What Is Your Mission?
Updated: Jan 24
Indulge me. Please. Earlier this month, Neil Peart, one of the truly great rock musicians and artists to ever live passed away from brain cancer. I've been feeling a bit contemplative about it. For over four decades Peart was the drummer and songwriter for Rush, a band I've followed nearly as long. Rush has been a huge part of my life's personal soundtrack. But relax! I'm not going to take you down my personal fan-boy progressive rock rabbit hole. This is a soccer blog and this article is about soccer.
One of the best ways for coaches and young soccer players to develop is to look outside the sport and take inspiration from a variety of sources and disciplines. A well-rounded perspective is so essential to fuller and richer understanding. There is much to learn from Peart's life and career that is directly relevant to the development of talented soccer players. You may be skeptical, but indulge me. You may be surprised. Even if I fail to persuade, you'll still have learned a little bit about one of the true greats of rock.
Neil Peart was a musical genius. Full stop. There is virtually unanimous agreement that as a drummer, he was one of the most technically gifted and competent rock drummers ever. Peart's drumming is the standard by which all drummers are judged, and it is unlikely a more competent or skilled drummer is performing anywhere in the world today. He also authored the lyrics for many of Rush's songs, but there is less agreement about his skill as a songwriter. A voracious reader, Peart found inspiration for his lyrics in whatever he was reading at the time. Personally, Peart was extremely private, understated and humble. He was the opposite of the flashy, gaudy personas of most music artists. This combination of supreme technical talent, intelligence, humility and reserve earned him the well-deserved nickname, "The Professor."
"[W]ith an approach centered on musicality and technical proficiency, Peart elevated expectations for proficiency of the drums and soloing. It was this bravura that earned him the nickname “The Professor,” for his mastery of the craft, influential lyrics and elevation of the drum solo." - Max Kalnitz, Billboard Magazine
"There's a stereotype about rock music, that it's mundane or predictable. Neil's lyrics were neither. ... [He] had the ability to express complicated ideas in a rock song." - Donna Halper, Associate Professor of Media Studies, Lesley University
Discipline and Craft
"In his 40 years with Rush, Neil Peart showed an alternate path for rock drumming, built on discipline and craft rather than raw abandon." - Rolling Stone
"Whether in drumming or lyric-writing, Peart was foremost an admirer of excellence, and he exemplified it... His nickname was "The Professor," and it fit him perfectly." - The Week
Technical skill is essential for top soccer players just as it is for elite rock drummers. Skillful mastery of the ball is something we associate with the greats of the game, including Pelé, Maradona, Ronaldinho, Ronaldo and Messi. Each of them spent hours on their own, in disciplined and intentional practice, honing their mastery of the ball.
Like Cristiano Ronaldo, Peart was equally disciplined in perfecting his craft. He favored precision and really worked hard to completely master the drums. "Drumming completely eclipsed my life from age 13, when I started drum lessons," Peart told NPR in 2015. "Everything disappeared. I'd done well in school up until that time. I was fairly adjusted socially up until that time. And I became completely monomania, obsessed all through my teens. Nothing else existed anymore."
He was a perfectionist and truly did sweat the details. He was influenced by many rock drummers, including Keith Moon of The Who, but carved out his own identity. Writing for Rolling Stone, Hank Shteamer noted the influences, but also the differences. "His playing rocks, without question, but it is a rock born out of concentration rather than abandon. He idolized Keith Moon, but in terms of approach, their basic philosophies of drumming, the two might as well have been playing different instruments." And Peart never stopped honing his craft; he never rested on his laurels. Later in his career, Peart sought out jazz legend Freddie Gruber as a mentor to help him him go even deeper into his technique develop a "different clock". He just never stopped perfecting his craft and never stopped learning. His humility allowed him to seek wisdom and guidance from others. In an interview with MusicRadar, Peart described the mental process of learning from Gruber and practicing every day:
"At that time, around '95 or so, I'd been playing for 30 years. 'Am I really going to stop now, practice everyday with these exercises he's giving me, go back to traditional grip, the right end of the sticks?' because I'd been playing butt-end with matched grip for a long time by then. He had me moving the snare drum up, the bass drum farther away - so counter-intuitive. I always thought, 'Get everything as close as you can and then you have the best reach on it'. But in fact, no, it's your area of motion. It's better to have your bass drum, toms, ride cymbal a little farther away, so it was re-inventing the way I play the instrument. I had to say, 'Can I go down to the basement every day and practice again like I did when I was 13? If I can commit myself to that, will I be rewarded?' I decided it was worth a try and did that for about a year and a half."
The true mark of a professional, whether in soccer or music, is a solid work ethic, lifelong commitment to learning, humility and never believing that you've learned it all.
The developmental rewards of working on your craft in a disciplined way can be huge. In one of his rare television interviews, Peart articulated the benefits of early work on technique:
"We got so excited about technique, the three of us. Genuinely, like boys, like geeks. And we would learn to play in complicated time-signatures. And we would have to do it, because we could. Well, we grew out of that and it became part of our arsenal. That's why you can kind of point at that time in 1980 and 1981 we gathered all of those forces with the confidence in songwriting and arranging. Arranging was a subtle art that we really had to learn and how to use those tools [technique] and this fun of really playing crazy music, how to apply it to a musical aim."
There is so much developmental wisdom here for coaches and players. Think about the progression of technique to game intelligence. Young players are always so excited to work on their "scissors", "step overs" and "Maradonas" and use them against opponents in training sessions and games. Coaches always struggle to find the balance between encouraging young players to work on these skills, while at the same time teaching them the judgment to know how to apply those skills to the team's style of play and game model. We teach players that playing simple is best. And even when players become masters of the game, they still need to go back and find new ways of practicing technical skills in order to take their games to greater heights. Think about it.
A Lifelong Ethic of Work and Sacrifice
We can debate all day long whether the true greats, in soccer or music, are simply genetically blessed and naturally talented, the product of hard work and sacrifice or some combination of both. For youth soccer coaches, the proof of our worth is the results of our daily work to move the developmental needle in a positive direction for every player in our charge. In my experience, there is serious truth in the famous saying that "Hard work beats talent when talent is hardly working."
If you take the time to study the life of Neil Peart, the 40+ year history of Rush, Pelé's early training with his father or Cristiano Ronaldo's fanatical work ethic over technique, you will realize a few realities. They sacrificed more than others. They worked harder than others. They suffered more than others. They had more drive than others. They had more passion than others. And we - the others - marvel at their abilities and often delude ourselves into thinking they were just made that way. We forget or even fail to recognize how much drive, work, pain, and sacrifice they've put into their craft.
My message to young soccer players is this:
How hard are you willing to work?
How much are you willing to sweat the details?
How much are you willing to sacrifice?
How hard are you willing to push yourself?
How much are you willing to suffer?
For what? For your soccer dreams! You will always get the result you deserve. What is YOUR vision. What is YOUR mission?
The difference between those who reach great heights and those who admire them often comes down to passion, vision, drive, work and sacrifice.
And so, I offer you the lyrics of a Rush song, written by Peart. I offer it as a different lens through which to view your dream as a youth soccer player. If you are a coach, it is a reminder of what you need to remind your ambitious players: their Mission.
Hold your fire Keep it burning bright Hold the flame 'Til the dream ignites A spirit with a vision Is a dream with a mission
I hear their passionate music Read the words That touch my heart I gaze at their feverish pictures The secrets that set them apart When I feel the powerful visions Their fire has made alive I wish I had that instinct I wish I had that drive
Spirits fly on dangerous missions Imaginations on fire Focused high on soaring ambitions Consumed in a single desire In the grip of A nameless possession A slave to the drive of obsession A spirit with a vision Is a dream with a mission
I watch their images flicker Bringing light to a lifeless screen I walk through Their beautiful buildings And I wish I had their dreams
But dreams don't need To have motion To keep their spark alive Obsession has to have action Pride turns on the drive
It's cold comfort To the ones without it To know how they struggled How they suffered about it
If their lives were Exotic and strange They would likely have Gladly exchanged them For something a little more plain Maybe something a little more sane
We each pay a fabulous price For our visions of paradise But a spirit with a vision Is a dream with a mission
REST IN PEACE, NEIL "THE PROFESSOR" PEART