Survival of the Fittest: Bend It Like Baker
How much practice makes perfect?
Ever wonder why you didn't compose your first symphony at age 8? Or know from the same age that you were going to grow up to be an international soccer star and marry a model/singer whose nickname is synonymous with high-end fashion and taste? According to the recently published "Bounce" by Matthew Syed, what separates the rest of us from youthful prodigies like Mozart and David Beckham is not genes, genius, or the fact that people didn't have names like "Trend" or "Haute Cuisine" where we were growing up, but 10,000 hours of practice. This statistic explains some lags in my own development, since it is around 9,962 more hours than I put in with either the violin or soccer.
"Dad, what sports were you good at as a kid?" one of my children asked me the other day after I'd helplessly watched a soccer ball he'd just kicked sail past me on our front lawn. My mind drew an awkward blank as I stooped down to retrieve the ball from a neighbor's bushes.
"I mostly played soccer," I finally said as I tried to kick the ball back to him in such a way as to look both effortless and like I'd had the full 10, 000 hours of practice.
Now we both watched helplessly as the ball, seemingly possessed of a mind of its own, flew up onto the low-hanging roof of another neighbor's porch, then rolled off it, narrowly missing the said neighbor's car, to end up (eventually) in the middle of the street.
"So soccer was like your best sport?" Clearly, he hoped not.
"Hey, I was bending it. You know, like Beckham. You could do that too if you practiced more."
I thought he looked discouraged, as if no amount of practice would enable him to pull off a trick shot like that in one of his own games at Floods Hill or the Meadowlands. So, following the time-honored parental principle of do-as-I-say-not-as-I-used-to-avoid-doing-myself, I launched into my spiel about how while he and his brother spent Saturday mornings watching reruns of "Tom and Jerry," David Beckham would have been outside repeating the same shot over and over until he got it right. After that, young Beckham would have gone to his room and promptly started work on his symphony.
"Thing is, Dad, when we play, we're trying to score goals, not kick the ball off the field and into a tree."
"Never mind goals. When done properly," I said, remembering one incident in particular, "that shot can bring the whole game to a stop."
This incident took place in 1974, a year before the Brazilian three-time World-Cup champion, Pele, joined the New York Cosmos and began to stir up American interest in soccer. Still, at the small Episcopal school I attended, we weren't waiting around for him. Our P.E. teacher had taken the job working with us 11-year-olds to supplement his income as a star player for the newly formed Washington Diplomats. (Imagine having to do that in England or Brazil!) Under his guidance the balanced sports program at St. Patricks Day School consisted of uninterrupted, World-Cup-inspired soccer followed by more of the same.
Mr. Kurt, as we called him, was in his twenties but really just a big kid filled with enthusiasm for the game. The only problem with this enthusiasm was that it was not accompanied by much awareness of his strength in relation to our own. Every now and then, to show us how it was done, he'd let loose with what must have been a 50 mph kick, scattering children and small woodland creatures for miles around.
"Got past every single one of you!" he'd announce as we emerged from our crouch positions.
Under these circumstances, of course, the last thing you wanted to be was goalie. If you played fullback, as I did, you could always say you had flung yourself out of the path of the oncoming ball to cover one of the opposing players, preferably the one standing as far away from the goal as possible. The only possible hitch was during a direct free kick, the shot for which Beckham would later become known. Here fullbacks would be drafted to make up the "human shield" standing between the kicker and the goalie.
Mr. Kurt left these kicks to one of us until the day the temptation to show us how it was done became irresistible. I remember us all lining up in front of the goal as if before a firing squad.
"Watch the spin!" he instructed us.
"If he hits you in the wrong place," the kid standing next to me said, "you'll never have children."
This was a sobering thought for us even at that age. Hands moved into protective positions.
Now Mr. Kurt was, I don't think, consciously trying to hit anyone. He probably figured it would be a cinch to place enough spin on the ball that it curved around a wall made up of trembling 11-year-olds and landed in the goal. But I wouldn't rule out the possibility that at some level he was venting some frustration too. After putting in his own thousands of hours learning to do what he loved, he had to spend several afternoons a week with us in order to make ends meet. It was just his bad luck to have been born an American soccer star rather than one from a right-thinking country where fans cared enough about the game to lose control and clobber one another during the exciting parts.
At any rate, as he cocked his foot and pivoted into the ball, most of us opted not to watch but rather closed our eyes, expecting soon to find ourselves sprawled out on the ground and having some bad news for our future spouses. Instead, there was a popping sound, and, when the daylight returned, we found Mr. Kurt staring off at something to his far left.
His foot must have slipped because the ball had made an unexpected detour, crossing the school parking lot, though, like my own shot, missing the cars. Instead, it had smashed the window of the French classroom where we were due in half an hour.
"Mon dieu!" we heard Madame Aubert scream. This was followed by an outpouring of Gallic invective.
"OK, which one of you wants to go get that ball?" joked Mr. Kurt, trying to keep up his jaunty sportsman's demeanor in the face of the shouting from the window and our stunned silence.
No one moved, and even he looked a little amazed at just how much the ball had curved.
"What's she saying?" he asked, but we shook our heads. We were only up to unit 8 in "Le Cours Francais."
As he trotted off in his blue track suit to find out, he told us to keep practicing and I would imagine he was offering himself the same advice.
After 10,000, what's a few hours more?
David Baker is a South Orange resident and an English professor at Rutgers-Newark. This piece is part of a series on midlife fitness.