Soccer isn’t really about soccer (the yellow card story)

I received my first yellow card this summer.  For some, that means I broke a rule, for others it means that I was playing the game as it ought to be played.  I am noticing that sometimes (but not always) I struggle with with breaking the rules – or even testing the rules.

The conundrum: I love rules and rules infuriate me.  In much of my world, I appreciate rules and the structure they offer. Ill-applied rules, or rules that have lost their sense of purpose, frustrate me.  In a soccer game, they provide the necessary level playing field for healthy and fair competition.  Since I appreciate healthy and fair competition, I appreciate the rules that are in place to ensure the game is fair competition.  We have an impartial official to do this for us, on the reasonable assumption that we are not equipped to do this ourselves in the heat of a game.

As I learn more about playing soccer, I notice that I am choosing more consciously when and where to be aggressive and when and where to let things happen. Whether playing a strong or a weak team, if we just let things happen, we will not hold our own.  Each of us needs a measure of urgency for the team to hold its own.  As is often the case with me, I go full tilt.  (Yellow cards do not come from letting things happen.)

Early in the yellow card game I collided with a player from the opposing team.  The official took me aside with a warning to take it easy.  Later in the game, as one of their stronger players (I will call her Number 5) had a breakaway toward our net.  I caught up with her, got a smidge ahead and kicked the ball out of play.  In the process, Number 5 fell.

It was fair play: I had a chance to kick the ball out of play and I took it.  The official confirmed this with me right away.  Number 5, however, was on the ground and sobbing.  She had hit her head on the ground. Her coach bellowed at the official, who, in return, gave me a yellow card for unnecessary rough play.  Even after he declared it to be fair play.

Since I didn’t get a yellow card right away, I was a bit surprised.  The official and I had a quick congenial chat about his call and we played on.  But I wasn’t feeling that good about hurting someone.  Then I noticed Number 5’s dramatic behaviour.  After her “concussion” she was pretty much immediately back on the field.  She slide-tackled one of my team mates and barks at the official, “Did you see that?  She just took me out!”  When the official calls her for being offside, she vehemently protests.  At every turn she quips about her concussion, yet she plays hard and well – even with her head.

Technically, Number 5 is a skilled player.  But instead of relying solely on her technical skill, she challenged us by challenging the rules – and the keeper of the rules – to see if she could gain advantage.  This is a whole different game with a different set of skills to play with and around the rules to find advantage.  With Number 5, it showed up in the sobbing and theatrics when she was knocked down (a common occurrence) or defeated.  Or even when she made a mistake herself.  By doing so, she may well get a call from the official that works in her favour – whether legitimate or not.

And here is where I struggle.  There are competing value systems at play here.  (In parentheses, I will refer to the Spiral Dynamics integral levels of consciousness.  The colours.  Please refer to this article for a primer, or just read along.)

The game is a competitive experience (RED).  To be healthy and fair, there are rules to provide some boundaries to the competition (BLUE).  My opponent choose to play the game in two ways – first technically within the rules, and second by playing with the rules.

My deliberation is whether or not the ‘playing’ with the rules is fair or not.  Fair is noticing how the rules are being called and playing accordingly (providing no harm is done to another).  If the official never notices when plays are offside, we notice this and play within the rules evident on the field in that situation. Usually, it works out evenly for both teams and there is no advantage.  (If the official favours a team, that is another discussion).

Manipulating the circumstances to alter how the official makes a call is another scenario.  This is a competitive drive to play a political power game (RED) outside of the rules.  It changes how the rules are seen by players and officials.  With weak officials, the ‘game’ becomes the game.  Brave (RED) officials use their authority (BLUE) to make the needed calls.  Players need to be mindful of which game is underway.  Everyone has choice in this.

In the end, the drama is a distraction from the real game at hand – on and off the field.  It may be appropriate at times, but it mostly keeps us from what we really wish to be doing.  That said, the drama is not something I can avoid.

I wonder if I need to let myself get super competitive (RED) to battle in the manipulative realm.  I am quite competitive, but from a place to improve my performance relative to me, not to others.  I do not need to win.  I need to do well.  My measuring stick is internal; I do not need to win over someone.  My purpose (BLUE) in this situation is to learn more and more about the game of soccer and how to play it. In my life and work, I aim to learn more and more about life and communities and how we work.  This purpose (BLUE) tempers quite dramatically my competitive spirit (RED).

At the end of the day, I seek to understand. I need not react. I stand my ground.  I am honest.  I will not fake a fall.  I will make the ‘game’ explicit when it needs to be.  Number 5 was looking for ways to use the rules to her favour – a win at all costs.  I don’t play from this mindset, on or off the field.  I’ll pour my energy into intention – with an organization, a community, or a couple of teams learning and developing and practicing their soccer skills.

From time to time I deliberate about whether I should make a scene when I fall on the field.  Whether fouled or not, I could choose to stay down on the ground (and maybe sob).  I could exaggerate a shove or fall.  Maybe get a free kick or penalty shot.  It’s just not in me to do that.  I am too transparent.  But I recognize that I need not  ignore the ‘game’.  On and off the field there is more than one game in play and I need to recognize which one is underway.  In the end it isn’t about whether I am breaking the rules – it is about which set of rules is being broken.

They can keep charging. I’ll stand my ground.

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5 thoughts on “Soccer isn’t really about soccer (the yellow card story)”

  1. Very nicely put Beth. It’s terrific to see a rainbow of Spiral Dynamics colors lighting up for you on the soccer playing field. First, I’d say that you got the yellow card and built this story from what the Spiral people would call a “yellow” or systemic world view. You can see a bigger, broader, better picture and then begin to meet the situation where it is and move with it as it is going forward. My guess is that player number five is using a quite common version of the Spirals “orange” worldview – be strategic in achieving YOUR goals and so it successfully. “Orange” dwellers know how to use the energy of competition (“red”) while they take advantage of working the rules (“blue”) to their own ends. Perhaps player number five is the dawning of a new level of consciousness on the soccer playing field of life? Keep on getting those yellow cards Beth, “the game” needs people like you, your “yellow” so becomes you. Warmly, with care, your spiral-sibling, DannySpiral

  2. Thanks, Dan! I was grappling with whether Number 5 was operating from a place of developed strategy (Orange) or not. Or just a different version of Red – power, as opposed to just being competitive. Either way, the ego and the need to win comes through.

    I always struggle with discerning Red from Orange. I sense that she was changing the Red conditions of the game to gain influence on the Blue rules. Whether she came at this strategically from Orange, not sure… I

    This has been an insightful way for me to play with the relationship between Red and Blue. I have to think more about how Orange fits into this scenario from a First Tier perspective.

  3. Herein lies the difference between the logical, philosophical player (Beth) and the emotional (Me) who looks at the situation and is enraged that someone would manipulate an extraordinary sport to win at all costs, and, in the process make my fellow defender and all around great person, look like a bad guy. Purely my interpretation, of course. What you have taught me this year, Beth, is to never give up, to play on and to play OUR game, not dip to the level of what we might encounter on the field.
    Just like at work, I love to end the day with my self esteem and integrity intact – that now translates to the soccer pitch – I am a better person for this team experience.
    On a final note; watching the post game “play”, I noticed “5” walking off the field with her son – maybe 10 years old. This young fellow does not get the essence of blue, red, orange or yellow. He cannot analyze the fact that his mother has a desire to win above all things regardless of what she has to sacrifice in the process. He just absorbs the activities and draws his own conclusions at the level of wisdom available to his 10 brief years, and, being her son, likely concludes that she is doing the right thing. What I know about Beth is that her children will be watching and concluding based on what they see – and will be greater adults for it!

  4. This is a great story, Beth! It has me wondering about kids’ soccer, and what they are learning about life as they play.

    1. There are choices to make about learning! And there are value systems attached within those choices. From a competitive perspective, one choice is to win at all costs. Another is to do your best and compete against yourself. There is a question in there about who you are competing against. There is nothing wrong with competition – when healthy. I am finding it useful to at least know what value system I am up against on the field – it may or may not alter my response. In the end, it helps me flag the choice that I am making. Being conscious of my choices is a critical learning for me!

      As in any field in life – there is lots to learn from so many perspectives.

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