patiently explained that if you run full speed at someone - if you charge at someone like that - you are very likely to go flying. "Plus," she said very sensibly, "you need cleats." (That was the last time I played in anything but the proper shoes.)

Nearly a year later I had another memorable fall. In the intervening months I'd started playing pick-up games and had learned a lot. I'd learned to think less - or, more nearly, I'd learned to let my body do more of the thinking. This time I was tackled by a pretty big guy who meant me no harm, but physics dictated that I go ass-over-teakettle forward through the air - I'd been running, and somehow he got me from behind. I tumbled right over myself, and came up on my feet - ball still at my toes. I tried to play on, but my friends were all so stunned that they'd stopped to stare. They were rightly wondering if I was OK - as every other time I'd fallen, I'd been rattled to my physical and psychic core.

This time, however, I was relaxed when I went down, and so the fall didn't really take me down. It was, in fact, fun. I remember that fall in great detail - and a few others, too. A player nicknamed Barca slide tackled me in a training session last spring - she mistimed the tackle just a bit and clipped my feet. Everyone was mad at her, but I was thrilled that'd she'd considered me enough of a threat. Sure, I was sent a few feet in the air, but I was fine. And I'd won my team a free kick. In June, I played in a tournament staged over a rainy weekend, and the slide tackles were fast and furious - I know I took at least two hard tackles that had me kissing the grass. I found both bracing - like a splash of cold water. They were clean, fluid tackles, too - something I admire, even if they are directed at me. And I honestly think I played better that day for them.

As a defender, you often go flying because you are giving, not receiving the tackle. I am still to green to be working on anything but instinct, and so when I go flying it's out of a reflex. I don't usually know what has happened until I'm wiping the dirt off of myself. Still, I'm thrilled by the experience.

I am not yet at the level I most admire - the player who throws herself in the air to win the ball or score. My falls are reactive - and they are usually caused by something I am doing with my feet. I'm not the player who will dive to head the ball into the net - but I would very much like to be her.

I used to think that falling was synonymous with getting hurt. But I know now that that isn't exactly true. Falling awkardly, falling when you are tense - this will hurt. But play relaxed and fluid, and you'll be surprised by what your body can do. Somehow you fall, but you don't fall down.

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