Some of you will have noticed that there’s been some football going on lately. In the delayed Euro 2020, two of the home nations of the United Kingdom were represented: Scotland qualified for the first time this century, and England were following their fabled narrative of healing their years of hurt. Scotland went out to Croatia; England were beaten on penalties in the final. That is what happened; those are the bare, unarguable facts.
But it’s never as simple as that. Those games, those twenty-two athletes stroking a ball around a green park, carry a weight of meaning: they are more than sporting competitions; they are the stories that people give them.
Here’s one bald story, for those who have no interest in the beautiful game: it’s just a game. The people who live in that story don’t get the hullabaloo and the shouting and the passion; they simply carry on with their lives until the carnival has passed on.
At the other end of the spectrum, there is the belief that football is not football; it is life itself. The people in that story find an emotion and a meaning which goes way beyond sport. It’s hopes and dreams and everything that matters.
And at various places in the middle, there are a hundred other stories. Some people love the fans; some people deride them. Some want to blame the manager, the tactics, the decisions. Some are quick to get furious with the lion that did not roar, the striker that did not strike, the midfield that collapsed.
For some, defeat is a blow on an old bruise; they feel it personally, as if it has somehow happened to them.
Others dig hard for all the positives, even in the crashing moment of disappointment. They see the hope for the future, the young player who stepped up, the beautiful cross, the impossible save. They’ll remember the moments of greatness, even if the result wasn’t what they wanted.
Some will remember the feeling of unity they got, in a sometimes atomised world: the nights when they gathered together, literally or virtually, to cheer their side on. For ninety precious minutes, they were part of something bigger than themselves.
Some will see not the loss, but the trying; they will cherish the attempt, even if the mountain peak was not reached. They will see the courage and skill; they will appreciate the endless work that went on behind the scenes; they’ll mark the sheer showing up, to do something hard and testing. (And all sport at this level is ridiculously hard.)
How they feel afterwards will depend, to a large degree, on whether they are the critic, or the man in the arena. This comes from a great speech given by Theodore Roosevelt, in Paris, in 1910. It’s as true today as it was then.
‘It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.’
That’s what we think of at HorseBack, especially when we work with our veterans, whose faces have indeed been marred by dust and sweat and blood. We think of the ones who are in the arena, who dare greatly.
The arena does not have to be a literal thing: it can be the arena of your own mind. Battles are not always fought out in the open. They can be the private, internal fights: fights against despair and hopelessness and pain. The stories that all of us humans tell ourselves about those can make a world of difference, just as these recent football stories do. How you feel about something is often how you think about it, which story you choose to tell. So we try, here, in the work we do, to tell ourselves the stories that lift us up and find the silver lining and walk towards the light. And we try to share those stories with all the people who walk through our gates. That way, we can all enter the arena together, with the sense of what is possible rather than what is not.