I've been taking advantage of my newfound freedom by going to the park in the early afternoon, rather than at dusk like I would be forced to do while working. I bring a ball and some cones to run drills, and most of the time I have the fields entirely to myself. I'm still amazed that these third spaces live second lives most of the time when everyone is at school/work, considering how busy they can get in the evenings. It feels sort of like the Toy Story of third spaces: what do all these parks and stores get up to from 9 to 5 during the workweek when nobody's there?
To be fair, I do see a smattering of people at the park, mostly retirees and parents of very small children. They look at me quizzically, and I can see the gears in their head trying to work out how old I am and why I'm at the park running drills by myself at 3 PM on a Tuesday. I don't mind. I find it interesting thinking about how we are all in such different points in life. The retirees probably come to the park everyday, and they probably don't share the thrilling novelty I feel at going to a park during working hours. The other day a dad approached me asking me if I'd help keep an eye out for his kid. I shuddered, not envying his task. How do you even find a small gremlin in a park this vast? (Fortunately, they were reunited not long after.)
I go through a simple routine to hone my skills. I warm up, juggling the ball for a few minutes, before weaving through & around cones. Each drill has the same variations: right foot, left foot, both feet. Slowly at first, then picking up speed gradually as I smoothe out snags. I wrap up with finishing and shooting—target practice in realistic game scenarios. Running through these drills in an empty field leaves me breathless. I love this kind of therapy, feeling the wind in my ears, soaking up the midday sun, hearing the ping of the ball ricochet off the crossbar, and (if I'm lucky) watching my shots ripple the back of the net.
I've been thinking about the difference between practicing (by running drills in the park) and playing actual games. I'd certainly get better by just playing more games, but when I do that I naturally play to my strengths and neglect my weaknesses (because who wants to mess up in a game?). Practice is far less fun, because I can't shy away from the discomfort and tedium of doing things I'm not good at over and over again. Playing piano growing up I'd often say I liked performing but not practicing, which always made me wonder: do you need to enjoy the practice to be able to genuinely say you love a certain pastime?
I played a pickup game with some high schoolers over the weekend, and to put it mildly, they were not the best I'd ever seen. Some of them simply never passed the ball. A younger me might have gotten frustrated at this apparent selfishness, but I've learned through the years that people who don't pass often can't in the heat of the game. When you don't dribble well, keeping the ball occupies all of your attention, and it's nearly impossible to pick your head up to find someone to pass to without losing possession. There's even been studies which have shown professional footballers use less cerebral function to execute common footballing tasks compared to amateurs. Besides, I know what it feels like to be in their shoes: sometimes I get called out for not passing too, and almost always I either cannot see said teammate from where I am or, if I have spotted them, cannot get the ball to them. And it can be frustrating trying to explain those reasons to a heated teammate! After all, we judge ourselves by our intentions but others by their actions.