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Commentary Jun 10, 2014

World Cup Mania: Seeing starts believing

WendyLeBolt-HeaderThe day after watching the U.S. Women’s National Team play on television, I run faster. Really. I pull on my running shorts, lace up my sneakers and sprint through the neighborhood.

I’m smoother, lighter and quicker on my feet. I dart from mailbox to mailbox, imagining I’m making a through run or springing loose on a counterattack; it feels effortless. Sure enough, a check of the stopwatch when I get home confirms that the day’s run is completed in record time. A record for me, anyway.

How does this happen? Physically, I can’t explain it. I’m no stronger than the day before. My heart has seen no significant improvement in its capacity. My equipment is the same. The route, unchanged. I may even have had a little less sleep last night, thanks to the late night game. But numbers don’t lie. I am faster because I believe I am. I see myself running faster and my body responds. I am inspired to look like those women on TV. Somehow it transfers.

[ +READ: LeBolt – Youth teams getting it right in pregame warm-ups, but still work to be done]

This is one of the mysteries of the psychology of sport: “seeing themselves” better makes them better. In America we tend to focus on the physical preparation because it’s quantifiable. I can measure your vertical leap, beep test, speed in the 220 and time for the mile. I can evaluate your quad and hamstring strength, your flexibility, your quickness through the cone course. But what’s going on in those minds is anyone’s guess. What if they could imagine themselves playing world-class soccer?

We’re coming up on three weeks of the best way to do that: watching the planet compete in the World Cup. Yes, it’s me, the fitness nut who thinks couches should be banned and screens numb our brains, saying go ahead and schedule your viewing time. Let ‘em watch the TV.

[ +READ: Nigeria match may reveal effectiveness of USMNT fitness regimen ]

We don’t watch soccer in this country, or more accurately: The soccer we watch is our kids’ play, and the soccer they watch is the kids playing the game before theirs. Rarely do kids and parents watch together. When we do, we have a national problem: we find it very difficult to resist “explaining” what we see so our kids “learn” what they should.

Televised sports are not meant to be educational programming; they’re entertainment, the best of which offers a healthy dose of inspiration and awe.

USA Womens U-20 World Cup Winners

We can trust kids to learn. In fact they are experts at imitation and interactive learning. They watch and process and, given the freedom to explore, they try stuff out. This is not always a good thing, given what’s on T.V. these days, but World Cup soccer should be on the approved list.

Why not watch it with them and listen for their observations? Help make it an interactive experience.  If you must “teach,” ask questions. Resist the urge to debate or correct. Here are some ideas:

  • Where would you play if you were on this team?
  • Who’s your favorite player?
  • Which uniforms do you like best? Which country do they represent?
  • Which team plays most like your team? Why?
  • How are they using their body? Speed? Brains? Teammates?
  • Can you tell which country that is by the way they play?
  • What’s their style?
  • What is the US style?
  • Do they play fair? Are they good sports?
  • What do you think of the officiating?
  • Do you think you could play like that?

Oh, and be sure you have a soccer ball handy, because they’re likely to want to try a few things out during commercials or after the game. That’s the way with stuff we watch; we’re affected by it in ways we may not think about and find hard to quantify but they change us – with or without our permission.

Jozy AltidoreAnd really, the World Cup has everything we could ask from television viewing: drama, suspense, storyline, celebrity, entertainment, inspiration and reality TV.  Plus, it’s the world on display — each country expressing its identity in sport – not in a propaganda kind of way like we see from Olympic hosts every four years, but in a ‘let-us-show-you-what-we’re-made-of’ kind of way. The same way it plays out on our youth fields across the country.

So what’s the American identity?

“A visceral hatred of being dictated to,” according to USMNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann (Matthew Futterman quotes Klinsmann in an excellent article in the Wall Street Journal). “The American nature is to take the game to our opponents. We don’t want to just react to them.”

That about nails it. Amazing that it takes a German national to show us ourselves. We’ll see if he can help us put it into play. He’s calling in all his chips, including a few from abroad — soccer standouts who grew up playing elsewhere but have at least one American parent making them eligible for the U.S. team. I understand he’s rostered five from Germany and one from Iceland, who was born here when his parents were in the States taking advantage of our educational opportunities. Smart move on our part.

[ +READ: Column: Why team USA won’t win a single World Cup game in Brazil ]

So, is America ready to win a World Cup? Pull up your couch, pop your popcorn and gather your family. It’s time for the big show. Afterwards, hit the roads. See if you don’t run faster. And don’t be surprised if your kid is trying out a new move in the backyard that he plans to unwrap in his next match.

“Hey that looks like a Messi move,” I told one of my kids.

“He got it from me,” he said, without breaking stride. Kids have a great imagination.

That’s what wins World Cups.

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