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It was my first chess tournament. I was extremely nervous, especially because my parents had come to watch – both of them. Typically my dad didn’t watch my competitions as they made him nervous, which in turn made me more nervous. That was the case that day.

I remember the first pairing. The opening was the Four Knight’s Defense, which at the highest levels tends to lead to draws. Only we were scholastic players, meaning it was a perfectly reasonable opening. We were even through the opening and the middlegame. Then in the endgame I snaked a couple of pawns through and queened them. Game 1 was a win. My nerves quelled some then. Why had I succeeded in the endgame? The reason is because I played constantly against a couple of gentlemen who were significantly better than me in that phase of the game. I had taken a lot of lumps playing, and losing, to them.

Game 2 I had the White pieces. There is an opening that is considered “unsound” at the highest levels and luminaries like Bobby Fischer proclaimed they had developed counters that refuted it (they haven’t). That opening is the King’s Gambit and there are still grandmasters who play it and play it well, so it’s anything but refuted, though there are stronger openings for White. Because of its reputation, it wasn’t played by anyone at that tournament, the SC state scholastic tournament, except one player who liked to attack, attack, attack. That was me. I opened with it in my second game and my opponent crumbled quickly. Within the first twenty moves, my opponent’s queenside pieces were sitting off the board, having been captured in a massive onslaught my opponent didn’t know how to stop. The King was hunkered down behind his defenses but would fall a few moves later. I had earned another win.

Up until that point, I had lost every single game of the King’s Gambit I had ever played. I had played it well over a couple of hundred times and my chess backside was black and blue with the beatings I had endured playing my pet opening.

Some of those games I had lost badly. Others reached the endgame where decisions I had made in the middlegame came back to haunt me. But each of those previous games was against an opponent who was significantly better than me. This opponent had also played the King’s Gambit for years before switching over to other openings. Every time I forayed out the first few moves, I was going against someone who I knew was going to have a significant advantage over me in this particular opening. However, I wanted to learn it. So I challenged myself by playing the King’s Opening against this particular gentleman. I learned just about every way you could lose playing the King’s Gambit. When I got to the state chess tournament and uncorked it, I was ready to win with it.

The secret to my success that tournament was I had challenged myself greatly leading up to it. I had intentionally played the toughest opponents that I knew, especially in openings I wanted to learn that I knew that they understood and had played. In the end I made it to the final round with a perfect record, eventually losing that final game to the state champion.

Challenging myself was the key to my success. I have found this to be true whether we’re talking about games, about sports, about work, or about life. I rarely improve when facing situations that don’t require my best. This is true of most people. If you find yourself in a rut or you don’t think you’re improving fast enough, ask yourself, “Am I being challenged?” If you aren’t, that might be the reason you aren’t growing.

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This weekend my oldest got in as goalkeeper for the last quarter of the game. His league plays quarters because it helps with substitutions to ensure everyone plays half the game and it also forces kids to stop and get water (a good thing in South Carolina). So the last 15 minutes were his. He did well. Against one of the best teams in the league, he held a shutout, the first of the goalkeepers from his team to do so. He made some good decisions. He covered the ground well, he fell on the ball properly, and he deflected two low shots around the posts to save goals. So in those fifteen minutes the opposing side recorded three shots on goal (and about five other shots) and he recorded three saves. Not a bad outing. But his weakness was in snaring the ball in his hands. The deflections were great dives. He got the job done. But if his hands were better, he wouldn’t have given up the corners. Also, the one shot that came in off the ground he knocked down and fell on, but I still want to see him snag it in the air. There’s something intimidating about a goalkeeper who nonchalantly picks off everything in the air like an all-pro wide receiver. You get those kinds of hands and that can intimidate the opposing team. They start to doubt their ability to get it by you. And so that’s the goal… to get his fundamentals perfect and his hands soft as butter.

With that in mind, tonight we went out and did just one drill. We stood a few paces apart and I threw the ball for him to catch it. He squared his feet, set his hands, and received the ball. Different heights, different speeds, different spins, center, right, and left, using both hands and different throwing mechanisms (over the top, 3/4, and sidearm – thank you baseball) to alter the looks. We spent about 30-40 minutes going at it and overall he did a great job. By the end of the time he was correcting some of the mistakes he was making initially. His hands were definitely becoming softer. And he was gaining more confidence in his hands, which was great to see.

I told him at the beginning of the season that I felt he was about a season and a half of hard work from being caught up after so many years away from the game. I think as far as goalkeeping is concerned, that is accurate. I think he might be a little further behind as a field player, but we’ll keep working at it. He’s trying hard, looking to correct his mistakes, and making solid contributions on the pitch. I’m a very proud of his progress and his attitude.

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Due to weather, sinuses, commitments, etc., it’s been a week since I’ve been able to get a decent work out in. However, with Active August coming to a close, I’m trying to finish strong.

I spent an hour on the pitch tonight spending a lot of time working on kicking power and accuracy. I think my drop kick is almost back, I just need a bit more consistency. My penalty shot with my left foot is good, as I was able to place it to the right, left, and straight up the middle by running straight on. My right foot… not so much. Not sure why, as I’m primarily right footed.

Drills:

  • Drop kicks.
  • Penalty shots (low corners with pace).
  • Penalty shots (driven down the middle).
  • Goal kicks.
  • Lobs from outside the goalie box.
  • Corner kicks.

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Today me and the oldest went out to the pitch for about 30 minutes. Didn’t get any work in yesterday due to church and the day before I went to bed early because I was feeling under the weather. So I really wanted to get a good workout in today even though I am still fighting my sinuses.

One of the things I had noticed about my striking the ball was that I wasn’t being sure about my plant foot. The boots (cleats) I have cut into the inner part of my heel whenever I go to plant. I have a feeling this is more due to bad mechanics than anything else. But it meant I wasn’t fully trusting my plant and therefore I was always coming in high. I picked up some heel cushioners the other day and slid them in. I was able to plant surely without feeling that cutting into my heel and my strikes became truer tonight. I still shanked a few, but that was because of a poor kick, not because of doubting my plant foot.

I did two drills today, both deserve a little explanation for those who are interested, so I’ll give more than a bulleted list this time. The first drill was focused on my punting as a goalkeeper. I’ve modified the drill so as to start from wherever the ball stops to dribble onto goal at pace with a shot at the end. The better my punts, the less distance I need to cover at a sprint pace. It’s a bit of reinforcement if I make a bad kick. I only partially shanked two out of about eight or nine kicks and all went past midfield. So thankfully none of my runs were long. Also, because of my correction on the plant foot, I saw a good deal of success with the shots on the run.

The second drill was with my oldest. Throughout this summer he was getting beat by speedier players when he was defending. They were running straight on and as he came running out to close on the ball they would cut to one side and beat him to the ball. Without help defenders there are three ways to try and  combat this. One is to be faster and to close the gap at an unexpected pace. He’s a stocky boy. He’s built for wrestling and judo and grappling but he loves soccer. So he’ll never be a speed demon on the pitch. Me? When I was in prime soccer shape I was 5’7″ and under 130 lbs. And all of that was in my legs. Plus I ran track (400m and 4x400m relay and cross-country). So I always closed the gap quick. The second technique is to play off and try to get in front of the ball right before a shot on goal. The problem is against really good players, this is completely ineffective. They only need a half-step of clearance to get a good shot off. Give a good shooter space and he or she will burn your goalkeeper more often than not. For instance, see the equalizing goal of Mexico vs. United States from August 12 (about 26 seconds in). The third is to run with really good balance that allows you to cut quickly. When the opposing player tries to push the ball to one side you cut immediately and beat the opponent to the ball. This requires really good balance as you’re trying to close the distance. And this last one he has to learn. He’s only going to get it through experience.

So we worked on that with my running on at pace and pushing the ball by him. He was able take one away when I slowed up to catch my breath and tried to do a Cruyff turn and he anticipated it. Another time he was able to get his balance right and make the cut. While he didn’t beat me to the ball, he forced me to rush my shot and take it at a bad angle. So there was some success that will hopefully keep him motivated to keep trying.

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Today I took the stairs more at work. Part of the reason is we had one of the elevators acting up. Nothing like riding up to your floor, stepping off, and realizing the floor of the elevator is almost a foot higher than the surface of the floor. Aside from that, I did take a 15 minute break at work this afternoon and walked around the block of the building during that time. Part of it was to wake up, the other part of it was to be more active.

This evening saw me and the family back on the pitch. Worked with both boys again. This time we were out there almost a full hour, so overall got a decent workout in, more strength and flexibility work than cardio. Drills:

  • Warm up / cool down by dribbling at walking pace around the whole complex.
  • Penalty shots.
  • Shots from outside the box.
  • Shagging punts from my oldest son.

Nothing too hard, but I felt the work in my shins from all the shooting. I was using both legs, not favoring each, so they got a pretty equal workout.

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After a couple of days off tending to Princess, I got back to Active August today. There were too shifts, both soccer related. The first shift was passing the ball against the wall again, this time for about 12 minutes. I was doing almost exclusively long passes, until the very end where I started to doing speed work up close against the wall. Definitely felt it in my hips and especially my feet.

When we got home from church we headed up to the pitch. A little light dribbling and then one time down the field with distance kicks to warm up. Afterwards I took shots (soft ones, though) on my 10 year-old to give him a bit of goalkeeper practice. This was actually an object lesson because though he had some goalkeeper training previously, he never got in goal during the summer league. However, he spent a lot of time telling his goalkeepers how to do their job. I reminded him of this and told him, “You’re going to go out there and get in goal until you can do what you talked. Then we’re done.” This is a bad habit of his, one of the few he has, but it’s not one I want to get worse.

Afterwards I did passes to my older son (11) which he fielded as a goalkeeper. These were on the ground. I didn’t want him to do too much since he’s had a bit of a cough, but I wanted him to get touches in since he is determined to be a goalkeeper and is willing to finally work for it. We did about 10 good ones and then I had him working on his punts. That meant I was shagging his punts. And that involved a bit of running on my part. But overall I was pleased. Most of his punts were perfect form. He just needs to increase his power. I asked him a couple of times to increase and he did. When I asked him to do a bit more he shanked him to his left (kicking with his right foot), so I asked him to dial it back. The power will come in time. Overall, a good workout considering he’s been under the weather. And all told, between the two boys, I was on the pitch for over 30 minutes, so about 45 minutes of soccer today. A good general workout.

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A good, hard 45 minute workout on the pitch today. A lot of cardio and I was feeling it towards the end.

  • Warm up / cool down by walking & dribbling around the complex.
  • Full field dribble at pace with shot on goal (spent most of my time doing this).
  • Distance kicks down the full field with shot on goal.
  • Free kicks from outside the box.
  • Sprints from the side of the box with shots on goal.

My sinuses are still bothering me a lot, especially the drainage, but I’m just going to have to work through them, like I often did in the USAF. Them’s the breaks.

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