Running into Space



Along with a few hundred million others, I have been glued to the World Cup as much as is possible for someone who does not have cable TV and is trying to write two large research papers. Perhaps you think fútbol is boring, wrought with poor Italian acting, archaic officiating practices, and little “real” action. To me the sport has and always be a revelation, a deeply profound set of movements that has been both a blessing and a curse to my life. I invested many years in the sport and my parents invested many dollars sending me twice to play on the “continent”. I grew away from the sport partly because it brought the worst out in me. It was an illusion, a dream. The physical and tactical abilities were there for me to make more of it, but it was a psychological and emotional enigma that I just couldn’t crack. I was much too immature to fully embrace the blessings of the “beautiful game”.

Spurred on by this influx of fútbol into my consciousness, I laced up my hole-ridden boots yesterday and had a go of it on the pitch. It was a pick-up game with some young buck high school players and an old friend, someone I had literally played hundreds of games with. The very first play I jogged wide and then made a long diagonal run across the back line of the defense into an open area away from the direction the ball was currently moving. Even before I started this 25 yard dash “into space”, my old friend knew that he needed to quickly gather the ball in preparation for a long through-ball, knew where he would put the ball, and most likely knew how it would end: a botched finishing touch that I could never quite cultivate in my playing days. Sure enough, what ensued was a glorious run into space, a perfect on-side service, and a botched finishing shot. This pattern was repeated no less than 7 times in an hour of playing (and I think I actually scored a couple of times).

Over the start of this summer, I’ve had time to think more deeply about why in the heck I’m in higher education and why or why not work in educational psychology and technology is meaningful to me. Like soccer, the physical and tactical abilities are there for me to make more of this educational opportunity, but it also conjures a psychological and emotional enigma which can be crushing at times. Is what I’m pointing my life at going to help real people? Are we really “creating” anything new, crafting new thoughts that will enhance the education of real people? Do I have anything to contribute? Do I really care about this work?

I’m glad the answers aren’t easy. Yesterday, the Beautiful Game reminded me to keep looking for figurative space to run into. In soccer you create opportunities by running into open areas on the field where the defense is not suspecting you to be. It is as simple and complex as that. It is the hardest thing to teach young players because it is often counterintuitive to those who think that the only way to get involved is to lead the attack or predictably run straight to where the action is. When done right, running into space is a powerful expression of creative thinking and forethought, persistence in the face of ambiguity, and trust. It starts with inspiration drawn from a profoundly personal, prescient, and creative rendering of the field — a view that others either can’t see, are unwilling to pursue, and/or not in position to pursue. Man, do I want that type of inspiration and creativity in my off-field work! I want to chart a creative run into a space that only I can get to, toward that which makes sense with regard to who and where I am. On the soccer field, this is much more of an art than a science. I can’t tell you how or sometimes why to make the runs, but I know them when I see them and can feel them coming. I can only hope this intuition carries into my educational work.

Running into space also involves persistence in ambiguity because for all one knows, they could be running aimlessly away from the play while burning precious energy. In soccer, such runs may, at best, receive a pass 10-20% of the time. What’s more, often the best runs open up better passes or opportunities for others. There is much ambiguity in doctoral education, but you can’t make the run into space if you start standing around after a few unsuccessful sprints. We have to be willing to burn precious energy pursuing open space without the guarantee of return. We have to keep our head up when our “run” opens up opportunities for others. Just like in soccer, it feels counterintuitive to run this way, but I really think this is where the magic happens. I know it is how fútbol becomes beautiful.

Finally, it takes trust. I lacked it so many times in my soccer career. I stopped making runs because I distrusted (often with good reason) my teammates’ ability and/or desire to reward such runs. I became a one-dimensional player taking on too much burden and ultimately crumbling under the weight. In education, we must have partners we deeply trust or our runs into space with never benefit the “attack”. This is perhaps where I could grow the most. I often feel like I’m carrying too much weight and my individualistic tendencies really hold my work back. I need to rely on people who know me well enough to recognize and anticipate my run and expand the attack to where only I am heading.

Do you have a story of a time you “ran into space”? Do you think you’re running into space right now? I’d love to hear your stories.

[Photo credit:dmswart]

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