The Athletics of Art

From Jeff: This is a guest post from Charlie Carroll. Charlie is the lead pastor at theNorthGate in Dayton, Ohio. You can connect with him online at or on Twitter @charliecarroll.

With the Olympics having just finished, it’s an exciting time to be a soccer fan. But it’s a lot different watching a sport as a fan after you’ve competed professionally. It’s even more surreal having played for one of the world-class coaches you see on TV.

Soccer Player
Photo credit: Sally (Creative Commons)

I remember anticipating our first practice: When would we meet? What would we do?

This guy had worked with some of the best players in the world. Where would we begin: film study, formations, finishing techniques? Maybe, I thought, he’ll reveal some of the tactical secrets that helped him win the World Cup. 

When training camp finally arrived, I couldn’t have been more disappointed. I was stunned, almost insulted. What happened was the last thing I expected but the first thing I needed.

Going back to the basics

Looking back, the experience not only changed my game; it changed my life. And now, it’s changed my approach to writing.

Here’s what I learned from a world-class coach about athletics, art, or any craft: You never get past the fundamentals.

“I want you guys to pass and receive, pass and receive,” our coach shouted at us that first practice.”Make that ball roll!”

Was this a joke? Two cones ten feet apart — it looked like something set up for the little girls playing lollypop soccer. What was going on here?

I was training with a world-class coach, and we were working on this? I didn’t get it.

The school of repetition

Hours turned into days, days turned into weeks, and weeks became months. An hour a day, every day. Just passing and receiving. We had been admitted to the school of repetition.

Albert Einstein once rightly said,

It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.

Truth be told, no one can make us better at something. That’s our job. A coach, mentor, or teacher’s primary responsibility is to open our eyes, to show us what it takes.

Then, and only then, the decision is ours. Repetition is the key to understanding.

Revelations from repetition

The more we passed that ball back and forth, the more frustrated I became — until one day when it finally clicked.

I realized something: I was getting better at my craft than ever before. All because of repeating the same fundamentals I learned when I first kicked a soccer ball.

Einstein was right. The best teachers awaken an awareness of what it takes. Through repetition they help us realize the repetitive requirment for creating great art.

Here’s why, I learned, we need repetition:

  1. Repetition tries our intentions. The thought of creating art is appealing to almost everyone. But the commitment and discipline required to make it is another story. People pay big money to set up a blog or get private lessons, but those same people quit quickly when nothing happens overnight. Why? Because maybe they confused a desire to create with a need for affirmation.
  2. Repetition eliminates misconception. Have you ever watched someone playing golf and thought, “I could do that!” We all do this with something. But one trip to the driving range quickly brings us back to reality. I appreciate great writing; however, writing it is another story.
  3. Repetition deepens our understanding. I never knew there was so much to passing a soccer ball. When you commit to mastering the fundamentals of your craft, you begin to understand what you’re dealing with. You start seeing all the moving parts. In my life, this has proven to be true with writing, leading, parenting, and so much more.
  4. Repetition saves time. Doesn’t sound right, does it? How can doing something over and over save you time? Repetition might take time initially, but it increases efficiency. With soccer, becoming a better passer meant learning how to keep the ball on the ground, which helps it move faster and makes it easier to handle. All of this eventually saves you time.

Coaching my son’s soccer team for the time this past spring, there seemed to be an unannounced expectation for the “former pro” to show the seven-year-olds a few secrets.

To their surprise, and my satisfaction, they learned the world-class secret to success: repetition.

What have you learned about art from repetition? Share in the comments.

*Photo credit: Sally (Creative Commons)

85 thoughts on “The Athletics of Art

  1. Re: “Hours turned into days, days turned into weeks, and weeks became months. An hour a day, every day. Just passing and receiving. We had been admitted to the school of repetition.” 

    I loved your story and really, you nailed it – “Repetition is the key to understanding.” It allows you to perfect your craft. Little by little, one step at a time. The more you practice, the better you get. 

    1. No kidding! This statement is especially haunting when we are honest with ourselves and truly evaluate our intentions.

    2. Thanks for sharing Shannon. I’ve been guilty of the need for affirmation myself. Coincidentally, I think its an issue that can block our ability to create great art.

      1. One time my mentored challenged why I write. I gave her some “spiritual” answer about my calling, blah, blah. She stopped me dead in my tracks and told me to stop writing unless it was for the passion deep within. Her words, “Unless you can’t not write. Stop writing.” That’s stuck with me.

        1. Wow. Just wow. This comment really hit home with me. As believers, we sometimes want to “Christianise” our reasoning. We need people like your mentor to remind us that it goes deeper than spiritual cliches. 

  2. Nice thoughts.  I am a hands on learner.  I learn through doing and making mistakes.  Yes, repetition is huge in the learning process.   I’ve applied this with learning to write better and becoming a better runner.  

  3. So true. Day after day, for decades, I’ve cooked family meals. I look at what I have in the fridge and throw a meal together and it works. Repetition. Everyone loves what I cook and I love to cook  – it’s easy for me. Next time I sit down to write, I’ll think about throwing a meal together – colours and textures and tastes…

  4. Repetition has helped me accomplish, create, and discover. The process in creating a work of art, whether painting acrylic paint on a stretched canvas with a brush, or smathering fingerpaint over a prepainted textured canvas board will vary each time you do it, if only slightly, giving you the ability to observe, compare and decide whether or not the finished work each time it is repeated is the result you wanted or if you want to change it in some way.

    Repetition; singing the same song over and over has helped me reach richer tone, vocally. Repetition; playing the same song on the piano has helped me improve the finger movements and rhythm to my satisfaction.

    Michael Tyler

    1. Well said Michael. It’s one of those things you can’t really appreciate until you do it. From my experience, the best of the best seem to have a knack for finding the fine details – a skill they’ve acquired through a commitment to repetition.   

  5. Bamb! What a post. As a sport,  Soccer is the great equalizer. You don’t need to be 8 feet tall or weigh 400 lbs.  We had all our kids learn soccer. One played internationally.

    “To their surprise, and my satisfaction, they learned the world-class secret to success: repetition.”  I love that.

    And the way you tied it to writing, nails it like a goal in my understanding. Fundamentals, and repetition create the expert of our craft.

    Thank You Charlie!

      1. Long story short, Peter’s college team (Lees MacRae) traveled  South America playing pro teams. He decided against the European League.You will appreciate, the goalie All American was from Manchester United’s farm team. And the list goes on…Too long for a proud father to post it all here;-)

        What position do you play?

        Thanks Charlie for asking.

  6. Great post, Charlie!  It’s all about getting out there and doing it — over and over and over again.

    You say:  “You never get past the fundamentals.”    I say:  Good point.

    Thanks for the lesson.


  7. The main thing I’ve learned about from repetition is me.  From forcing myself to repetitively do things I’ve learned:

    – What I really love
    – Where my weaknesses and talents are
    – When I do my best work 
    – Who I am 
    – Why I struggle with certain things (often the thing I’m learning about isn’t directly related to the task I’m repeating)

    I think the main thing repetition does is force us to stop glossing over everything and really dig deep into the task, sport, person or situation we’re in.  Hey, maybe that’s why God had the Israelites walk in circles around the wilderness for 40 years.  That repetition helped them really learn the basics of walking with and trusting God so they’d be prepared to move to the “championship” game and win.  

  8. I once heard a story of a football coach who got conned into coaching soccer because otherwise his daughters wouldn’t have a team. He stood in front of the elementary school girls and said, “All I know about soccer is that you need to get this ball into that net.” So they did. They had the most goals scored on them in the history of the soccer league but they also scored the most goals in the history of the league. It was so basic yet it worked because they didn’t get lost in the rules and fancy moves. They just scored goals.

    What a great lesson. Thanks, Charlie.


  9. As a Coach’s Kid, it was easy for me to put myself on the fiel with you, Charlie.
    I can remember rolling my eyes, sighing, and declaring that it was ridiculous to run the same drill over and over, day after day. And now, as an adult, when I’m not quite achieving my expectations, when I feel like I’m not progressing, I go back to the basics.
    There’s wisdom in repetition and fundamentals. You hit it on the head when you say, “Repetition is the key to understanding.”

  10. It is true doing anything for a gazillion time can make somebody better at that task. Writing a novel is a big task and the only way to get better at writing is more writing and then more writing. Repetition is the key and also perseverance.

  11. Fantastic post. Thanks to both of you. I liked many lines in this, in particular this one: “Repetition might take time initially, but it increases efficiency”

  12. Great post!  I totally agree, anybody who is great at anything has dedicated themselves to mastering the fundamentals of their craft…there is no other way, not shortcuts, no exciting method.  Just do it, do it over and over and over again.

  13. I’ve learned that repetition makes for less mistakes. Your body learns the steps it needs to take and then automatically calls on them when needed. It’s not fun during the repetition but is invaluable when you need it.

  14. I still remember my High School Spanish teacher. Repetition, Repetition, Repetition. It didn’t matter how many classes I attended or how many books I had. If I didn’t put the time in myself, then I would have never learned Spanish (disclaimer: I’m still learning, but a lot better since I have taken the advice from years ago).

  15. I love this, really I do.  I’ve been playing harp for several years now, and every morning I get a coffee and go sit with it running scales and the few practice pieces I go thru.  I’ve been asked why do I still do scales?  Don’t I have that practiced enough so I can just sit down and play ‘real’ music?  My answer is always the same.  Till I get the kinks out, get the head, hands and heart all going in the same direction at the same time, I can’t make the ‘real’ music flow.   Its good to have a starting point with things, repetition is good.   

    1. Thanks for sharing Meg. I was wondering how long it would be before someone mentioned the art of creating music. I wish I would have applied more repetition in this area when I was younger.

  16. What I learned from repetition?

    – Mind your elders.
    – Practice makes perfect.
    – Don’t be lazy.
    – To the victor goes the spoils.
    – All that glitters is not gold.

  17. Thank you for sharing these words.  As a new blogger I appreciate the wisdom!  ‘they have confused a desire to create with a need for affirmation.”  I’ll keep that at the forefront of my mind.

  18. Thanks for the reminder — my father was a defensive line football coach.  He believed believed that blocking and tackling were fundamentals that had to be repeatedly practiced, taught and reinforced.  He carried that mantra into all spheres of converstaion — “Life,” he would say, ” is all about blocking and tackling.”

  19. So true Charlie – the discipline of “repetition” certainly  forms the rungs for the ladder of success we all scramble to climb. I love the admonition to consider whether we’re writing to help someone else or help ourselves. I want to write for the right reasons. Most importantly, I want  repetition’s reward  – the coach’s shout, “Well done! ”   This post was! 

  20. Great post Charlie. I really agree with #4. I am not one of the quickest writers on the planet. (even though i write/type quickly). I used to get frustrated with my slow creating process until i realized that am not the only one :).

    It’s a process most people go through, you just get better over time. If you hang in there and don’t quit.

    1. Absolutely Ngina. Even the best want to quit at times. I’m pretty slow myself. One thing that has helped me is writing it out by hand first. For some reason there seems to be less pressure.

  21. What a great post. It reminded me a lot of years ago when I worked as a tech writer. I pretty much hated it – all those hours of restructuring sentences, removing endless strings of prepositional clauses, and weeding out all that engineer-speak to create a document that was actually comprehensible to the marketing teams that paid the bills. But one day after reading a short story I’d just written, I realized that my writing had gotten better. A lot better. Somewhere during all those hours and months and years trimming and weeding and simplifying other people’s writing, I had internalized what it took to make sentences and stories simpler and more clear. 

    I have been slacking on my writing practice lately. Thank you Jeff and Charlie for giving me just the push I needed to get back to work.

  22. Charlie, thanks for both the insights and the encouragement (good to hear the importance of repetition; at times it can be pretty dull).

  23. I once had an instructor in an advanced German class who would shout “Gruendstufe!” (The basics!) It seems that you can’t speak a language without mastering the grammar. It seems also that at the root of any discipline there’s a grammar to be mastered. Find it, master it, and you might fly!

  24. Daniel-san, wax on, wax off. Paint the fence. A great movie to rewatch about how one can only come to true understanding by repeating the basics over and over.

  25. Repetition is practice. Practice is art. Art is life. I started repeating – piano techniques – when I was six years old. I learned my lesson early about repetition. Nothing takes its place.

  26. Such a helpful post! Like another commenter , I also thought of The Karate Kid…

    Great insights on art.
    This has also made me think about my approach to communion with God as well. As an evangelical, I am all about the reltaionship, not the ritual. But relationships involve repetition, and going back to basics too. Repeatedly asking someone about their day, eating together, making sure dates are prioritised. So too with God. I need to come back to the discipline of daily Bible reading and prayer. No excuses! Thank you.

  27. I was scrolling through my e-mail and I realized I missed this post. I just wrote something along the same vein a couple days ago! As annoying as it is, practice really does seem to make perfect.

  28. I was just scrolling through my e-mail and realized I missed this post. I just wrote something along the same vein a couple of days ago! As annoying as it is, practice really does seem to make perfect. 

Comments are closed.