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Resiliency is the Palpable Ingredient in USA Soccer's Success: Should We Pay Attention?

by Bob Brill

June 26, 2010
Originally published in The Morning Call

It was a watershed moment for soccer in the United States, the climax of a match that may have shattered the widely held American perception of soccer as inferior due to its lack of scoring. It was a beautiful finish born out of desperation mixed with perseverance; the achieving culmination of success despite despair and exasperating setbacks beyond their control. The story of the USA Soccer team is something special. Resiliency is the hallmark attribute and gift they offer which we should accept into our hearts and habits. Any genuine sports enthusiast and competitor could revel in dissecting the USA soccer team’s 2010 World Cup journey thus far. Invariably, a proper discussion would turn to the team’s collective rejoinder to the two highly controversial disallowed goals. The first, against Slovenia, would have paved a sure path to the next round; but instead increased the pressure and standard needed against Algeria to continue in the tournament. The second would have allowed a less risky and more comfortable strategy to complete the third pivotal match; rather than the gun-slinging, frantic push-forward approach necessitated.

Caught up in the emotional intensity of the moment, I was filled with pride when Landon Donovan shared with the world his thoughts about the team’s reactions to those setbacks during his post-victory interview. I find his expressed sentiments staying with me, but cloaked in a growing uncertainty about their truth. He offered: “We embody what Americans are about. We can moan about it, or we can get on with it. We kept going.” What he means is: the team chose to be resilient. Beyond capturing the essence of their dramatic victory; his words prompt a reflexive introspection in referencing his fellow Americans at such a difficult and complicated time in our history.

Landon Donovan has clearly emerged as a special type of team leader, exemplifying a type of authentic leadership that nurtures resiliency across players and situations. As a tribute to the glory he has brought to the country and to increase the benefits we can gain by their triumph, we should feel compelled to hold his asserted generalization up to our collective conscience and ask ourselves (as individuals, teams, neighborhoods, and organizations), is the US Soccer team really embodying what I am / we are about? Are we indeed a culture that chooses problem solving and action over moaning and complaining? Are we able to stay on course toward our challenging moral goals despite hardships or setbacks? I hope so, but am not convinced. I see glimpses of his characterization, but am concerned that he is referencing an eroding part of our cultural foundation.

It is clear from the research on coping that some level of complaining has its limited and qualified place in our mental well-being. Preferably, it is relegated to brief, periodic venting or channeled into evidence-based constructive criticism. Tragically, far too many of us have lost sight of these important boundaries, carelessly allocating energy and time into the ugly art of whining, our unfortunate impulsive habit of choice. To act resiliently is to inject the antibiotics of acceptance and heightened conviction to temper the fevers of injustice and incompetency; while energizing one’s determination toward continued pursuit of a unified and righteous goal. For an illustration, please see the last two World Cup Soccer games. Whining is far too easy, and resiliency is extremely difficult. That is part of our current human condition and dilemma. Helicopter parents, politicians who embrace spin as their crutch, workers flabbergasted that they are expected to do their job, and individuals addicted to doing what is easy rather than what is right are all unacceptable examples of a culture of whining counteracting our traditional culture of resiliency.

The nobility of the USA soccer team’s tenacity can be yoked with the Detroit Tiger pitcher, Armando Galaragga’s graceful and classy reaction of resolve in light of unjustly losing his perfect game. The different responses by the culpable aside, we are incredibly fortunate to be privy to both acts of amazing character in such close proximity. Do we simply admire them or should we strive to more consistently emulate them as well?

Bob Brill is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Moravian College and defenseman for the Bethlehem-based Jeff’s Gold Over-40 Soccer team within the Lehigh Valley Old Timers Soccer League.