While working with my ACT and SAT students I often find myself in the role of test “coach” as much as instructor, and as such I sometimes stray into the territory of sports metaphors. My students perfect questions and techniques at a comfortable pace during our lessons so that they can perform quickly on “game day”; they work on their stamina and pacing so that they don’t run out of steam in the “fourth quarter” (literally in the case of the science section), and they approach proctored practice tests like “scrimmages”—more than a practice but not yet a full game. These metaphors often work for students because sports and education are more deeply intertwined than we think. In addition to providing a framework for how to learn new techniques or perform in challenging situations, in my own life, sports have actually served as a platform for academic development.
Soccer has served as a springboard for my intellectual curiosity in a couple ways. First, as a student of history, soccer has provided an interesting window into periods of history that are sometimes glossed over. For example, while any soccer fan knows that the the rivalry between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona runs deep, few realize that this rivalry was born out of the Spanish Civil War, when Real Madrid became associated with royalists and fascists and FC Barcelona became a symbol of liberal resistance and Catalan identity. Soccer games became the only place where it was feasible to fly a Catalonian flag under Franco’s censorship. More than once I’ve been prompted to learn about a new period of history or culture because of soccer. Every aspect of the game is imbued with history, from the fact that soccer seasons are called “campaigns” in England—a relic of its Victorian past’s focus on war and masculinity—to the fact that Argentina’s biggest soccer team is called River Plate—a mistranslation of rio de la plata by English sailors.
Sports have also helped me develop my language skills. Traveling, connecting with locals and practicing a new language can be challenging, but engaging in a sport can help ease you into a new culture. Whether playing or watching, soccer has provided me a great backdrop to meet new people and practice new languages. Plus, it helps that people care less about you messing up conjugations when you are providing a key pass or celebrating your team’s goal!
Students sometimes complain that subjects or tests are boring, but to me this just means they haven’t found an academic springboard yet. Sometimes academic inspiration comes from strange places, as I’ve experienced outside the class room and on the soccer pitch.