Neighbourhood soccer fields


The panic set in as we realized moments before our soccer game that the required game sheet and player cards were in a teammate’s living room.  They could be retrieved – maybe – just in time to avoid forfeiting our game.  Coach Tim hit the road – he knew it was a 7 minutes drive each way. We had 10 minutes until the formal start time. After that it was up to the referee.  Tim had 10 minutes to run a 14 minute mission.

We broke the bad news to the team. We were here to play a game that we could probably win, but we might default. We entered the field and began our usual warm up while Assistant Coach Dan spoke to the referee. As players, we were pretty sure that if we didn’t have the sheet and cards by game time, we would forfeit. It was a half-hearted warm up.

The referee decided to start the game 10 minutes late, without forfeit, if the sheet and cards arrived by then. This grace period gave Tim  20 minutes to run a 14 minute mission.

So there we were, with a much longer than usual warm-up, forever checking the clock as the numbers counted down. At first, it just felt strange to have more than 5 minutes to warm up, then the panic started to set in. After 15 minutes, Tim had not returned. I kept having to remind myself that my job, as a player, was to get ready for the game. But the game around the game was front and center when time was getting tight, with only 3 minutes left: Tim should not park, but drive right to the door and run in; we should send a fan to the door and run in the sheet and cards.

Again, a reminder to get ready for the game. The extra ‘drama’ around this game was a distraction. When Tim did return, I had to be ready to jump on the field and play.

With less than a minute to spare, after catching all possible red lights, Tim arrived with the game sheet and player cards.  We played a shorter than usual game.  The distraction didn’t win – we were ready for the game and won 4-0.

_____ _____ _____

This soccer team is a group of neighbours and friends who decided to learn to play soccer in 2008.  We practiced for a full year before fielding our first team in 2009. We have learned a lot along the way.

Game One
Game One – May 2009

In my very first blog post in 2009, What does soccer have to do with leadership?, I noticed that the the lessons we were learning on the field apply to life. Simple principles :

  1. My mate will only do her best if I give her the space she needs.
  2. To give her the space she needs, I must trust that she can do it.
  3. My worries about protecting our net harm my team’s ability to reach our goal.
  4. Trusting my mates makes me open to the play around me.

The learning, as we field a team for our 5th season this summer, continues. I have learned that even when off the field, taking time for a rest, serves time on the field (Is it time to sub off?).  At the end of season one, the words of my teammate Veronica reverberated: when I have the ball I can’t see anything else. Our discussions as a team revealed a lot about how our cities and neighbourhoods work too, about how we panic when its our turn with the ball, and how we don’t have to be comfortable with a situation to be able to see.  We just need focus, flow and fun.

There was a point when I realized that there is a game around the game: soccer isn’t really about soccer (the yellow card story). There are layers of game, and a field around the field. There is a game underway physically on the field bounded by the rules, and the strategy, influence, and even manipulation we engage in to either ignore the rules or turn them to our favour. We also learn, playing a physical game at our age (we range from 38 to 56), that we each take turns having to sit on the sidelines due to injury, losing our chance to play the game but gaining opportunities for other things. Two years ago, I received the gift of the sprained ankle, and a whole other perspective of the game: that in a given situation, I can put my energy into fighting or choose to look for unexpected avenues to explore.

As I reflect on my neighbourhood friends and our quest to learn a game new to all but one of us, I see that we are practicing, as friends and neighbours, the wisdom of a 10-year-old friend:

  1. If I do something right, I want to hear about it. I need to know what I am doing right.
  2. If I do something wrong, I want to hear about it. I want to learn how to play the game better.
  3. It is really hard to hear that I am doing something wrong, but I want to hear it anyway.
  4. At times, people are not so good at delivering a message, but I will look past that because I want to hear what s/he has to say.

We are growing as a team and a neighbourhood, on and off the field. Our relationships serve us in private and personal ways, and also professionally. Our relationships surface in our work in neighbourhood volunteering. Our families all connect too – it is a big soccer net supporting us and those around us.

Our work is supporting the potential in each of us.

What relationships support the potential in you?


_____ _____ _____

This post is part of Chapter 7 – (Un)known Possibilities. Here are some plot helpers of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities, the book I am sharing here while I search for a publisher:


Inter-city tournaments

As I spent  the long weekend at a soccer tournament, I pondered what it means to be at a tournament – for both 11 year olds and for cities.  Immediately to mind is Marilyn Hamilton’s work on Integral City: Evolutionary Intelligences for the Human Hive.

In her blog, Hamilton writes Howard Bloom’s story of the honey bee, and the roles in the beehive.  There are four roles that form a strategy for individual adaptation, hive innovation and species resilience.  These roles ensure the beehive is adaptable to its surroundings:

  1. Conformity enforcers – 90%.  Find the pollen by doing what the majority of beehive is doing.
  2. Diversity generators – 5%.  Find alternative sources of pollen.
  3. Resource allocators.  Reward successful behaviour of diversity generators and resource allocators by putting resources where the ‘return’ is favourable.
  4. Inner judges.  Work with the resource allocators to ensure the hive meets its sustainability goal of generating 40 pounds of honey per year.  When conformity enforcer bees come back to the hive with less pollen they engage with the new information from diversity generators.
  5. Inter-group Tournaments.  The competition between hives that share territory (their eco-region).

For Hamilton, “the Inter-group tournaments operate at the level of species survival – ensuring any hive that gets an edge in the innovation and evolution curve is the one most likely to survive and pass on its learning.”  Inter-group tournaments advance not just a hive, but the species.

So how does a soccer tournament for 11 year olds fit into this picture?  To begin, let’s contemplate the basic transaction.  A team of 16 kids is learning how to play the game of soccer. They are serious about the game and have joined a club team to play competitively.  They have a coaching staff that is keen to give the kids opportunities to play the game and to play against teams that challenge them.  For the coaches of this team in particular, the tournament is not about winning at this age, but about having time to play – in games, rather than practice – to try out the technical training they receive between games.  In most tournaments, the team gets to expand its horizons.  They get an opportunity to play with unfamiliar teams.  They get a chance to advance their game – technically, physically, mentally – as individuals and as a collective.
They are at the tournament to better themselves.  That may mean winning, it may not.  The purpose of this Inter-group tournament, for this team, is to improve the game for each player and the team.
This is where the city comes in.  Competition between and comparison of our cities is part of a naturally occurring aspect of human life in that it compels us to be the best we can be.  We always have a choice about what the purpose of the “tournament”.  For some cities, it really is about survival in the strictest sense.  For others, it is simply about a learning journey and putting ourselves in situations where we are challenged, for their is no improvement without challenge.
For our cities, if we stop striving to improve, we risk losing our ability to survive at all.  The honeybees and the coaches of 11-year-olds have some insight for us:
  1. Most of us will conform with the behaviour of others around us.
  2. A handful of us will regularly seek out new ways of doing things.
  3. There are people in positions to reward (and withhold reward) our performance.
  4. There are people in positions to assess our performance.
  5. We advance our contributions with competition.

For our life in cities (and elsewhere), this means:

  1. It is natural and appropriate to conform and be part of a team.
  2. It is natural for some of us – but not all of us – to look for new ways of doing things.
  3. There are naturally occurring boundaries on our efforts (referees, coaches, supervisors, parents).
  4. It is appropriate to assess performance related to an identified goal.
  5. We learn about ourselves – and where we need to improve – when we see how we “stack up” against others.

In the end, this little blog is a reminder for me that cities, and the relationships within and between cities, are complex adaptive systems.  As the bees adapt to ensure they create 40 pounds of honey each year while also supporting their habitat that allows them to do so, I wonder what the similar goal is for humans and cities.  The purpose of the tournament over the weekend was not to win the tournament, and this makes a huge difference to the learning opportunity for the players and the team.  A city, on the whole, isn’t out to “win” either.

What performance goals do we set for our cities?  

What efforts to we make to reach those goals?

How will we know when we reach them?


Mark’s wicked 10 year old wisdom

A 10 year old friend of mine has nailed down the simplest way to grow as a person.  I am fascinated by how simple this is – and how hard.

Mark made some errors on the soccer field last week, got put on the bench and got a “talking to” by the coach.  Mark felt really bad and hurt – he made mistakes, which made him feel bad, and his coach told him in no uncertain terms that he had screwed up.

Mark and his mom had a challenging conversation about this.  Here is Mark’s wicked wisdom:

1.     If I do something right, I want to hear about it.  I want to know what I am doing right.

2.     If I do something wrong, I want to hear about it.  I want to learn how to play the game better.

3.     It is really hard to hear that I am doing something wrong but I want to hear it anyway.

4.     At times, coaches are not so good at delivering a message.  I have to look past that because I want to hear what s/he has to say.

The gift of the sprained ankle

Sometimes you have to be hurt before you sit on the sidelines.

My outdoor soccer team decided this last summer that we would field a team for the indoor season.  We love doing this together and so off we go into a new adventure.

The morning of Game 3 I took an unexpected and tumbling trip down the basement stairs and landed in the emergency room, and left with four staples in my head.  I went to the game that night and watched from the bench.  I support my team no matter what.  Then on my first shift of Game 4 I got tangled with the opposing team’s keeper and hobbled off the field with a sprained ankle.

And so I am wondering what the Universe is telling me.  It might be about soccer, or just the phenomenon of noticing when it’s time to take to the sidelines for a bit.  A question from a couple of team mates startled me in the middle of Game 3: “are you in agony watching and not playing?”  As I reflect on this, I notice that I wasn’t in agony.  I didn’t even think of being in agony until it was mentioned.  I couldn’t do anything about it, so I just watched and enjoyed my team’s efforts.

I have a feeling that the agony, however, is setting in around this ankle.  Not only can I not play soccer for a while, I am required to keep it elevated.  I can’t be physically active.  I have to sit or lie down.  This could well drive me nuts.  It is not lost on me that also at risk, if I do not heal well, is skating, cross-country and downhill skiing.  I love winter and I consider not being able to do these things agony.

But I am curious about what windows might be opening.  One gal on my team has suggested I start doing other things to keep my fitness level up.  I could do weights, and she advises that combined with the weight I have lost I could get quite ripped!  There might be other physical activities that could serve as cross training for running and soccer, that might even improve my performance.  Beyond the physical, I can spend additional time writing and doing things I like around home.  I can find a balance of these things.  Nothing is lost when I notice that other things are gained – I just have to be open to finding them.

So the conscious choice I make is to be on the sidelines enjoying my team’s games and friendship.  The other choice I make is to receive the gift of the sprained ankle.  I see opportunities to try new physical activities and reacquaint myself with quiet things to do at home and work.  I am curious about other places where I need to step back into the sidelines and let others have a turn.

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.

Focus, Flow and Fun


I have been pondering the significance of last week’s soccer scrimmage. I found myself on the field in default mode: going full tilt, fast, shoulder to the wheel, focused effort for results, more effort and more focus for even better results, put in the time and the effort and what I want to come to pass usually does.

But there was a voice over my shoulder, my coach Michael, who could see something I couldn’t see about how to play the game better.Behind me, his words to me were: “slow it down”.On another occasion: “just take the ball, hang on to it for a few seconds, then decide what to do with it.”I couldn’t believe the results.

Now I must note that I need to get feedback from Michael about what he saw – I am relying on what my subjective self sees and feels.I don’t know if he saw anything different, but I felt very different: my body was just doing what it needed to do, without really focusing on it.Putting things together that I hadn’t put together before.It was like those times when I look straight at something and I can’t quite see it no matter how hard I look, but when I look just to the side, I can see it better.My body was doing the things we have been learning all winter – ball control, passing, position, shooting – but without me actually focusing on these.From time to time, I felt a sense of flow.Things unfolded as they needed to in response to the circumstances of the moment.

I fell out of this feel of flow frequently, and then I could still hear Michael’s voice, though it was now me reminding myself. Other times, it was Michael pointing out technical things to do, like: “let the ball hit you straight on.If you turn to the side you have no idea where it will go.”Michael suggested I focus on something specific, but of course that is not the only thing I was expected to focus on.I had to file this information, these things to focus on, into the mix.In the end, I found myself falling in and out of precision, and in and out of intuition.A friendly and usefull tug-of-war between focus and flow.

The game, and life, is about the tug-of-war.It isn’t all or nothing, but rather noticing that both are in play and welcoming them.I notice that in my head and my body, I have a strong tendancy to work hard to get the job done, but not necessarily skillfully.The effort and focus I put into things often makes it look like I am better at something than I truly am.My skills improve when I take the risk of a split second to pause (or take Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink) and check out what the circumstances really require of me.This is not logical – but I can trust that I will know the right thing thing to do, and do it skillfully if I let myself.And if I try to do both – ie focus on flow – I won’t get either.Pulling both ends of the same rope gets you tight rope.

My coach has lessons for me on and off the field and I appreciate the time he has voluntarily spent with us, every week, over the last two years.We are learning technical skills – how to handle a ball, the rules of the game.We are learning about how we do not have the same skills or abilities or aptitudes.This is not only welcomed, but we are learning how to use this diversity to build an effective team.We are supported in our individual learning as well as our collective learning as a team.When we are ready, he shows us something new, always making sure the stretch is one that challenges without overwhelming us.
We are recognizing how we are doing something well and how we are not doing something well so we can see and feel how to improve.Most importantly we are having fun.

I see now that this week’s scrimmage, for me, was about focus and flow – and that welcoming both comes with fun, lightly holding the conundrum.

When I have the ball, I can’t see anything else!


This was my big summer learning.  During a soccer practice, we were hearing from our coach that we needed to pass the ball more, and this is what Veronica dared to declare:“When I have the ball, I can’t see anything else!”

All but one of us learned how to play soccer this summer.  We had a year of drills and practice and then it was time to really do it – we had to learn what to do while the game is underway.  A different beast entirely.   And our discussion as a team reveals a lot about how communities work too.  Here is what we noticed:

  1. I often panic when I have the ball.
  2. By making an effort to move the ball, I risk losing it.  But risk of losing the ball is higher if I just kick it in panic.
  3. I play best when I risk losing the ball.
  4. I need others to tell me what they see, in the moment.  They will see things I can not see.
  5. For the team to see what is happening on the field, I have to trust my team.
  6. I don’t have to be comfortable with the ball, or the situation, to see what else is going on.
  7. I have to notice what my strengths and weaknesses are, as well as my teammates, to move the ball effectively.
  8. The game works best when every player is a part of the game – whether they have the ball or not.

As I reflect on my leadership, planning and coaching practice, these questions are unavoidable:

  1. What is my community ‘ball’?
  2. Am I brave enough to make Veronica declarations?
  3. Do I even know if I have the ball?
  4. Am I the right person to have the ball?  Should someone else have it?
  5. Does the team see the field?
  6. Are we still having fun?

I am thrilled to have such a great, bold and honest group of people to learn with.  Game OneGame One

Is it Time to Sub Off?


After a soccer scrimmage my coach made the observation that I was not subbing myself off the field frequently enough.  I had been playing but not as hard as my mates.  I had been keeping track of them and giving them a chance to sub out and take a break before me.  Then when I took my turn, I waited to make sure my mate heading back to the field had the rest she needed.

I explored this with my coach, checking my assumption that if I am not getting tired, I should let others go ahead of me.  There was silence, and I fully expected him to say, “yes, of course”, but he answered, “no.”  The reason – if you don’t take time for yourself, your teammates will see you as a workhorse and count on you to stay on so they can take their breaks.  It won’t add up to anything good for you or the team. 

I further digested this with a colleague of mine who revealed he is taking a 2-year break from volunteering.  We started thinking about how we know people we can rely on to pick up what needs to get done – regardless of how much energy they have to do it.  But we rarely find people who balance the need to step in with the need for look after themselves.

In a real game situation my coach will tell me when to sub off.  But in real life, if I wait for someone to tell me, it won’t happen.  And like in soccer, I will lose stamina over time, I will lose my mental agility to see what needs to get done, let alone be able to do it well.  I will cause harm to my team AND make it impossible for fresh legs to apply themselves to the cause.

Subbing off is an expected and necessary part of the game, but there is a conundrum to learn to live with: when you are off the field, you are still in the game.  


What Does Soccer Have to do With Leadership?

I didn’t think I would learn about leadership as I learn to play soccer with the gals in  my new neighbourhood.  I see now that there is a lot of wisdom to tease out of this experience.

Here is the picture I noticed the other day:  my mate is battling the other team for the ball in front of our net.  My first instinct is to stay close by, to help my mate if she needs it, but that actually makes her job more difficult because there are too many players in a tight spot.  Though it seems counter intuitive, if I move away from my own net, I will bring both myself and a player from the other team out of the melee, making my mate’s task easier AND putting myself in a more open place to become a part of the play.

The meaning I made out of this?
  1. My mate will only do her best if I give her the space she needs.
  2. To give her the space she needs, I must trust she can do it.
  3. My worries about protecting our net harm my team’s ability to reach our goal.
  4. Trusting my mates makes me open to the play around me.
Sometimes my mate will succeed in getting the ball, sometimes not.  The same will happen to me.  The same will happen to our team. Ultimately, it is how we show up that has the most meaning – choosing trust is the ultimate success on any field.
(originally published March 25, 2009 at