Late in August before the start of my sophomore year in high school, my father drove me from our summer home in La Malbaie, Quebec, to the manicured campus of the Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, CT. I was attending the All-Star Soccer School, run by the then Yale University men's soccer coach, Hubert Vogelsinger.
It was boot camp with a soccer ball -- designed and micromanaged by a perfectionist Austrian orphan and former professional soccer player who sported a military-style haircut, and whose impossibly large thighs bulged and rippled when he drilled soccer balls into the back of the net.
Each day began with a three-mile run at dawn, kicking a ball across dew-soaked fields that numbed your bare and blistered feet. Morning and afternoon training sessions were held in sweltering summer heat. Competitive games took place after dinner. Then, a lecture and soccer movies before exhaustion hit and we crawled into our sleeping bags, muscles aching.
Dozens of times a day, Hubert called his campers together for "demonstrations" of the skills he was teaching us. A hundred or so teenaged campers, seated in a semicircle, watched Hubert execute drills with one or more of his assistants - Horst or Benjy or Richie, yelling "Naya" - a word that could convey anything from praise to scorn to anger to admiration depending on tone and inflection, or shouting "economy class - not good enough." (Nothing, by the way, was ever good enough.)
To this day, I can remember experiencing raw, unadulterated awe at Vogelsinger's focus and drive and discipline. I admired the white-hot intensity and sense of mission and purpose he brought to the teaching of soccer. "Command me, lord," was the response he evoked in the unformed young man I was. I so wanted with my whole heart and being to one day be called inside the quasi-sacred "demonstration circle," to be among his chosen ones, to master the art and skills of his approach to soccer so that hundreds of future campers would watch me.
Which, as it turns out, is exactly what happened.
Within the next few years, I became known as "Little Hubert." My nickname, "Johnny" (pronounced "Ch-onny"), replaced that of Horst and Benjy and Richie. Thanks to summers spent at Vogelsinger's camps, I went on to captain the Yale University soccer team and to play professionally -- albeit briefly -- in the North American Soccer League.
The author was captain of the Yale soccer team.
Doing what was necessary to move from outside Hubert's circle to inside his circle was without any question the most formative experience of my young life. It gave me confidence that I could accomplish almost anything if my desire to do it was strong enough. I'm not an Arnold Schwarzenegger fan, but his formulation, "First, there is the commitment," is exactly right. Nothing happens without commitment.
Then comes focus and discipline and hard work and perseverance. Talent helps, but not to the same degree as Vogelsinger's painfully technical precursors of author Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000-hour rule.
I lost touch with Hubert in my adult life, reconnecting only once when my son attended one of his camps almost 20 years later. But still I bring his coaching approach to work with me every day. More than once in my professional career, I decided I wanted to accomplish a stretch goal - and was successful getting there.
My wife tells me that's one of the qualities she admires most about me. But she isn't quite sure where it comes from.
Naya, my dear... I owe that to Hubert Vogelsinger.