Yesterday, sitting at my desk working on a match recap, banging on the keyboard like it owed me money, something weird happened.
Our backyard has many mature trees and shrubs that attract all kinds of birds. It’s really cool. And out of the suburban silence sundered only by the clacking of my keys, a bird peeped, a little song that was answered by another bird. They found each other, and the peeping seemed to acquire a different tone.
People say that Nature changes us, makes us better, calmer people in the face of its joy and beauty. The keyboard pounding diminished and oddly, so did the birds’ peeping. The draft was finished and sent but so much was different.
With writing, you never know when a thought is going to come, when an idea will hit, so you write stuff down on whatever is handy — a credit card slip, the back of an envelope, a napkin. On the back of this envelope, a bill already paid, was written: what about the players?
That was waiting for me upon awaking today, and it’s the tone of this day-after musing, bookended by the chirping of birds, albeit different ones in the morning vs the dying day.
What about the players? We know how we feel, understand the weird tightness of the throat, the awful realization of what is about to happen, what did happen. We understand the beautiful, excoriating rage that scorches everything in its oath like a cleansing fire, we understand our pain.
What we can’t understand is how it must feel for the players, for the coaches, how it feels to be on that bus, desperate to get away from the jubilant people who seem to be rejoicing in your failure. The plane ride home, the return to families and friends who will all ask that same question: What happened?
They might not ask it right away. They will hug, or sit and sigh with their player, or maybe let him sit in solitude as he processes. But eventually, it will come: What happened?
It’s the same question that we asked and tried to explain in our various ways, but for them it’s different. They have skin in the game, they are confronted with another season of failure. And you wonder how they answer the question, if they talked among themselves or traveled is silence.
Breaking down tactics and match action is as easy as reacting to what you see, as easy as saying one team played its game and got its tactics right, and the other team didn’t.
The psychology is harder. Choking is a weird thing. You don’t hear athletes or sportsmen talk about it, because the thing that we label choking is different for them. It’s hard to understand what turning success into failure feels like if you haven’t done it. As an athlete, I have, and the feeling, the sense of what happened, is inexplicable.
You try. You go over the event in your head, wrestle to make it make sense, seem like something you can manage, but it doesn’t make sense. For a long time after, the failure feels like a weight. You can’t sleep, you aren’t hungry, you want the next day to hurry up and come, but also hold off a while. It is a feeling that cannot be described to someone who hasn’t failed like that.
Our pain, our sense of loss pales in comparison to theirs. It is our entertainment, our pasttime, our love and joy. For them, it’s life, a span that is like sand slipping through an hourglass. It’s cruel, the life of an athlete. It is defined, for most of them, by more failures than successes. That’s how it goes. That’s why the winning feels so amazing, because it is so rare.
In a situation such as the team experienced yesterday, things broke down. We saw them break down, even as we have no real idea why. Some of us left ourselves an out, let ourselves say, “I knew they would bottle it. Roma.”
Others of us were all in with full belief. This one felt different, was different. The circumstances all pointed to something, anything other than what happened, happening. Again.
We will think it was the same. But maybe for the players it was all different. It had to be, or they wouldn’t have even bothered to show up. Why? The match, key moments, were defined by failure. On a normal day, Alba makes those plays, someone jumps with an attacker who was camped out in that spot, people are paying attention as the ball rolls into the box.
None of that happened on this day. This wasn’t Roma. The team played a good first half, and really should have scored, but didn”t. It wasn’t a capitulation as much as a series of calamitous events. They will learn from those events.
What you can never learn is how to deal with the failure. Civilians think that it gets easier for athletes, the not winning. It doesn’t. Every one hurts like it was the first time, because the psychology of trauma helps us forget, makes each new wound feel fresh so that we can function without an accumulated athletic lifetime of pain and failure.
Remember Messi’s face after that fourth goal if you don’t understand how fiercely they wanted to succeed, to keep promises to themselves, to the people who support them.
We hurt, but try just for an instant to consider just a smidgen of what the players must be feeling. Life goes on, Nobody died. These things seem athletic cliches, but they’re real.
At the next home match, it is my fondest hope that the team is greeted with a massive ovation of appreciation. They fought, they came close, they failed. But even in the cruel, comprehensive nature of that failure, the pain that makes it easy to forget how much delight they have brought us, we should try to remember those good feelings.
Athletes don’r want to fail, don’t set out to fail. They fail because they, like us, are human. And maybe they, like me, found some solace in nature, in the sound of a living thing just going about its joyful little life — as should we, and as will they.