I recently caught an episode of the Slate podcast, Upon Further Review, while out on a run. The program, and book by the same name, look at pivotal moments in sports history and ask, What if it didn’t happen that way? (Example: What if Richard Nixon had been good at football?)
The episode I heard considered the 1999 World Cup, in which the U.S. Women’s team beat China in a penalty shootout. The program used the “what if” format to highlight the fact that, despite the World Cup victory, women’s sports still struggle to achieve the same prestige, audience, and financial support as men’s sports.
A particular detail in the story stood out to me. Brandi Chastain was the last of the US players to attempt a penalty kick, and when she prepared to walk onto the field, coach Tony DiCicco gave her a last-minute instruction: Take the kick with your left foot, not your right.
She did, and the U.S. won the game. You probably remember Chastain’s iconic celebration photo! (I covet those arms and abs... but I digress)
Imagine if it had gone the other way. There was a lot riding on that kick, regardless of which foot she used, but think about what it must have been like for Chastain and her coach: she had never taken a penalty kick with her left foot in a professional game. Ever.
Chastain explained the rationale for switching feet: the Chinese team was surely well-schooled in Chastain’s moves, and would have be able to anticipate where the ball might go. Changing feet made that kick less predictable. But with my improv lenses on, I also wonder whether switching things up was a way of getting Chastain out of her head, allowing her to be a little looser, less mechanical, more grounded, as she executed that historic kick.
As I am often fond of saying, I practice and write about improv because it doesn’t come naturally to me—I like my backup plans to have backup plans. And I’m a good planner. I could probably live the rest of my life making good solid plans and carrying them out. It would probably be a fruitful life. But… it also sounds a little boring, even to me.
I’ve been wondering what it would mean for me to “kick with my left foot”—to intentionally introduce some unpredictability into my life. To do the opposite of what I’m conditioned for and comfortable with, just to see what happens. To surprise myself. What would it mean for you or your organization to do the same? What would we learn? What do we have to lose? And best of all, what do we stand to gain?
I went looking for more information about this World Cup story, and unsurprisingly, Chastain had practiced kicking with her left foot a lot. A lot. Yes, she’d never deployed that move in a game, but she’d practiced and prepared and conditioned. And when the moment came—the decisive moment—she was ready.
And that’s how life works, isn’t it? We do what's ours to do, day by day. We pursue our “craft,” whatever that might be; we explore what it means to be our authentic selves; we learn, we engage in rituals and traditions, we practice—so that at moments when we are most needed in our communities and families, we are ready to give our best effort for the sake of tikkun olam, the healing of the world. As Danusha Veronica Goska writes, “When we study the biographies of our heroes, we learn that they spent years in preparation doing tiny, decent things before one historical moment propelled them to center stage.”
Tiny, decent things.
Tiny, decent, surprising things.
Tiny, decent, surprising things… so we’re ready to jump in, with either foot forward.
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